We know sleep is crucial to our physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
But, do you know why we must sleep to survive, and what purpose it serves?
Research has suggested that the purpose of sleep is to allow our bodies time to restore and repair themselves, while our brain sorts and stores new information and prunes out old information.
And this is true…but it’s only part of the story.
Exciting new research has uncovered what scientists are calling the true biological purpose of sleep: a newly discovered detoxification system of the brain known as: the glymphatic system.
Coined by Dr. Maiken Nedergaard based on its dependence upon glial brain cells and similar function to our lymphatic system—a primary detoxification system.
This remarkable system is responsible for cleansing our brains of harmful cellular by-products that, if left to accumulate, could lead to severe cognitive decline as we age.
In other words, it acts like your brain’s midnight cleaning crew.
And the most important part? Its function is highly dependent upon our quality of sleep.
Read on to learn how the glymphatic system works, exactly what type of sleep doubles its effectiveness, and what lifestyle changes you can make today to enhance brain detoxification and prevent cognitive decline.
How Your Glymphatic System Works
The Glymphatic system was discovered by a team of researchers at The University of Rochester Medical Center led by Danish researcher Dr. Maiken Nedergaard.
According to Dr. Nedergaard, your glymphatic system is made up of the interstitial fluid filled space between brain tissue cells and takes up about 20% of your brain. It is most active during natural sleep and is dedicated to detoxifying your brain’s daily cellular waste—much like a filter removes toxins from your water.[i].
What is this daily waste and why should you be concerned about it?
Your brain’s daily waste includes all the cell by-products that build up as the result of thinking, including neuro-degenerative substances such as beta-amyloid, a protein associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
This is a HUGE discovery considering our country’s lack-of-sleep epidemic and sky-rocketing rates of cognitive impairments.
According to Dr. Nedergaard, the glymphatic system is twice as active during sleep. Therefore, the key to optimizing brain detoxification is to get enough sleep.
Easy enough, except for two things:
#1: Approximately 80% of Americans are sleep deprived.
#2: The glymphatic system can only be super-charged by one type of sleep…
Natural Sleep and Your Glymphatic System
Given our nation’s sleep epidemic, considered a national health crisis by the Center’s for Disease Control, many people rely in sleep medications to get them through the night.
Though these may provide some temporary relief, there is no evidence that medication-assisted sleep can trigger glymphatic system function in the same way natural sleep does (to say nothing of their other troublesome side effects)[ii].
This breakthrough discovery of the glymphatic system makes it even more imperative that we find a way to fall asleep (and stay asleep) without medical intervention.
The 5 Best Natural Sleeping Aids to Promote Brain Detox
There are many reasons for difficulties sleeping. Below are some suggestions to help improve the quality of your sleep. If you have sleep challenges that are chronic, please consult with your healthcare practitioner and co-create a plan to help you develop a sleeping pattern that is restorative.
Lifestyle Sleep Enhancer #1: Meditation
Meditation has been shown to improve sleep, reduce stress and anxiety, and provide a host of other stress-busting health benefits.
Though meditation can take many forms—such as journaling before bed, restorative yoga, or prayer—for beginners I recommend the Headspace® app “Sleep Pack”.
These 10-minute, guided meditations offer specific exercises and advice to helping you change your relationship with sleep for the long-term.
Lifestyle Sleep Enhancer #2: Exercise
Exercise is a fantastic overall stress reducer and detoxifier for your whole body.
For maximum sleep benefit, aim for 30 minutes of moderate exercise 5 days a week, to be practiced in the morning or afternoon.
If you’re suffering from chronic fatigue or recovering from an illness, stick with lighter forms of exercise such as yoga, walking, or Qi Gong.
Lifestyle Sleep Enhancer #3: Earthing/grounding
The practice of earthing—having direct contact with the earth by walking around barefoot, swimming in the ocean, or using a grounding device, has been proven to naturally enhance sleep and reduce stress by regulating cortisol levels (your body’s stress hormone)[iii].
Experts recommend 30-40 minutes a day of “earthing” outdoors for best results.
If outdoor earthing is not an option, you can use an earthing mat—a natural mat connected to the earth via a copper wire—on your bed, your office chair, or while you exercise.
Lifestyle Sleep Enhancer #4: Acupuncture
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, sleep disorders are viewed as a sign of internal disharmony which can affect different organs or systems depending upon the type of sleep disturbance.
Trouble falling asleep, for example, may be viewed as an accumulation of heat or fire pathogens which makes the spirit restless.
The time it takes to see results depend upon the individual and treatment plan, although many of my patients have reported improved sleep pattern after after just a few treatments.
Lifestyle Sleep Enhancer #5: Rethinking technology
Though this is certainly not an exhaustive list of lifestyle-sleep aids, I felt technology must be addressed.
Due to the sleep-disrupting, stress-inducing effects of constant notifications, social media addiction, blue light from computer and tablet screens, and controversial device radiation, I recommend everyone keep their bedroom technology-free.
This means no cell phones, tablets, gaming devices, iPods, computers, or televisions in the bedroom.
Further, if you have trouble winding down at night, shutting off devices two-hours before bed can be a game-changer.
If you must work on your computer at night, blue-blocker glasses can help keep stimuli to a minimum, in addition to the other lifestyle changes discussed above.
The Big Takeaway: There is no substitute for natural sleep
As much as we may want to believe otherwise, no pill, vitamin, detox cleanse, herbal concoction, or special diet can take the place of 7-9 hours of natural sleep per night.
If you struggle with sleep, my hope is that today’s information on the glymphatic system coupled with the lifestyle-based natural sleep enhancers, will help you make sleep (and your brain health) a top priority.