How a Good Night’s Sleep Helps Support Brain Health

7th January 2014 by Christian Elliott

brain-sleepA pair of recent research studies on sleep highlight how important quality of sleep is for a healthy brain.

Our brains consume over 20% of all metabolic activity (mainly oxygen & glucose) in the human body, even though the average brain comprises only 2% of body weight. This outsize power usage produces a host of byproducts, including amyloid beta protein, one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease.

The first study, published in the journal Science, looked at how the brain clears metabolic debris from a busy day. During sleep, researchers found that the interstitial volume (the fluid filled space between brain cells) increased by 60%, which allowed the brain to clear amyloid beta and other waste products at a much faster rate than during waking hours.

In other words, the brain’s garbage disposal system kicks into high gear when we are sleeping, clearing toxic amyloid beta, and getting us ready for the new day.

This leads us to the second study published in JAMA Neurology, which found a strong correlation between poor quality sleep (both short & disturbed sleep patterns) and a chronic buildup of amyloid beta protein in the brain. It’s unclear whether poor sleep triggers the amyloid accumulation in the brain, or if the amyloid beta buildup prevents quality sleep – it’s probably a cascade process that triggers a harmful feedback loop.

Bottom line: get a solid 8 hours of sleep each night for good brain health. Keep in mind these sleep hygiene tips:

  • Associate your bed and bedroom with sleep. It’s not a good idea to use your bed to watch TV, listen to the radio, or read.
  • Avoid stimulants such as caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol too close to bedtime. (Alcohol metabolizes into glucose, which is a stimulant to the body.)
  • Ensure adequate exposure to natural light during waking hours – use a lamp that simulates sunlight if necessary.
  • Daytime exercise can promote good sleep. A relaxing exercise, like yoga or meditation, can also be done before bed to help initiate a restful night’s sleep.

See also: Linking Exercise to a Healthy Brain

See also: When Memory Loss is not Alzheimer’s: Vitamin B Deficiencies

Sports Concussion Update: Pop Warner Starts to Shrink

19th November 2013 by Christian Elliott

The Pop Warner youth football group shrank by over 25,000 members since 2010, according to several recent news reports.

We believe this is the beginning of a long term decline in football program participation rates among grade school age to high school age players, who form the lower steps of a broad feeder system into college and professional football teams.

The main reason for this sharp fall in Pop Warner rosters: growing awareness of the long term dangers of concussions on the playing field — especially for players who experience multiple concussions.

The declining interest in Pop Warner football isn’t by any means an immediate threat to the NFL, which is best viewed as a multi-billion dollar entertainment franchise.

It does, however, suggest a long term secular shift away from heavy contact sports in school age team sports programs.

See also: Soccer Headers & Brain Damage – An Open Question?

High Blood Pressure and Cognitive Decline

10th October 2013 by Christian Elliott

More confirmation that high blood pressure (hypertension) directly impacts brain health from this study in the British Medical Journal. The BMJ study followed over 5,000 older adults (average age of 75) for three years, measuring both blood pressure and cognitive health during medical visits performed four times a year.

The researchers found a consistent pattern between high blood pressure variability and declining cognitive performance – the study participants who showed the largest changes in blood pressure also showed the greatest decline in cognitive health during the three year study period.

Hypertension is also a known risk factor for ischemic stroke and deep brain microbleeds, which are tiny leaks from the brain’s vascular network. Bottom line: monitor your blood pressure, and talk to your doctor about ways to keep the (top number) systolic pressure below 130, and (bottom number) diastolic pressure below 80:

Readers can try the Healthy Brain Test to learn more about keeping your brain in good working condition.

See also: Moderate alcohol use tied to reduced risk of stroke

Brain Health and Wellness Apps

3rd October 2013 by Christian Elliott

The Health 2.0 Conference in Silicon Valley this week provided a forward-looking view on what health care could look like in the next several years. Many of the themes revolved around real time (and personalized) health monitoring, and the growing ability for people to take control of their own health care choices.

There are a number brain health and wellness applications that were highlighted at Health 2.0, including:

    Blue Marble Games: serious (but engaging) immersive games designed for neuro-rehabilitation after traumatic brain injuries

    MoodHacker: a mobile app for depression intervention

    Mevoked: an interesting way for parents to keep tabs on their child’s emotional health

    RecoveryRecord: a mobile app for eating disorder treatment and recovery an entertaining & engaging method to address a serious issue – the rising suicide rate of working age men in the US, including military service members who have suffered brain trauma.

Mobile and online resources for brain health and wellness can be an effective way for people to get help in the “moment of crisis”, while waiting for an appointment with a clinician. Some clinicians may view these new apps as a threat to their current business model, but I believe that both consumers and health providers will benefit from the “instant access” use provided by these new applications.

See also: Curious about your brain? Try the Healthy Brain Test.

Your Brain Wants a Cup of Cocoa

24th September 2013 by Christian Elliott

If you liked hot cocoa as a child, keep drinking it as an adult for good brain health, according to this study published in the journal Neurology.

The study looked at the potential benefits of drinking two cups of cocoa per day among participants (most in their early 70s), and found that there was a positive correlation with “neurovascular coupling”, white matter integrity, and cognitive performance.

Neurovascular coupling is the intricate structure of brain capillaries, astrocytes, and neurons that support the brain’s oversized consumption of oxygen and glucose. (The human brain is about 2% of body weight, but consumes more than 20% of total oxygen and glucose.)

Study participants with deficient neurovascular coupling at the beginning of the study showed marked improvement in this measure by 30 days of cocoa consumption. This neurovascular improvement translated to better cognitive performance as well.

Important note on cocoa drink consumption: don’t overdo it with using milk, whipped cream, and other high calorie extras:

    - Cocoa powder (unsweetened), with hot water: 50 calories
    - Cocoa powder, sweetened, with whole milk: 250 calories
    - Cocoa powder, sweetened, with whipped cream: 450 calories

The brain health benefits described above come from only cocoa powder, so mix it with hot water and maybe a bit a cinnamon, for extra taste.

See also: Best Foods for Brain Health