Most people understand the important restorative value of sleep. However, the detrimental effects of sleep disorders are not as plainly understood and discussed.
Sleep disturbance is found in as many as 40% of individuals who have sustained a brain injury. Common sleep disorders include sleep apnea, difficulty falling asleep, difficulty staying asleep, difficulty awaking, and difficulty in achieving beneficial cycling between the various stages of sleep. This post will discuss a few key sleep disorders, the ramifications of sleep disorders, and proper and improper solutions.
Snoring is the most obvious indication of sleep apnea, however snoring is not conclusive of sleep apnea. In fact, the only way to determine the presence of sleep apnea is through polysomnography (a sleep study). While there are devices that offer detection via headbands and other mechanisms, our research has shown that these devices are quite inaccurate and miss the majority of individuals with sleep apnea.
Sleep apnea has been linked to brain damage in heretofore healthy individuals. For a person who has already sustained a brain injury then, this link between sleep apnea and brain injury further emphasizes the drastic need for diagnosis and treatment.
Negative Effect: Growth Hormone Deficiency
Disruption of sleep at the wrong time in the sleep cycle may disallow the body’s production of growth hormone. If the body does not produce this important hormone in the early morning hours, it will not be available throughout the day. Exercise can help to increase the body’s production of growth hormone, however, this increase will not replace that produced in the early morning hours. Growth hormone deficiency leads to tremendous weight gain, high lipid levels in the blood, fragile bones, depression, cognitive problems, and, most importantly, real problems with the brain’s metabolism of oxygen and glucose (its two primary fuels). Growth hormone is extremely important to the brain’s ability to repair and maintain myelin, the insulating sheath that surrounds axons and impacts their speed of transmission and their plasticity.
Negative Effect: Memory
During normal sleep, particularly during REM cycles, information using large amounts of the brain’s resources is consolidated into more efficient holdings, and new information fuses with existing information. However, in those with sleep apnea and other sleep disorders, REM cycling is disrupted. This can negatively affect the brain’s ability to repair itself, ability to protect itself, memory function and metabolic efficiency. So, normalizing sleep is crucial.
Inefficiency of Medication as a Solution
Those who have difficulty falling and/or staying asleep may rely on over-the-counter sleep aids with or without medications that relieve pain. The drug (Benadryl or diphenhydramine hydrochloride) used in these over-the-counter agents actually can cause difficulty with memory, and a hangover effect the following day.
All medications used for sleep disturb REM cycling. As the importance of REM cycling was explained above, this consideration lends to suggest sleep aiding medications should be used with caution and infrequence.
Proper Solutions to Sleep Disorders
Good sleep hygiene is the most useful approach to overcoming many sleep disorders. This includes avoidance of caffeine; regular daily exercise before 7 PM; dark, cool, and quiet sleeping quarters; use of calming activities such as reading before bed; regular bedtime and wake time; and avoidance of waking to urinate or undertake other activities in the night. Alcohol consumption can result in awakening in the night as glucose levels in the blood drop, so alcohol should not be used to induce sleep.
After a brain injury, developing, guarding, and maintaining a routine of 7 to 9 hours uninterrupted sleep every night is critical. A good sleep study, use of an autoregulating BiPAP device for sleep apnea, daily exercise for 45-60 minutes, and good sleep hygiene are a good start to enhancing the body’s own abilities to heal, repair, and protect itself.