Sleep feels like an absence of things. Absence of consciousness, absence of activity, absence of care. But during sleep, your brain is totally present, doing something critical for your health.
It’s taking out the trash. Toxic byproducts—from a speck of emotion here, a stressor there—are produced by your brain all day long. Some brain cleansing happens during waking hours, but during sleep 15% more garbage-removing activity takes place. Cells called glial cells have recently been examined for their role during sleep. Their key job is to move toxins into the expanded spaces that result as brain cells, normally swollen by activity, shrink into rest.
Hosing Down the Brain
Your brain has its own fluid, and spinal fluid also sloshes around up there. During your sleep, these cleansing fluids have more room to work. They remove toxins by repeatedly flushing the between-cells spaces—essentially rinsing your brain while you sleep. And this takes time; there’s no shortcut. If you aren’t cycling through all the stages of sleep for long enough, like a dishwasher that keeps quitting mid-rinse, your brain just isn’t as clean as it needs to be.
Not getting a regular full night’s sleep? Like film on dishes, those toxic bits and byproducts stick around. And researchers are increasingly raising the alarm that shortchanging sleep has very serious health effects. Getting by on fewer than 7 to 9 hours has long been linked to heart disease, depression, obesity and cancer. Newer evidence is suggesting that a short sleep habit also prematurely ages the brain, so disorders such as Alzheimer’s (caused by a buildup of protein that’s not cleared quickly enough) may appear years earlier.
A New Priority
What’s the answer? Some experts say it’s simply recognizing that the proper amount (7 to 9 hours) of regular sleep should be emphasized in medicine—and in our lives—just as much as diet and exercise are. Accomplishing one more to-do on your list or cramming an extra distraction into the evening won’t help much in the long run if disease takes hold.
Sleep isn’t secondary. So settle in on your natural mattress every night and let your amazing brain-cleaners do their work. There are so many ways to get better sleep. Learn all you can and make it a new priority. Your brain will wake up clearer—and cleaner. And that can change your life.