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Dirty Brain Water: The Unseen Consequences of Poor Sleep on Your Brain's Health 🧠
How the Glymphatic System Battles Neurodegenerative Diseases and Cognitive Decline (5min read)
Sleep enables the Glymphatic System to clean the brain using cerebrospinal fluid.
Lack of sleep can lead to cognitive issues and mood disorders.
Improve sleep hygiene by maintaining a calm sleeping environment and avoid screens before bed.
Consider sleep supplements like Performance Lab Sleep for better sleep quality.
Have you ever wondered what’s happening inside your mind, brain & body while you sleep?!
The truth is, sleep is far from a state of idle rest.
Big picture, 3 key things are happening, cleaning, consolidation & emotional processing.
Today, we’re going to talk about the cleaning mechanisms & the Glymphatic System.
If you’re curious about memory consolidation, I recently wrote about it here:
Next week I will zone in on the emotional processing aspect of sleep, specifically how it is affected by trauma!
Alright, let’s dive into the brain cleaning & Glymphatic System.
The Nightly Brain Clean-Up: The Glymphatic System
Derived from "glial cells" and "lymphatic system," the Glymphatic system functions somewhat like a dishwasher for the brain.
Glial cells, also known as neuroglia or glia, are non-neuronal cells in the nervous system.
These bad boys are VITAL for our brain’s health & well-being. In, fact, we have just as many glial cells in our nervous system as we do actual nerve cells. It’s about 86 billion.
Unlike neurons, they don't conduct electrical impulses but instead, support and protect the neurons in several ways.
There are multiple types of them, microglia are the immune cells of the nervous system.
Oligodendrocytes & Schwann cells create the myelin that helps our nerve conduct their electrochemical messages.
And finally, astrocytes, which are very important for our conversation today!
Astrocytes create our blood-brain barrier (BBB), and help us create cerebrospinal fluid (CSF).
They have “end-feet“ that envelop the brain's blood vessels, creating a tunnel around them.
It's through these tunnels that cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), a clear liquid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord, flows.
Yes, your brain floats in “brain water” or CSF inside of your skull, crazy right?!
During sleep, these astrocytes shrink, increasing the space between brain cells and allowing the CSF to flow more freely through these tunnels.
This increase in space is thought to be induced by the release of the neurotransmitter noradrenaline during sleep.
When noradrenaline levels drop, the astrocytes relax, creating more space for the CSF.
As the CSF flows through, it flushes out harmful waste products that accumulate in the brain during waking hours, including beta-amyloid and tau proteins, which are implicated in neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's.
Once the waste is collected, it's then carried away by the CSF, which drains out of the brain and into the bloodstream, ultimately to be excreted from the body.
Bet you never know this was happening while you sleep!
ChatGPT Prompt: “Explain This To Me like a I’m a Child…”
Imagine your brain is like a big party venue.
During the day, it's buzzing with activity as guests (brain cells) enjoy the festivities (daily cognitive functions).
They're having a great time, but they're also leaving behind a lot of trash (waste proteins).
Now, when the party wraps up, and the guests go to bed (when you sleep), the cleaning crew (the Glymphatic system) comes in.
They've got a secret weapon - a powerful pressure washer (cerebrospinal fluid) that they use to spray away the trash left by the party-goers.
When the crew finishes their job, the venue is clean and ready for another day of festivities.
So, you see, sleep isn't just about rest, it's also about giving the brain's cleaning crew a chance to do their important job!
Dirty Brain Water
The Glymphatic system's role in maintaining brain health is essential, and when it doesn't function properly, it can lead to various health problems.
I heard the term “Dirty Brain Water” recently, and loved it!
If we don’t sleep well, our Glymphatic system doesn’t get the chance to clean out the brain.
Over time, this can leave tons of extra trash in our cerebrospinal fluid or the “water” of our brain.
This excess trash then muddies the water, making it “dirty.”
Meaning, your brain is now sitting in this dirty water instead of clean, healthy water.
This can inflame the brain, in some acute ways, like headaches, anxiety, grogginess, lack of focus, etc.
The scarier effects this has are hidden, and longer term, here are some examples:
Several research studies have suggested a link between impaired Glymphatic function and the development of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, ALS, Huntington's, and MS.
The build-up of waste proteins such as beta-amyloid and tau, which the Glymphatic system typically helps clear, are known to contribute to the development of these diseases.
Inefficient waste clearance might lead to a general cognitive decline over time as well, even if it’s not neurodegenerative in nature.
This can manifest as memory problems, confusion, and difficulties with concentration and decision-making.
The relationship between sleep and the Glymphatic system is bidirectional.
While the Glymphatic system is most active during sleep, sleep disorders themselves can impair its function.
This can create a vicious cycle where sleep problems lead to impaired Glymphatic function, which in turn worsens sleep quality… Yikes.
Emerging research suggests there might be a link between Glymphatic dysfunction and certain mood disorders, like anxiety and depression.
The exact mechanisms aren't fully understood, but the accumulation of waste products in the brain might contribute to neurological changes that affect mood.
As you can see, “dirty brain water” can have some nasty downstream effects…
So, what can you do?
Sleep Hygiene for Efficient Brain Cleaning
I’ve written, spoken, and presented many many times about how to sleep effectively to prevent dirtying your brain water.
If you’d like to go in-depth, here’s a blog I wrote on Using Neuroscience to Sleep Better.
I’ll go over the basic here as a recap!
Neuroscience-Backed Tips for Better Sleep
Keep your bedroom:
Cool (62-75 degrees Fahrenheit)
Dark (Pitch black is best)
Quiet & Sacred, it should be for Sleep & Sex, that’s it
Avoid screens (phone, TV, computer) for at least an hour before bed.
Create morning & night routines you LOVE (More tips on this here)
Avoid caffeine and alcohol before bed like the plague
Get sunlight in your eyes in the morning (More on this here)
Performance Lab Sleep (I use this every night)
These are some of the basic to help ensure you’re cleaning up your brain water each night!
Notice I only suggested 1 supplement here, and it’s NOT melatonin.
I am personally not a fan of supplemental melatonin because it generally skyrockets melatonin levels to unnatural levels.
I take, and suggest my clients take Performance Lab Sleep because it only has 4 ingredients.
Magnesium, Tart Cherry, L-Tryptophan & Sea Buckthorn. These are all you need to support your sleep hygiene and brain health.
Each aids sleep in it’s own way, and together, I’ve found they help keep my brain water nice and clean!
If you wanna try it out, here’s a link:
So, tonight, as you nestle into your bed, remember you're not merely switching off; you're activating your brain's incredible cleaning system.
And tomorrow, you'll wake up with a cleansed, refreshed mind, ready to tackle the day.
Stay tuned for next week's dive into the emotional processing aspect of sleep and its relationship with trauma.
Until next time… Live Heroically. 🧠
Xie, L., Kang, H., Xu, Q., Chen, M. J., Liao, Y., Thiyagarajan, M., ... & Takano, T. (2013). Sleep drives metabolite clearance from the adult brain. Science, 342(6156), 373-377.
Rasmussen, M. K., Mestre, H., & Nedergaard, M. (2018). The glymphatic pathway in neurological disorders. The Lancet Neurology, 17(11), 1016-1024.
Fultz, N. E., Bonmassar, G., Setsompop, K., Stickgold, R. A., Rosen, B. R., Polimeni, J. R., & Lewis, L. D. (2019). Coupled electrophysiological, hemodynamic, and cerebrospinal fluid oscillations in human sleep. Science, 366(6465), 628-631.
Jessen, N. A., Munk, A. S. F., Lundgaard, I., & Nedergaard, M. (2015). The Glymphatic System: A Beginner’s Guide. Neurochemical research, 40(12), 2583–2599.
Boespflug, E. L., & Iliff, J. J. (2018). The emerging relationship between interstitial fluid–cerebrospinal fluid exchange, amyloid-β, and sleep. Biological psychiatry, 83(4), 328-336.