illustration of man's head with brain exposes and waves flying out

Sleep Cleans the Brain, Movement Flushes the System

Two habits guaranteed to help you feel more alive

I want to call this piece the Poetry of Anatomy. But I won’t.

I’ll keep it simple and clear. After all, the poetry is in the accuracy.

Sleep cleans your brain

Dementia and dementia-causing illnesses, like Alzheimer’s disease, are accelerating around the world. 

But here’s a second observation. We also have much less sleep than we did fifty years ago. Many of us don’t get nearly enough. Let’s leave the reasons why for now.

Dementia is often the result of a traumatic head injury, such as a car accident, or a bloody fist-fight. Rarely, a genetic condition will be the cause.

In Alzheimer’s, the brain is riddled with tau and neurofibrillary tangles like beta-amyloid plaques. These tau and tangles stop the mitochondria in cells from making enough energy. As a result, the cells die.

The dirty plate analogy

When we sleep, a process of cleaning takes place. According to neurobiologist Jiange-Xie, brain cleaning is like washing dishes.

Think of a dirty plate, asks neurobiologist Jiange-Xie, the lead author of the new study showing how the brain cleans itself published in Nature in February this year.

Cerebrospinal fluid surrounding the brain enters and weaves through intricate cellular webs, collecting toxic waste as it travels.

The brain undertakes large, slow wiping to clean the plate. These are the slow waves.

But after clearing the plate, we address the sticky particles on the plate, like microwaved cheese. 

Here, the brain’s action get smaller and more focused. Our brains get the scourers out and do small and vigorous scrubbing to clear that junk protein and waste.

Individual neurons fire electrical signals in a coordinated fashion to create rhythmic waves. At this point, they move from slow to more intense. It’s a crescendo, scraping that cheese.

These brain waves help flush the waste. Without these waves, we would get a buildup of waste.

The authors also begin by saying it’s the buildup of the waste that’s responsible for various neurological disorders.

“…large, slow, rhythmic wiping motion to clean soluble wastes splattered across the plate. Then you decrease the range of the motion and increase the speed of these movements to remove particularly sticky food waste on the plate.”
Neurobiologist Jiang-Xie

Sleep cleans our brains. We wake refreshed and clear headed, because we have been cleared out. 

The waste is dispatched into the lymphatic system.

That means the first thing we can do for our health is have a good sleep routine.

The Sleep Foundation has advice and tips for healthy sleep habits so you can get enough sleep to clean your brain.

You can have a sleep routine that’s basic or simply hedonic with sunshine sheets and essential oils. It really is as blissful or basic as you want. For example, you can keep a dreams diary and create short stories from the imagery evoked in your REM sleep, like I sometimes do, or just hit the sack and slide into the slumber.

Crank the Pump of the Lymphatic System

When we wake up, it’s time to start moving. 

The lymphatic system is part of our immune system, says MD Anderson Cancer Center.

We have cleaned our waste and the brain waves have pushed it into the lymphatic system, but we still need to flush the toilet.

This is the second thing we have to do.

Movement cranks the pump of the lymphatic system so it can flush.

The lymphatic system exists to identify harmful viruses and bacteria. The kidneys clean the fluid and it goes back into the bloodstream.

The lymphatic system doesn’t have its own organ to help it run. It needs us to crank the pump through movement.

That’s why exercise reduces our risks of cancer, reduces Alzheimer’s disease risk by 45%, and reduces if not removes multiple sclerosis disability progression.

What you can do

If you are able, go for a morning walk or jog.

My absolute favourite exercise is hiking or bushwalking. The ground is uneven and the air is pure. It’s less like exercise and more like a spiritual practice. It is enforced mindfulness and high oxygen-intake. The Japanese name for this is shinrin-yoku (forest bathing) and the health benefits are extraordinary.

If you have difficulty moving, put on a load of washing, do some gentle stretches, or wash the dishes.

Don’t have any hand weights? Lifting food tins, like canned kidney beans, will help pump the fluid around your body.

As little as ten minutes of movement will help you maintain or improve the flow.

In a nutshell

Aside from eating food as medicine, sleep and exercise not only go hand-in-hand, they are soul mates to our health. 

It sounds like common sense, but it’s not obvious. When we understand how these body systems work, we can tap into them to feel good, or at least, feel better.

Make sleep a priority. Set a bedtime. Make a nice green tea or soothing drink and dim the lights.

You can program yourself to fall asleep at the same time with some habit building. Do whatever movement you enjoy, and make it daily. It doesn’t have to be the same exercises every day but our bodies were meant to move, so move every day.

Trigger the blessed neurochemical cascade.

You’ll build strength and muscle mass and feel better and better. At the very least, you can have a clean brain and clean dishes.

I hope and believe that in getting enough sleep – as often as you can – and moving your body each morning, you’ll greatly diminish your risk of developing dementia, and also experience the best life with MS.

Be well xo

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