and a surprising new reason we should care

Are you having trouble sleeping these days? Millions of people struggled with insomnia before the pandemic, and experts are now warning that many more of us are struggling with stress, anxiety, and trouble sleeping.

So, what’s the problem? Not getting the recommended eight hours or so of shut eye can put a person at risk for a host of problems, including forgetfulness, anxiety, depression, cardiovascular problems, and diabetes. Lowering stress and sleeping better also helps support our immune systems.

Spring cleaning for the brain?

And as it turns out, sleep does a lot more than help us keep our thoughts clear the following morning—catching a few winks also gives our brains the chance to do a little spring cleaning.

The newly released animal study involved 80 mice who had had cerebral dye injected into the cerebral fluid around their brains. Once the dye was in place, the rodents were studied while awake and asleep, allowing researchers to measure the amount of space between their brain cells during these two phases.

What they found is that a system in the brain—called the glymphatic system—actually controls how much fluid flows into our grey matter. This flow was minimal in the cheese-loving subjects’ brains while they were awake, but it increased significantly while they slept.

The importance

What makes this new finding so notable is that this process—allowing fluids to flow between brain cells during sleep—helps to clear toxins from the brain. And this includes toxins that are associated with neurodegenerative disorders.

After their initial discovery, researchers tested the efficacy of this “spring cleaning” process. After injecting the mice with beta-amyloid proteins, which have been associated with Alzheimer’s disease, they measured how long it took for the protein to clear the brain.

They discovered that the proteins were cleared more quickly from the brains of mice who were asleep, indicating that sleep—and the processes that happen during sleep—clears unwanted molecules from the brain.

3 key tips for sound slumber

Ready to detox your brain? Try some of the following tips for a great night’s rest:

  • Make sure to get enough exercise each day. A walk in the park or a relaxing yoga class (online or with COVID safety measures) might be just what you need for a restful night.
  • Stay away from screens (including those on phones) in the evening when possible. The light that they emit may suppress melatonin production, meaning later bedtimes and a harder time falling asleep.
  • Create a routine before bed. Read a book, take a bath, or do anything else that appeals to you (except for sitting in front of the TV). Creating a pre-sleep schedule helps to let your body know when you’re planning to get some shut eye.