Sleep. We know it’s important. Yet so many people fight it: “I’ll sleep when I die.” “Sleep is such a waste of time.” But is it a waste of time? What happens to our brain if we don’t get enough sleep? The answer is important and it may change your mind about sleep.
One more reason to get a good night’s sleep
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How do you feel about sleep?
We’ve known for thousands of years that adequate sleep clears the mind. While a lack of sleep leaves us with a murky mind. Yet I still hear people say, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” or “Sleep is such a waste of time.”
The fact that you feel refreshed after good night’s sleep should tell you all you need to know. I’m definitely among those who believes in sleep. Although even I struggled to get enough at times. I do know that my personal minimum amount is seven hours a night.
Chronic lack of sleep is believed to result in delirium, hallucinations and dementia. There’s still a lot we do not know. Recent research though has shed some light on what happens inside the brain while we’re sleeping.
It turns out that while you’re asleep, the brain is doing housekeeping.
Let’s back up just a bit on that. Every organ in your body has two issues it has to solve. First, it needs a supply of nutrients and oxygen, and a way for those to get in. Second, it needs a system for cleaning out the waste products. Think of it as taking out the trash.
The circulatory system, your blood vessels solves the problem of getting nutrients and oxygen to your organs, including the brain. And for most of our other organs, the lymphatic system is responsible for taking out the trash. But the brain has no lymphatic vessels. They’ve done imaging studies that have shown that there just isn’t a lymphatic system within the brain. So how does the brain clear out its waste products?
Cerebral spinal fluid or CSF fills the space that surrounds the brain. It’s a clean, clear fluid. Waste from the brain winds up in the CSF and the CSF and the waste dumps into the blood.
Perhaps now you’re wondering how does that CSF which fills the space around the brain actually get to the waste?
This is where it gets very interesting, I think. That CSF on the outside of the brain is pumped back into the brain along the outsides of the blood vessels. As it flows through the brain, it picks up waste that’s been excreted by the brain cells.
It’s actually pretty ingenious if you think about it. The cells in the brain are packed pretty tight. So there’s no space for a separate set of vessels such as those are the lymphatic system. But there are blood vessels. So the CSF travels along the outside of those blood vessels. This is a system that’s unique to our brain.
No other organ does is but here’s the catch: This only happens when you’re sleeping. When you go to sleep, so does your brain. The brain cells also shrink to make room for the CSF to flow. That cerebral spinal fluid travels along and picks up the waste. So if you’re not getting enough sleep, one could say you have a dirty mind.
Seriously, let’s look briefly at what this means. One of the waste products that’s had a lot of attention is a protein made by the brain called amyloid beta. Scientists have found that this protein, amyloid beta, builds up and aggregates in the space between the brain cells and patients with Alzheimer’s disease. So it is not getting cleared out. And the current thinking is that amyloid beta build up is one of the key steps in the development of Alzheimer’s. Clinical studies have found that poor sleep quality and sleep duration are associated with greater amounts of amyloid beta building up in the brain.
While the studies don’t prove that lack of sleep or poor sleep cause Alzheimer’s, these clinical studies certainly indicated that the build up of amyloid beta may contribute to Alzheimer’s development.
We’ve known for thousands of years that sleep refreshes the brain. And thanks to this new research, we know why. Perhaps you’ll think better of your sleep now. It’s definitely not a waste of time, and waiting until you die to sleep could reduce the quality of your life down the road.
I found this information via a TED talk by Jeff Iliffe. If you want to hear his entire talk and see some of the imaging in his slides, the link can be found in the show notes at barbaramcneely.com.
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