Blog Short #150: Why You Gotta Get Your Sleep!
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Did you know that when you sleep at night, especially during deep sleep, your brain activates a system that rinses it out and removes toxic substances that build up and hamper your cognition and mood? It does. Literally. But only when you sleep.
This nightly cleaning crew is called the glymphatic system, and today, I’m going to explain what it is and how it works and offer some strategies you can use to keep it working optimally.
This subject is a little off the beaten path of most of my blogs, but it is related to your mental health. Here’s how:
When your glymphatic system can’t do its nightly job, accumulated brain trash interferes with the balance of neurotransmitters in your brain that are related to mood. In other words, sleep deprivation, especially over time, is a causative factor of chronic anxiety and depression.
It also reduces your ability to think and, on a long-term basis, contributes to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Let’s start with what the glymphatic system is and how it works.
The Definition and Description
Interestingly, knowledge of the glymphatic system, how it works, and what it does is relatively new. Maiken Medergaard and her colleagues discovered it during a landmark study conducted in 2012 at the University of Rochester Medical Center.
Before the study, scientists knew that the body has a method of removing waste through the lymphatic system to keep our organs and bodily systems healthy and running smoothly. What they didn’t know was how the brain removes waste.
They found that the brain has its own plumbing system that piggybacks on blood vessels in the brain and, using the pulsating force of the blood vessels, pumps CSF (cerebrospinal fluid) through brain tissue, extracting toxins and washing it out like a dishwasher. It sends the waste back through the body, releasing it through the lymphatic system with all the other bodily waste.
The “glymphatic system” gets its name from the specific cells that manage it, which are called “glial cells.” This is what differentiates it from the body’s lymphatic system.
What exactly is brain trash?
Brain trash consists of toxic proteins such as beta amyloids, tau proteins, and Lewy bodies. You wouldn’t know what these are – I didn’t – but generally, they’re abnormally shaped or misfolded proteins that create neurodegeneration or cell death. Alzheimer’s is linked to a buildup of these proteins.
The glymphatic system goes into high gear removing those proteins when you sleep, and isn’t working much when you’re awake. Not only that, it works best during non-REM deep sleep.
If you’ve ever monitored your sleep at night with a Fitbit or other sleep-monitoring device, you know how much or how little deep sleep you’re getting. If you don’t sleep enough, you’re certainly not getting sufficient to facilitate the work of your glymphatic system, which means you’ve got trash hanging out in your brain, causing problems.
Imagine it like this:
You go for weeks without emptying the trash in your house. It begins to overflow all over the floor and into the carpet and infiltrates the air. Soon, you have hoards of bugs that are setting up colonies on their new feeding ground. Before you know it, germs are multiplying at a fast rate and making you sick.
When you don’t sleep enough, you have the same situation in your brain, which affects your energy, state of mind, mood, ability to think, capacity to handle stress, and who knows what else. There is such a thing as sleep-deprivation psychosis accompanied by full-on hallucinations. And over more extended periods, you run greater risks of developing neurogenerative diseases.
Here’s one more thing to keep in mind, and then we’ll move away from the negatives to some strategies you can use to offset these issues.
As you age, your glymphatic system doesn’t cleanse your brain as effectively, and you may have more buildup of protein waste that accumulates and causes trouble. But there is something you can do about that.
Let’s get to the strategies.
You know this already, but how well do you know it? Sleep means at least 7 hours and preferably more. Optimally, go to sleep before 11 PM and get up after 8 hours (at 7 AM). If you need to shift that around because of your work schedule, still opt for at least 7.5 hours. This is true even if you work night shifts.
Sleep in a cool room, preferably, and sleep on your right side for as much of the night as possible. These factors have been shown to help the glymphatic system work more optimally.
Avoid heavy meals or snacks before bed, and turn off your blue light screens long before bedtime.
Exercise is key to maintaining regular glymphatic activity as you age. This isn’t surprising because exercise also significantly affects the production of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. Just as exercise helps keep your mood steady, it assists the work of rinsing your brain nightly and keeping your mind working smoothly.
Exercise has been shown through multiple research studies to have a very significant impact on the prevention of Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases. That makes sense because it assists your glymphatic system in keeping your brain free of amyloid deposits that clog and destroy brain cells.
The best exercise for getting these results is aerobic exercise. It doesn’t have to be a lot or overly strenuous, but regularity is essential. Yoga is also good because of its calming effects and flexibility of the body, both of which aid sleep.
Some researchers recommend magnesium supplements or, if not, foods high in magnesium. For a list of those, click here.
If you decide to take a supplement, it’s a good idea to research first and make sure you’re not taking too much and are using a reputable brand. Magnesium L-Threonate is recommended for assisting with glymphatic activity, but I would check with your physician or a registered dietician before trying it.
Take your Omega-3s
You can get these from cold-water fish like Salmon, or if you’re eating a plant-based diet, you can take algae oil supplements. The DHA in omega-3s helps reduce beta-amyloid generation, thereby aiding the work of the glymphatic system. It also assists with speeding up the rinsing process.
Keep Your Immune System in Good Shape
Your glymphatic system works alongside your immune system. Sleep and exercise are essential for both systems, but don’t neglect your diet. In my 45+ years of providing psychotherapy, I’m always impressed by how many people don’t consider the impact of their diet on their mood, anxiety levels, and overall well-being.
Bad diet is like breathing bad air. If you breathe in smog, tar, and toxic gases all day, you’ll become ill. You’ll overtax your immune system, free radicals will run free (pun intended), and inflammation will revel in its expansion.
Bad food does the same, only you don’t notice it as much. You think you don’t feel well for other reasons and discount the impact of food. We all do it, so I’m not preaching. I’m just saying that it plays a very significant role in how you feel and experience your day to day. If you’ve been on a good, healthy, clean diet for some time, you know immediately the difference when you deviate just a little.
Be your body’s best friend and eat right while also getting enough sleep and exercising.
Exercise or Sleep?
If you have to choose between enough sleep and exercise, opt for sleep. Sleep must come first. You can work toward getting exercise into your routine when possible but don’t forego sleep. You need your nightly brainwashing. And if you have that, finding solutions for exercise or any other problem will be easier.
That’s all for today.
All my best,
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