Myelin Relies on Good Sleep for Best Function

Most of us with MS are constantly on the lookout for things we can do to be proactive about protecting our brain matter. Usually, these things include changes in diet and exercise as well as the use of supplements and practices like meditation and yoga.

One thing we might overlook, however, is the value of sleep to maintain brain health.

Myelin 101

To better understand how sleep can be a force for good in protecting our brain matter, we need to remember why myelin is so important to our brain health. A recent special issue article published in Glia focuses on the ways in which the body can tend to the process of myelination.1

Myelination, demyelination, remyelination

Remember, myelin is the waxy coating that insulates every nerve fiber in our body, including the billions cached inside the brain. These nerve fibers are described as “myelinated” in healthy people.

Myelin exists as a kind of soft armor that allows for the sending and receiving of electrical signals to and from the brain.

Any time the myelin coating is damaged, it increases the risk that signals will be slowed or disrupted entirely, depending upon the amount of damage.

People with MS have lesions that are composed of damaged (or demyelinated) nerves in their central nervous systems (CNS)— specifically, the brain and spinal cord. Since the brain is tied to every single process and function inherent to the body—from thinking to breathing to digesting to sweating to healing—the problem of damage to myelin can be a significant source of disability.

Can the brain repair myelin?

The brain does have some means to remyelinate, or repair damaged myelin. However, in people with MS, this requires time and space for the repair to occur. MS often has other plans, bombarding the brain with attacks involving immune system cells that target the myelin.

For those with relapsing-remitting forms of MS, periods of time and space between exacerbations may allow for some repair (remyelination), but for those with progressive and highly active forms of MS, there may never be time or space for this to occur.

What is plasticity?

The article in Glia, “The role of sleep and wakefulness in myelin plasticity,” speaks specifically to the nature of brain structure and function.

Neuroplasticity

Plasticity (or, in our case, neuroplasticity) describes the ease in which the brain can “form and reorganize synaptic connections, especially in response to learning or experience or following injury.”2

Synaptic plasticity

Synaptic plasticity is a component of neuroplasticity. It describes the “biological process by which specific patterns of synaptic activity result in changes in synaptic strength and is thought to contribute to learning and memory.”3

(The synapses, in case you’ve forgotten, are the bridges between nerve cells which allow electrical signals to pass from one nerve to the next in an—ideally—smooth transit.)4

Myelin plasticity

With this in mind, it’s important to note current research shows myelin plasticity is “an essential partner to synaptic plasticity.”

According to the Glia article, myelin plasticity “contributes to the optimization of neuronal circuitry, helps consolidate motor and cognitive function, and permits the acquisition of new skills.”

In other words, the more flexible and adaptable our myelin is, the better it can serve our ability to think, move and learn.

What’s sleep got to do with it?

The researchers in the Glia article point to a close relationship between the process of sleep and myelin health.

Comprehensive studies (genetic, chemical, human) continue to show that our bodies can better maintain healthy brain tissue when given adequate sleep. Sleep provides the body and brain key opportunities to heal damage (including remyelination) and to maintain the structures necessary for optimal functioning across all cells and organs.

Probably key to the research is the observation that, when we lose sleep, myelin itself may be compromised by:

  • Structural thinning of the waxy coating
  • The loss of important energy stores inside the myelin
  • A failure to produce certain key proteins necessary for myelin maintenance

Without adequate sleep, we can expect to feel "cog fog," fatigue, heavy legs, speech problems, and other MS symptoms.

Prioritize sleep, as well as diet and exercise

Diet and exercise are two of the three key pillars to good health, with sleep being the (often under-appreciated) third pillar. Making sleep a priority is hard, but like diet and exercise, it's worth the effort. Here are some ways to improve your quality and quantity of sleep so that you can give your brain the fighting chance it needs.

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