Could a sleeping pill prevent Alzheimer’s?

Poor sleep has been linked to higher levels of both amyloid and tau in the brain, both of which can lead to the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

That’s because when we sleep, restorative and reparative processes take place that trigger slow pulses of cerebrospinal fluid that wash through the brain and remove toxins and buildup.  

It would be easy to assume taking a sleeping pill is the answer. But I’ve read and written about too much research that points to its ill effects on the brain to feel comfortable taking sleep medication even on an occasional basis.

That’s why I was stunned by a new study that indicates there may be one type of sleeping pill that possibly has the opposite effect…

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A sleeping pill that fights brain protein buildup?

Suvorexant, already approved by the FDA to treat insomnia, is part of the dual orexin receptor antagonist class of sleep medicines. Blocking orexin, a natural biomolecule that promotes wakefulness, makes people fall asleep.

Researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis recruited 38 healthy middle-aged participants to undergo a two-night sleep study. One group of participants was given a 10 mg dose of the drug suvorexant, another group was given a 20 mg dose, and a third group was given a placebo.

Starting one hour before the sleep aid or placebo was administered, the researchers withdrew a small amount of cerebrospinal fluid every two hours for 36 hours to measure changes in amyloid and tau levels.

Compared with those who took the placebo, the participants who received the higher 20 mg dose of suvorexant showed a 10 to 20 percent drop in amyloid levels and a 10 to 15 percent drop in levels of a form of tau known as hyperphosphorylated tau. There was no significant difference between the people who took the 10 mg dose and those who received the placebo.

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Twenty-four hours after the first dose, hyperphosphorylated tau had risen while levels of amyloid remained low in the 20 mg dose group compared to the placebo group. A second dose of suvorexant administered on the second night of the study again reduced the levels of both proteins for people in the 20 mg group.

“If we can lower amyloid every day, we think the accumulation of amyloid plaques in the brain will decrease over time,” says Dr. Brendan Lucey, a professor of neurology and director of Washington University’s Sleep Medicine Center.

But Lucey cautions that as a small, proof-of-concept study, it would be premature for people to interpret these results as a reason to start taking suvorexant every night…

“At this point, the best advice I can give is to get a good night’s sleep if you can, and if you can’t, to see a sleep specialist and get your sleep problems treated.”

Don’t reach for the pill bottle just yet

It’s important to reiterate that this study was small and focused on a very specific sleep medication. It does not cancel out the negative cognitive effects associated with other sleep medications.

For instance, one study found that taking the anticholinergic class of drugs that includes some over-the-counter sleep medications could raise your risk of dementia by as much as 54 percent. And another found an elevated risk of dementia in people who took sleep medicines from the benzodiazepine and sedative-hypnotic drug classes which include common sleep aids Halcion and Ambien.

That’s why it’s important to understand the long-term effects of any medication. But there is a non-drug option that was tested in a similar way to what Dr. Lucey’s group did — and it was a bigger study…

That research followed over 500 participants, asking them to complete surveys of what they ate and how often. They also underwent brain scans and memory tests — and had their spinal fluid tested. 

Those researchers found people who adhered most closely to a Mediterranean diet had lower levels of biomarkers of amyloid and tau pathology in their spinal fluid than those who didn’t. They also scored better on memory tests.

More good news? What you eat can improve your sleep — and once again, the Mediterranean diet is the winner at improving sleep duration and lowering insomnia symptoms. Certain key foods that are part of the Mediterranean diet are rich in melatonin, serotonin, and vitamin D.

Editor’s note: While you’re doing all the right things to protect your brain as you age, make sure you don’t make the mistake 38 million Americans do every day — by taking a drug that robs them of an essential brain nutrient! Click here to discover the truth about the Cholesterol Super-Brain!


Sleeping pill reduces levels of Alzheimer’s proteins — Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis

Suvorexant Acutely Decreases Tau Phosphorylation and Aβ in the Human CNS — Annals of Neurology

What Happens to the Brain in Alzheimer’s Disease? — National Institute on Aging

Carolyn Gretton

By Carolyn Gretton

Carolyn Gretton is a freelance writer based in New Haven, CT who specializes in all aspects of health and wellness and is passionate about discovering the latest health breakthroughs and sharing them with others. She has worked with a wide range of companies in the alternative health space and has written for online and print publications like Dow Jones Newswires and the Philadelphia Inquirer.