The Glymphatic System: How Your Brain Clears Waste While You Sleep.

Why do we go unconscious for eight hours every night when, back in the day, that would leave us vulnerable to being eaten by tigers?! Surely it’s just because we just need a rest, right? The brain can’t rest if it’s furiously beavering away making your legs move or helping you decide what to eat later on, can it? Hmm, not so fast. The brain only reduces its crazy metabolic activity by 25% when we sleep so there has to be another good reason we go into shutdown.

Approx read time: 6 mins
Sleep glymphatic system insominia

The glymph-what?

OK, when you sleep deeply your brain starts clearing up the day’s waste products that have built up as a result of all the hard work it’s done. It works by using cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) to flush out waste products and toxins from the brain. The CSF flows through the brain tissue, carrying away waste products and other debris, and then exits the brain via the venous system. The waste is old bits of protein, soluble stuff and debris that the brain has cast aside during its day’s work.

A bit like the LYMPHatic system that helps clear waste from the head down, the GLYMPHatic system clears rubbish from your brain. It uses tiny channels that run alongside blood vessels, only discovered in 2012 mind you, but then so was Nuush and look how that’s changed lives. Anyway, now it makes sense that we sleep for so long.

I said ‘sleep deeply’ and that’s key. It’s only during the intermittent periods of deep sleep that the glymph channels in the brain widen, by 40-60%, and let the rubbish out. So if we’re not sleeping properly because we’re on our phones in bed or drinking too much alcohol, or exercising or eating too close to bedtime, or if we’re getting up at the crack of dawn to work out, or if we’re stressed and worried then we’re reducing the amount of deep sleep we’re getting and our brains don’t put the rubbish out. Not good.

In fact extremely not good, as it’s thought that dementia is more likely when sleep is compromised (as well as when we eat rubbish, drink lots, smoke, breathe polluted air, let our minds get stagnant, get stressed and are inactive). That’s because the waste proteins, such as amyloid protein, that are normally shoved out of the brain stay in there and cause ‘plaques’ and tangles that stop the neurons connecting. 

What is amyloid protein?

Amyloid beta protein (Aβ) is a type of protein that is found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. It is formed when a larger protein called amyloid precursor protein (APP) is cut into smaller pieces by enzymes. In healthy brains, Aβ is cleared away by the glymphatic system and other waste clearance mechanisms, but in people with Alzheimer’s disease, it accumulates in the brain and forms plaques, which are a hallmark of the disease.

That could partly be why Alzheimer’s is a disease of old age because this glymphatic activity is reduced as we age, therefore it’s even more essential to keep the other healthy diet and lifestyle factors going as we age.

Who knows, maybe Alzheimer’s will start hitting younger people as populations keep falling prey to rubbish food, inactivity, alcohol, drugs and stress. A bit like type 2 diabetes and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease that are increasing in prevalence even in young school children now. While we can do things to keep it at bay, I think we should.

Boff’s guide to the glymph system, only readable if you’ve slept well and have a massive science dictionary to hand but very good at stimulating new neuron pathways.

“Sleep deprivation is the most common brain impairment.”

William C Dement

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