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Detox Your Brain – Sleep!

by Cristina Costea

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There are countless ways you can detox your body. From eating healthier to drinking teas and green smoothies. But did you know that there is a scientifically-proven way to detox your brain? Yes, there is and it’s something you’ve been doing your whole life! It’s sleep! 

While detoxing your body is often done by consuming the right food, detoxing your brain has nothing to do with eating and a whole lot to do with sleeping. The exact function of sleep has never been determined. Throughout history, researchers have come up with various theories, most pointing to the same direction: sleep helps us store and consolidate memories and helps our brain regenerate. But how exactly does it do that? 

Sleep to detox the brain

A 2013 study performed by a team of scientists at the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) discovered that sleep encourages a mechanism that removes waste products from our brain. Basically, they discovered that sleeping helps our brain detoxify, get rid of bad chemicals and toxins that would otherwise cause illness.

Why is this discovery so important and so novel? Mainly because up until recently, the main function of the brain was thought to be that of storing and consolidating memories. But scientists were never happy with this limited explanation, simply because sleeping, from a survivalist perspective, is not a very good idea: you lie still for hours on end, vulnerable to predators, not being able to protect yourself. Sleep needed to have a biological function, one that could exclude it from being cataloged as a mere evolutionary anomaly.

Doctor Maiken Nedergaard, co-director of the Center for Translational Neuromedicine at the URMC and lead author of the study, explained that their study shows that the human brain holds various functional states when awake and when asleep. And that the restorative nature of sleep “appears to be the result of the active clearance of the by-products of neural activity that accumulate during wakefulness.”

Brain cells shrink during sleep

Together with his team of scientists, Doctor Nedergaard discovered a system which he dubbed the “glymphatic system”, which clears toxins and other waste products from the brain, which in turn, helps improve the health of the brain and ward off neurological diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease. He used mice and a novel imaging technology to help make the discovery. The naming of the system comes from the lymphatic system, because of the similarities between the two. Instead of lymph nodes, the brain uses glial cells to “take the trash out”.

During the experiment, the team noticed that the glymphatic system was much more active during sleep – up to 10 times more active than during wakefulness. Also, it appears that one toxic protein in particular, amyloid-beta, which is known to be implicated in developing Alzheimer’s disease, was more efficiently expelled from the brain during sleep.

Another amazing discovery was that brain cells actually shrink by 60% during sleep. They do this with the purpose of making more space for the successful removal of toxins. This means that the brain experiences actual physical modifications during sleep and that it’s not just in the chemicals.

Dr. Nedergaard concluded his study:

The brain only has limited energy at its disposal and it appears that it must [choose] between two different functional states - awake and aware or asleep and cleaning up. You can think of it like having a house party. You can either entertain the guests or clean up the house, but you can't really do both at the same time.

This discovery is truly massive, as it opens a new door to the possibility of regulating the system and thus treating or eradicating many brain diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease.

But when it other comes to the functions sleep, what are they? Scientists from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, discovered that sleep actually increases the reproduction of cells that create myelin. Myelin is a mixture of phospholipids and proteins that forms an insulating sheath around nerve fibers, in the brain and in the spine, which helps increase the speed with which nerve impulses are conducted. The cells that are responsible for creating myelin in the brain are called oligodendrocytes and scientists analyzed the gene activity of these cells in the brain of mice that slept and compared them to those in the brains of mice that were kept awake. What they discovered was that in the mice that slept, the genes that triggered the production of myelin were turned on. But in the mice that were kept awake, the lack of sleep caused the genes to trigger cell death and cellular stress. 

Studying the brain

To get a grasp of how important myelin is for the brain, another study found that the production of this mixture of proteins is actually crucial for learning new skills.

Another study performed by the researchers from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, MO, Stanford University in Palo Alto, CA, and Radboud University Medical Centre in the Netherlands found that poor sleep can raise the levels of proteins (including that very same amyloid-beta protein that we mentioned earlier) associated with Alzheimer’s disease, which supports the idea that in adults, chronic bad sleep could potentially raise the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease later in life.

It appears that sleep seems to indeed have not just one, but many biological purposes. Sleep is something we all do, but sometimes we take it for granted and not show it the respect it deserves. So, take the advice of doctors and scientists and make sure you get at least 7 hours of uninterrupted sleep a day. It’s your body’s natural way of detoxifying your brain, helping it become stronger and healthier.

As the French say: “J'ai tellement de choses à faire, je vais d'abord dormir.”, which means “I’ve got so many things to do, I’m going to bed”! Go ahead, take that nap, hit that snooze button, it might very well help you achieve the things you want to! 

So, if you want to detox your brain, we recommend you make sure you get a full night of uninterrupted sleep. But if you are interested in detoxifying your body, then book yourself a spot on a detox retreat today! 

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