Poor Sleep and Alzheimer’s Disease

I’ve decided to offer classes in using hypnosis to get better sleep–the first is scheduled for March 24 at 10 am. It’s nearly full, so I’ve scheduled a second on April 21, also at 10 am. If you’re interested, contact me, and I’ll send you the details.

Today’s post is about just one of many reasons this topic concerns me.

An article by sleep scientist Matthew Walker* in the October 2017 issue of New Scientist describes a mechanism through which Alzheimer’s disease disrupts memory consolidation—and the mechanism has to do with the poor sleep experienced by people with the disease. The cause itself is not clear, but the connection is clearly established, and it’s a compelling reason for us to address any poor sleep habits we may have.

The connection has to do with the effect of the buildup of toxic amyloid proteins characteristic in the disease, which over time reduces the amount of NREM (non-rapid eye movement) slow wave sleep we typically get during the night. And although it’s common to get less NREM sleep as we age, normal aging doesn’t usually affect the slow wave sleep we get.

Slow wave sleep is responsible for saved memories; in other words it’s involved in the process of shifting memories from short-term to long-term storage. The research shows that more toxic amyloid buildup is correlated with more disruption of slow wave sleep, and more loss of memory consolidation.

It turns out that the area of the brain that is predominantly affected by the disease is the frontal lobe, which is also the part of the brain that is responsible for starting our slow wave sleep phases. The research has confirmed that it’s not just a coincidence that people with Alzheimer’s disease have poor sleep—their poor sleep is qualitatively different from normal sleep changes associated with healthy aging.

Here’s a weird bit of the Alzheimer’s puzzle: how do the toxic plaques cause memory loss?

It’s puzzling because even though amyloid deposits only accumulate in some parts of the brain, they don’t accumulate in the areas of the brain associated with memory. So what is the connection between the disease and memory loss?

It took a sleep scientist to come up with an answer. Here’s his theory, in his own words:

We already knew that in young healthy adults, the slow brainwaves of deep NREM sleep effectively hit the “save” button on new memories, helping us retain what we have recently learned. Sleep also helps us access and thus remember past experiences.

If amyloid was blocking deep NREM sleep in Alzheimer’s disease, then perhaps this loss of youthful deep sleep prevents older adults from being able to save new memories and hold on to experiences past?

He designed a study to test this theory, giving patients new information at night and then testing their recollection the next morning, after monitoring their sleep. The results? Patients with more amyloid deposits in the middle frontal regions of the brain had the most severe loss of deep sleep, and they were unable to remember the new material.

The connection is there—disrupted deep NREM sleep is the missing link between amyloid and memory loss. So far, studies of older adults with sleep disorders confirat treating sleep problems slows the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease by up to 10 years.

Again, although the research does not show a causal relationship between poor sleep and Alzheimer’s disease, clearly getting better sleep now can reduce our risk significantly. And further, since the symptoms so disrupt quality of life, it makes sense to me that we choose to do whatever we can to protect our sleep, and our memory.

By the way, the studies also showed that just as prescription medications for sleep do not work beyond a small placebo effect in helping people fall asleep, they do nothing to mitigate the loss of slow wave sleep.

Sleep well tonight. Do contact me if you’re interested in exploring hypnosis to help you get healthy sleep, either one-on-one, or as part of a group.

* This post is a summary of part of Dr. Walker’s article, and any errors are mine.  Do check out his article–he’s a good writer.

How’s your sleep?

I ask this question of all my clients now, because I found that so many people I saw individually and in workshops mentioned poor sleep during the course of discussing other issues, from weight to anxiety, or anger, or chronic pain, etc. I now know that most of my clients have problems getting good sleep, whether or not that’s the issue they come to work on.

I’ve just had a fabulous week of great sleep!

Okay, I think this is an opportunity for one of those “There are two kinds of people . . . .” statements:  There are people who, on reading this, will feel a rush of emotions—envy, happy-for-you, irritation, or despair of ever experiencing that feeling of true rest. And there are people who are puzzled and wondering what all the fuss is about.

I suspect more people are in the first group, based on what I hear from clients, and from the CDC’s findings that 50-70% of people suffer from a sleep disorder.

I’ve had a long time to wrestle with getting enough sleep, and along the way I’ve learned a great deal about the kinds of things that can affect my sleep positively or negatively. And of course I’ve read pretty widely on the topic. Most of what I read is in the category of sleep hygiene—the things we can do to ourselves to get better sleep. Here’s a great list from the NIH, by the way.

But I recently read a great article in Scientific American online “The Secret to a Better Night’s Sleep: A sense of purpose?  The article refers to a study done at Northwestern University School of Medicine.  Here’s a statement from the study report’s conclusion: “a higher level of meaning and purpose in life among older adults is related to better sleep quality and appears to be protective against symptoms of sleep apnea and RLS.” 

How cool is that?

In my practice, I’ve been incorporating a focus on values with every client, initially because of studies like this one—studies confirming that when we focus on our values, we are more likely to experience positive progress toward the changes we want to see in our lives. And it’s truly transformative, I’m finding.

We can learn how to get better sleep, one step at a time, as we make simple changes to our environment, our behavior, and how we think about ourselves. It doesn’t sound simple, but I assure you, it doesn’t have to be hard.

I’m excited about this topic, and about what I’ve been learning about the science of sleep. One of my current projects is putting together a hypnosis workshop about how to craft your own great sleep experience. Stay tuned for more info. 

And Happy New Year! I wish you great sleep in the coming year.

Strength training supports healthy weight loss at any age

According to a recent Harvard Medical School bulletin:

If you’re trying to lose weight by cutting calories, you’re likely losing muscle, too. But strength training can counteract this effect. According to a research review in The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, on average, 27% of the weight lost by dieting is muscle. Those who combined dieting with cardio exercise cut muscle loss in half. But when participants combined dieting and resistance training (strength training), all of the pounds lost were fat. What’s more, the more muscle you have and the stronger your muscles are—the more benefits you’ll get beyond weight loss. You’ll develop a slimmer, firmer figure and have the energy to be more active. And, you’ll get more from cardio workouts because you’ll be able to go faster and last longer.

This quote is from an email about the Harvard Medical School’s publication, Strength and Power Training for All Ages.

I’m really not a gym rat. I like being outside; I love being present in nature, up close and personal. I feel relaxed and nourished by the fresh air, in touch with the seasons, and just plain grateful to be able to listen to birds as I walk at my own pace, while my mind wanders.

I’m really not a gym rat, although as the resident of a rainy state, I also appreciate knowing that when it gets too much (winter!), I can go inside and get most of the benefits that in better weather, I’d prefer to get outside.

The thing is, since I don’t love the gym, I need these reminders that strength training matters, so I’ll make an effort to get the strength training I need to stay strong. I’ll remind myself to keep up the daily plank pose. And 20 minutes or so, one or two days a week, at the gym for a few more weight exercises is well worth it–after all, we’re in this for the long haul, right?

Magic wands for change

I start a new series of hypnosis workshops in October, and it’s been fun to prepare the new classes and get ready for the ones I’ve been doing for years.  In fact, I’ve been working with people who struggle with weight issues for 10 years now, and I have learned so much from the people who have chosen to share their process with me. It’s a complex issue—so personal, and yet affected by so many family, or social, or cultural, or economic influences. I have so much gratitude for the years of learning from this work, and so much respect for the people involved.

Because it is such a complex issue, many people find themselves hopeless or overwhelmed, even though they would like to be able to do something to help themselves. And it’s hard to pick out the 1 thing that could help everyone who wants to do something about the problem. Everyone is different, and my personal magic wand might be just an ugly old twig to the next person.

But I do have a few magic wands to recommend, nonetheless. There’s a selection process, of course, since we are each unique, and when it comes to magic, it’s not one size fits all. It’s more like this: which one makes us feel strong, and helps us accept ourselves, just as we are—because that’s what it takes to fight the forces (personal, family, social, etc.) that contribute to feelings of hopelessness or overwhelm.

It’s a tall order, but fortunately we don’t have to make the choice blindly. A little bit of self-reflection can point us in the right direction. When we know what truly matters to us—our values—it’s easier to make the right choice. Besides, these are simple things; if you can’t decide, you could try them all and see what feels good.

Here are the magic wands I recommend—and by magic wand, I mean one thing—one small thing—that just about anyone can do just about any time, to start making progress on the path to a more healthy way of spending our days. The 3 magic wands below are listed in an order that matters to me, but the first one would not necessarily be the right first one for you.

Magic wand 1: Moving more.

Maybe that’s a goal of walking 10 minutes a day to start. (Or depending where you’re starting from, walking 20 minutes each day or more.) Maybe it’s dancing at the sink while you’re doing dishes. Maybe it’s stretching every time you get out of a chair. Maybe it’s taking a yoga class, or doing chair tai chi at the library. You get the drift: whatever you can reliably do and feel good doing.

Magic wand 2: Practicing gratitude.

This is about looking for something to be grateful for, maybe just one thing every day. Maybe you keep a journal or maybe you just stop and think about it at least once a day. Maybe you get more creative and decide it has to be something new and different every day, or set timers during the day.

Magic wand 3: Meditation.

Maybe you start with a 10-minute guided meditation from the internet, or maybe take a class or join a group, working up to your own daily practice. For me it’s mindfulness meditation, but there are lots of options out there.

Of course, there’s also nothing wrong with doing all three, or more. In fact, for some folks, at certain times, diving into a completely new lifestyle can be exhilarating and ultimately the right first step. (Perhaps this approach should be magic wand number 4.)

These sound like small things (except #4). And they are small, and they are simple, but they are also powerful. Somehow—and this is why I call them magic, because I don’t know how it works—these small things can each lead us to recognize that we do have the power to affect how we live our lives, and that is the true beginning of making change. 

Right now I’m grateful that I get to do this work, and looking forward to new classes, and people on the path to change.

New classes: on transforming stress, and dealing with pain

Two new classes this Fall quarter at Whatcom Community College, one on the new science of stress, and another on dealing with pain. 

Want to transform your relationship with stress? The new science on stress validates the power of our minds over the way we experience stressful events. On Thursday October 12th, I’ll present some of the myths and the new science about stress, and we’ll discuss the ways we typically react when we experience stress. We’ll also learn some simple ways to mitigate the harmful effects and boost the positives—and contrary to what we’ve been told, there are many positives that come out of stressful times.

Occasional or chronic pain is a reality for most of us at one time or another, and yet most pain medicines are problematic when used regularly—in fact, there is no cure for chronic pain. Typical common causes for pain include headaches, low back pain, nerve damage, recovery from surgery or other medical treatment, and other disabilities. Any of these can affect quality of life, including things like getting the sleep or activity we need to stay positive and healthy.

Hypnosis is a proven method for mitigating or reducing pain, and hypnosis has no side effects other than relaxation. In this class on October 26th, you’ll learn how, by practicing at home, you can use hypnosis to get more control over pain and its effects.

Register for either class at Whatcom Community College, by email, or by phone at 360-383-3200.

And by all means contact me with any questions about either of these new classes.

A brand new study about inflammation, heart disease, and cancer

I just this morning read an article in the Guardian about a major study of inflammation and heart disease–a four year study from Brigham and Women’s Hospital of 10,000 heart attack survivors. The results showed a 15% reduction in complications for participants who took the anti-inflammatory drug canakinumab–a breakthrough confirming the theory that inflammation contributes to heart disease.

This is great news in itself, but there’s more: what was unusual about this study is that, knowing the inflammation pathway the drug targeted was also known to be involved in cancer risk, the researchers ensured that patients with risk factors for cancer were evenly distributed among the study groups.

The results are in: for patients taking a low dose of the anti-inflammatory drug, lung cancer rates were reduced 26%. In patients with a medium dose, the rate dropped 39%. Patients with the highest dose showed a 67% drop, and their overall cancer death rate was about half that of the placebo group.

It’s early days, of course. There will be lots more research to come before this translates to new cancer treatments. But how great to be able to see the beginnings of a promising line of research. Go science!

Learning patience and persistence from a large pile of heavy rocks

Last week I mentioned the adventures with heavy rocks that resulted in me spending too much sedentary time contemplating the effects of inflammation. (I’m doing well now, and I’m learning good stuff from a wonderful PT, so the outlook is much much brighter.)

Now I have a routine for strengthening my back and getting more flexible, so that I can get back to the yard project I wanted to do this summer—which leads me to the subject of motivation.

I’m the kind who does the exercises until I don’t hurt anymore, which has always seemed like a reasonable way to deal with aches and pains. But now I’m seeing that it really isn’t that simple—or at least not so simple as it seemed when I was much younger.

The reality is that if I want to do the yard project, I need a greater level of fitness than I’ve enjoyed in a long time. I won’t be able to finish it unless I get stronger, and getting stronger before the summer’s gone means I need to raise the priority—the exercises  and stretches need to happen every day. I know myself well enough to admit that won’t happen unless I make a routine, linking the physical therapy exercises with something I’m already reliably doing.

Although I say “every day,” and mean it, I also know it’s not a realistic expectation. Life regularly gets in the way of my plans, so I have to recognize and prepare for interruptions—that way I’m more likely to relax and enjoy the distractions, knowing I’ll be able to get back to the routine next day. In this case, my plan is, if I can’t do all the exercises, I will at least do the stretches—and it doesn’t matter when during the day I do them. And since I know life will interfere, I’m more focused on getting the work done on the days it’s easy to keep to the schedule. 

Here’s an outline of the basic idea:

  • Have a goal:  Get fit for yard project
  • Have a plan for daily work: Right now that’s about 25 minutes of exercises and stretches
  • Have a plan for when I can’t (or choose not to) do the work: Do the stretches and skip the harder stuff
  • Have a plan for getting back into the work after a day off: Raise it in the priorities for the day, and/or Enlist helpers to remind me, and/or Use a calendar to mark each day’s effort for a visual reminder 

This last one is more detailed, I think because at this stage I’m still fighting my tendency to see yesterday’s decision not to do the hard stuff as a failure on my part. Even though I know this tendency isn’t helpful, it’s a hard thought-habit to break. So I don’t want to feed it; instead I want the alternative of a reasonable response to those normal days when Plan A doesn’t work.

Another effect of this approach is that by recognizing the obstacles (including the emotional one of feeling shame when I miss a day), and making a plan for dealing with them, it’s easier to follow through. As a result, I become more patient with myself, and thereby more confident that I can make good progress toward my goal.

When I do my early morning routine self-hypnosis, my plan for the day includes doing the PT exercises, too. It all helps.

Fighting inflammation

In the aftermath of a overly ambitious attempt to move a large quantity of heavy rocks in a short amount of time, I’ve spent much of the last week thinking about inflammation, while being careful not to move very much, or very quickly.

Fortunately, the June 17 issue of New Scientist arrived with an article about inflammation:  what it is, why it’s a problem, and why nothing we usually try can fix it. Fascinating.

The article gives an overview of how inflammation works, as our natural response to injury or infection, or stress. The short version is that the symptoms of inflammation are the product of our immune system at work. But the system isn’t working as well as it should for more and more people, especially anyone who carries around more body fat, has type 2 diabetes, eats a lot of sugar, or has an autoimmune disease. What happens is that the system ramps up, but the natural process is designed to ramp down after its work is done, and for many, this step doesn’t happen.

However, inflammation that occurs as part of the body’s response to exercise—a good run, for example—does still seem to work just fine. The molecule that summons the immune response also summons the next wave of chemicals, called resolvins, that trigger the liver to clean up, reducing inflammation in turn. 

The amount of fat we carry affects inflammation levels because cytokines—the signaling cells that are released by stress, injury, or infection—are stored in body fat; the more fat we have, the more extreme our inflammation response. Also, when there’s a lot of body fat, the cytokines are more likely to leak into surrounding tissue, triggering the inflammation response.

Why is it a big deal that the inflammation response is active when it’s not needed? Cold symptoms are produced by the body’s attempts to deal with the virus. If the inflammation persists, the symptoms persist. That’s the simplest effect. Longterm, chronic inflammation has been linked with more serious effects: persistent infections, depression, and cardiovascular disease.

This is a very incomplete picture of what is doubtless a much more complicated issue—as new research comes along, there will likely be more and more theories about how and why inflammation acts as it does. But for now, this new knowledge doesn’t answer the question of “how do I deal with the aches and pains, the fatigue, or the high blood sugars related to chronic inflammation?”

But the article does give us a place to start. We can make sure our bodies get what they need to support a healthy inflammation cycle. (Of course, the first step should include talking to your doctor about this information and how it may affect you.)

We might as well start with the easiest thing first, and then find ways to add in the rest of the list, one step at a time:

  • Take a daily low-dose aspirin, if your doctor agrees it’s a good fit for you. It could protect your cardiovascular system, and aspirin is the one over-the-counter anti-inflammatory that doesn’t inhibit the production of resolvins.
  • Stretch—this doesn’t have to be hard. By all means, take a yoga class. But if you’re not a budding yogi or yogini, why not just stretch whenever you get up from a chair during the day?
  • Eat foods with omega-3 fats. There’s some discussion about what kinds we metabolize most effectively, but let’s just do the best we can with what’s available to us.
  • Get some physical activity—it stimulates production of anti-inflammatory chemicals, and cues the liver to metabolize fat. As little as 20 minutes has a beneficial effect.
  • Get motivated to keep fat below about 25-30% of body weight—a certain amount is protective, but more than about 25-30% body weight provides a lot of storage for the cytokines that fire up inflammation.

What’s really significant about this research is not that it reveals the workings of inflammation—this is just the beginning. It’s that it tells us what we can do about inflammation with the choices we make on a daily basis—it’s the usual suspects, the things we already know support all-round better health.  And it’s motivation to keep on that path. 

If you are fighting your own personal battle against inflammation, a step you might find helpful is to use this list as a focus for a morning self-hypnosis session, just to affirm your intention to be good to your body each day.  Also, since the immune system generally responds really well to hypnosis, why not include suggestions to calm the inflammation response?