Sleep is often seen as simple, but the more science reveals about rest the more complex it appears. One recent study found that as we sleep, our brains actually undergo cleaning to remove buildup and clear the way for the next day. These findings may give new insight into the phenomenon of sleep-deprived brain fog and into the development of Alzheimer’s disease. Read on to learn about this new research and healthy sleep.
Study Finds Sleep Works to Clean Brain
In a study published October 2013 in Science Magazine, researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center sought to see how sleep relates to the brain’s natural cleansing system. Previous studies recently discovered that while the brain is hard at work during the day, neurological by-products build up as a result of normal functions, and that the brain has a system which supports the removal of this waste. Similar to how the body’s lymphatic system removes wastes and toxins, the brain has a “glymphatic” system that serves a similar function.
URMC researchers discovered that during sleep, this glymphatic system goes into overdrive to remove waste, upping its performance by 10 times compared to waking hours in mice, whose brains operate similarly to humans. This increased action, along with an increase in space between brain cells that occurs during sleep, allows the cerebrospinal fluid to accelerate its cleanup service and flush waste products out of the brain and to the liver for removal.
Researchers speculate that the cleaning activity takes place during sleep because it would require too much brain power to perform while we are awake. It is also speculated that this process may be to blame for some sleep deprivation side effects such as staying awake for extended periods of time.
This discovery is important because the brain “waste” being removed include toxins responsible for some neurological disorders and neurodegenerative diseases including amyloid-beta proteins, which are believed to contribute to Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers are hopeful that this information may contribute to finding cures for and preventing neurodegenerative diseases in the future. Since the CDC estimates that one-third of Americans are sleep deprived, this could have significant implications for many people.
Health and Sleep
There are many complex and not well understood processes taking place while we sleep. While we may not know all of the whys and hows of sleep, we do know that getting sufficient, quality rest is important for many aspects of health. In addition to cleansing the brain on a cellular level, rest also appears to play a role in obesity, diabetes, heart health, muscle recovery, mental health, skin aging and other vital functions. Other research has also shown that sleep deprivation is a leading cause of accidents, and can cause impairment on par with alcohol intoxication.
Practice Good Sleep Hygiene
With all of this at stake, it’s clear that getting rest should be a top health priority for everyone, right alongside nutrition and exercise. However while many may be aware of sleep’s necessity, many of us have difficulty optimizing habits and schedules for rest. If you find that you are drowsy during the day or aren’t getting enough rest, the following sleep hygiene tips may be helpful:
- Allow yourself adequate time for rest every day. The average adult needs 7-9 hours of sleep per night. Teens and young adults may need 8-10 hours.
- Try to stick to a regular sleep schedule. Going to bed and waking at the same time every day (including the weekends) helps keep your hormonal system regular and may actually be associated with healthier body weight.
- Keep your bedroom clean. Allergies and breathing difficulties can disrupt sleep, and dust mites (a leading allergen) thrive in bedding. Wash sheets and pillows often and consider using an allergen resistant mattress cover. A cluttered environment can also make it hard to relax and rest.
- Make sure your bedroom is comfortable. Studies have shown that a dark room is important for melatonin regulation, and that cooler rooms are better for deep sleep. Make sure distractions and disturbances are minimized, and that your mattress is supportive and in good condition.
- Avoid dietary sleep stealers. Certain foods and beverages like caffeine and some fats may keep you up at night, while other vitamin and mineral-rich foods can actually support rest. Read our article on sleep and diet for more on this.
- Establish a rest routine. If you have difficulty winding down at the end of the day, a relaxing routine may help your mind and body get ready to sleep. Try a warm bath, light music, reading or other calming activity and see what works for you.
- Exercise regularly. In addition to the numerous physical benefits of exercise, regular moderate exercise during the day can actually contribute to better sleep over time. To multitask, you could take a walk outside during the day as sunlight can also help regulate sleep hormone cycles.
- Advances in technology and increasing interest in the science of sleep continue to show that rest is an essential and vital part of health. While it can be at odds with the demands of modern life, making enough time for rest can provide a host of long-term benefits, many of which are still yet to discovered, while there is clear evidence that skipping sleep has negative consequences. Keep your brain clean and your body healthy by making sleep a priority!