Dr. Alethea Fleming, ND

Is it decades of poor sleep that causes Alzheimer’s?

Sleep is one of the pillars of good health that talked about frequently, but often not given the seriousness it deserves. American culture is slowly starting to move away from the glorification of sleep deprivation and embracing its fundamental importance to all aspects of health. While it is intuitive (and accurate) that sleep is a time of bodily repair, there are some interesting specific aspects about dementia risk and sleep that are worth discussing.

“The glymphatic system” is a term coined by researcher Dr. Jeffrey Illif at Oregon Health & Science University. It refers to the glial cells in the brain which are non-neuronal (ie do not conduct nerve impulse). These cells perform many functions including supplying nutrients and oxygen to nerve cells, insulating nerve cells, acting as “glue” by keeping neurons supported and in place and finally, as protectors that can destroy pathogens and clean up dead neurons. Dr. Illif’s research shows that glial cells can cleanse the brain in a lymphatic fashion and are capable of destroying the neurofibrillary plaques and tangles that are the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s. The catch is that this function seems to work best when we are in our deepest stages of sleep. This begs the question – is it decades of poor sleep that increases risk of Alzheimer’s?

Whether or not this is the breakthrough that is needed in Alzheimer’s research it underscores the importance of getting good sleep for preventing Alzheimer’s or even mitigating progression.  From a prevention angle there are three main suggestions to follow to help everyone get a good nights sleep:

1. |  No Screens

Avoid all screens (smart phone, tablet, computer, TV) for an hour before bed. The light from LED screens suppresses our natural production of melatonin, the hormone secreted by the pineal gland that helps us fall asleep and stay asleep.

2. | Have a bedtime routine

Set a regular sleep routine and stick to it. No more weekday vs weekend schedule – our bodies respond well to regular routine. If 10 PM rolls around and you are already brushing your teeth and settling in for some quiet reading or journaling your body will come to expect it and naturally slip into sleepy time.

3. | Sleep on an empty stomach

Don’t eat within 2-3 hours of going to bed. This allows your body enough time to digest and keeps heartburn from disturbing your sleep.

4. | Drugs Increase Your Risk

One last critical point for understanding the role of sleep and Alzheimer’s risk. If you find yourself needing medication to fall asleep you may be increasing your risk of dementia. Benzodiazepine drugs (examples include Xanax, Valium, Klonopin, Diazepam) increase risk of Alzheimer’s – and the more often you use them the higher the risk. Talk to your naturopathic physician about better, safer solutions for sleep.


Fleming,-Alethea_resizedDr. Alethea Fleming, ND is a passionate advocate for naturopathic geriatric medicine. A 2007 Bastyr University graduate, she also earned a certificate in Gerontology from the University of Washington. Dr. Fleming is the owner and lead physician of the Vital Aging Clinic in Anacortes, Washington where she provides primary care to all adults as well as adjunctive geriatric care. Dr. Fleming is active in multiple community organizations as well as a member of WANP, AANP and OncANP. In her off hours, Dr. Fleming can be found hiking the beautiful trails of Fidalgo Island, spending time with her wonderful husband and son, or with her nose firmly in a good book.

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