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The Science of Sleep: Understanding the Glymphatic System


Finger pointing at a brain related to sleep

There’s quite a bit of science behind the nature of sleep. You know you need to sleep, in fact all species of animals do. The question is- why? Scientists and researchers have wondered about this for centuries. The answer may lie in the Glymphatic System. It is a recently discovered system that is now known to clear waste from the brain. It is most active during sleep. The Glymphatic System gets its name from the glial cells and lymphatic system that it mimics. Your brain is one of the most active organs in your body, and this system helps to clear excess fluids, solutes, and waste products from it. 

Glymphatic System and Sleep

While you are sleeping, your brain and more specifically your Glymphatic System is hard at work! Beyond its very important job of waste elimination, the Glymphatic System also aids in brain-wide distribution of several important compounds, including lipids, amino acids, glucose, growth factors, and neuromodulators. Interestingly enough, while some organs like your heart stay active while you’re both asleep and awake, it appears this system does very little during wakefulness and goes right to work once you fall asleep.

Glymphatic System and Diseases

As the brain's dedicated waste clearance system, Glymphatic System research has far-reaching implications. It has already been shown that poor sleep over a lifetime leads to health problems like high blood pressure and more brain diseases like Dementia and Alzheimer’s. The discovery of the Glymphatic System could tell us exactly why- the brain isn’t getting cleared enough of toxins, night after night. Parkinson's disease is another condition characterized by the buildup of protein in the brain. This has led some researchers to wonder whether the Glymphatic System might be implicated here, as well. In Parkinson's disease, there is a disruption in the dopamine pathways of the brain and those who suffer from Parkinson’s often have sleep disturbances as a result. A review published in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews proposes that the disrupted sleep patterns could hinder the Glymphatic removal of debris, helping it build up in the brain and leading to the before-mentioned diseases.

Supine Position

The question of why we sleep isn’t the only query that the discovery of the Glymphatic System answers. Have you ever wondered why we all sleep laying down and it’s nearly impossible to sleep sitting up? You would never even think of attempting to fall asleep while standing. It may be because the Glymphatic System works best when your body is in the supine position, which means laying down. Studies showed that if a body was sitting up, the Glymphatic System cleared out the toxins significantly slower. That certainly explains why napping on an airplane doesn’t feel very restful!

Quality sleep, which means getting enough of it and staying asleep for an uninterrupted period of time, is as essential to your health as food and water. This is true in both the long term and short term. Staying in top shape mentally and physically couldn’t be accomplished without the Glymphatic System doing its job, and this sleep can’t be accomplished without a high-quality mattress! If you think you aren’t getting good enough sleep, and therefore not allowing your brain the time it needs to “wash” out your toxins, a better bed may be the right solution.