There is plenty of literature out there that links sleep deprivation to a range of chronic diseases including brain related diseases such as Alzheimer’s and depression, heart attacks and diabetes. These diseases are also correlated with aging so I set off on a mission to see if I could figure out why we lose our ability to sleep as we age.
The answer is not so simple. The scientific community is just beginning to understand the pathways involved with falling asleep, waking up and how these pathways degrade with age.
Here is what I found.
How do we fall asleep?
My Dec 2020 blog covered how we fall asleep using melatonin. The absence of light triggers melatonin production. That pathway involves cannabinoids (CBD and Delta 8) which are used to make arachidonic acid (AA). AA plus Omega 3 fatty acids make the eicosanoid prostaglandin which in turn signals the pineal gland to make melatonin.
Ok, but how does melatonin put us to sleep? Part of the answer lies in another part of our brain called the hypothalamus which contains 50,000 unique neurons. In 1998, Stanford professor Luis de Lecea et. al.[i] discovered that a compound called hypocretin (aka orexin) is correlated with wakefulness, appetite and arousal. He tracked hypocretin production to the hypothalamus. Melatonin suppresses hypocretin production helping us to fall asleep. There are also other compounds involved. For example, on a circadian rhythm, the brain releases a hormone called DH which is an anti-diuretic that suppresses the need to urinate in turn promoting a great night of rest.
How do we wake up?
The obvious question is if melatonin suppresses hypocretin, then to wake up we have to stop melatonin production.
Eicosanoids typically are formed in pairs, the chemical equivalent of a “start” button and a “stop” button. The absence of light triggers the “start making melatonin” button (prostaglandin) but also triggers a “stop making melatonin” eicosanoid which is formed from AA together with Omega 6 fatty acids. The “start” eicosanoid is more powerful than the “stop” eicosanoid so melatonin production commences. As we sleep the “start” eicosanoid degrades faster (shorter half life) than the “stop” signal and ultimately, the stop signal is more powerful shutting down melatonin production in the pineal gland.
Outside of melatonin, there are other chemical pathways that also appear to be involved. Blood glucose levels drop during sleep which can in turn signal the hypothalamus time to wake up and eat. Other eicosanoids are released that counter DH and tell us it is time to get to the bathroom. Loud sounds, being too hot, too cold, being prodded to move over can all stimulate the neurons in the hypothalamus to start releasing hypocretin.
How does our ability to sleep change with age?
De Lecea and other scientists just published a mice study[ii] that compared hypocretin levels of young vs. old mice. They found that old mice produced 38% less hypocretins compared to their younger counterparts. The surviving neurons were also ‘more excitable and easily triggered.”
A double whammy. Less hypocretin leads to lower levels of arousal, wakefulness and appetite yet during the night, the neurons are more sensitive to all of the various signals that trigger us to wake up leading to a reduction in the quality of our sleep.
Is there anything we can do to improve our sleep quality as we age?
Yes! Three tips on how to mitigate the decline.
Restore your Omega 3/Omega 6 ratios
Historical human diets consisted of 1 part Omega 3 to 2.5 parts Omega 6. Modern industrial diets have 1 part Omega 3 to 20 parts Omega 6. This imbalance tilts the melatonin factory in favor of the “stop making melatonin” button.
You can restore your Omega 3/Omega 6 ratio by making changes in your diet. (The Mediterranean diet is rich in Omega 3/DHA oils). Also consider taking Omega 3/DHA supplements to helps keep the melatonin cycle in balance.
Protect your arachidonic acid (AA)
Your body naturally makes the precursor cannabidiols to AA including CBD. CBD and Delta-8 supplements can help ensure you can manufacture sufficient amounts of the eicosanoids that trigger sleep and wake chemistry. CBD and AA are both antioxidants that can get depleted by mitochondria generated reactive oxygen species (ROS). Diets rich in antioxidants and mitochondria targeted antioxidants (MTAs) help protect your CBD and AA reserves.
Protect your hypothalamus
Neurons are packed with over 2 million mitochondria, each one producing ROS which degrades the neurons over time. MTAs embed themselves into the mitochondria cell plasma membrane fighting ROS at the source.
Astaxathin is nature’s most powerful MTA. Eating a diet or taking supplements rich in MTAs helps prevent neuron degeneration. If you want to learn more about MTAs check out this link written by my supplier, Sustainable Nutrition Inc.
Eicosadose Immune Booster
Eicosadose is formulated to boost the immune system but also contains the ingredients needed to promote sleep. Eicosadose contains Omega 3/DHA, supplies highly bioavailable CBD and natures most powerful MTA, astaxanthin. You can always add a few drops of Delta-8 to further boost the melatonin cycle if needed.
[i] The hypocretins: Hypothalamus-specific peptides with neuroexcitatory activity. Proceedings of the National Acadamy of Sciends of the USA. De Lecea. Et. al. 1998; 95(1) 332-327
[ii] Hyperexcitable Arousal Circuits Drive Sleep Instability During Aging. Science (NY, NY). Li, S et. al. 2022;375 (6583): eabh3021