Sleep – Molecular Clean Up Time for the Brain

By Dr. Linda J. Dobberstein, DC, Board Certified in Clinical Nutrition

September 29, 2014

Sleep – Molecular Clean Up Time for the Brain
Sleep. We need it, and we all know that. We spend nearly one third of our lives sleeping. The age-old question we ask is “why we need to sleep?” Exciting new research over the past year attempts to answer this question and describes neurological activity that was never before seen or understood. This activity may solve the question on why we need sleep.

The latest 2013 Gallup poll estimates that nearly 40% of Americans are sleep deprived, while 70 million individuals have a sleep disorder. Presently, the average adult's night's sleep is 6.8 hours, whereas in the 1940s, the average amount of time adults spent sleeping was 8 hours. In 1942, 89% of the adult population had adequate sleep. Currently, only 59% of adults get adequate sleep on an ongoing basis. This means that almost one out of every two individuals does not get adequate or quality sleep.

Chances are you have been in that category at some point in your life. You know how you feel when you don’t get enough sleep or if your sleep has been fragmented. At best, you may feel slightly less sharp or maybe a little grumpy before you have had your daily dose of caffeine. Perhaps you experience a litany of symptoms or problems ranging from irritability, trouble focusing and learning, poor memory, poor decision making, easily distracted, migraine headaches, feeling and moving slow, blood pressure problems, obesity, frequently catching colds and the flu due to a weakened immune system, cardiovascular disease, increased night-time voiding, inflammatory bowel disease, car accidents, diabetes, lowered pain management, cancer, dementia, genetic disruptions, depression, hormonal imbalances, and other concerns.

The underlying theme here is that if you don’t get enough sleep, it affects every process in your body on some level or another. There is inadequate tissue repair when we are sleep deprived. Sleep is our body and brain’s way of dealing with the daily trash.

Trash Removal

The brain has a unique trash disposal system separate from the rest of the body. It involves cerebrospinal fluid, the special clear liquid that surrounds our brain and spinal cord. It does not interact with the lymphatic system or the circulatory system outside of this region. Researchers using animal studies identified special pathways in our brain that deal with the trash removal process. The pathways are called the glymphatic system (glial cell water flux + lymphatic) for the brain’s unique “lymphatic system." It works like a plumbing system within the brain to remove waste products.

Sleep stimulates this glymphatic system within the brain. It activates a recently discovered mechanism with the glymphatic system that is absolutely remarkable. During sleep, neurons shrink by about 60% and channels throughout the brain and between the cells enlarge and fill with cerebrospinal fluid. The surrounding glial cells activate their pumping systems, push the interstitial fluid through these extra spaces, and flush toxins out into the cerebrospinal fluid area. This waste fluid eventually drains outside the brain and spinal column into the vascular circulation and some into the lymphatic system and is dealt with as other metabolic waste would be in the body. When we are awake, the pathways close up, and the cerebrospinal fluid returns to its homeostatic baseline function. It surrounds the surface of the brain and spinal cord providing shock absorption protection and is involved with CNS metabolism. During wakefulness, the flushing process occurs only at about 5% of its performance as compared to sleep. The flushing glymphatic process is so energy intensive that only the majority of it can occur when we sleep.

Researchers believe this is the underlying reason for the age-old question of why we need sleep. Clearance of the brain’s waste products happens at least twice as fast when sleeping than in waking hours. A new hypothesis suggests that dysfunction in the glymphatic system may play a profound role in the development of neurodegenerative disease. Having a healthy glymphatic system allows clearance of used up or damaged proteins including the dreaded beta amyloid plaques associated with neurodegenerative conditions. Improving this fundamental plumbing system may significantly reduce the risk for Alzheimer’s or neurodegeneration.

Researchers studying this concept in aged mice found that there was loss of function in the glymphatic system’s structural pump. This led to a 40% reduction in the ability to remove damaged beta amyloid proteins and resulted in neurodegenerative changes. Why this change occurred in the glymphatic pump has not been identified. Pure speculation brings about this thought: generally, the harder something has to work on an ongoing basis, the more apt it is to wear out over time. If this turns out to be the case, this has powerful implications for those who have chronic sleep deprivation, live hard and fast lives, have high levels of toxicity from stress, germ overgrowth, autoimmune inflammation, heavy metals, pollutants, vaccinations, and others. The discovery of glymphatics and its relationship with neurodegeneration is quite new. It will take years to understand dysfunctional sleep and glymphatics and how profound its relationship is with health.

Genes and Hormone Disruption

Additional research shows that sleep deprivation has powerful implications on many other facets of life and health. Many of them are eye opening. For instance, a 2013 study demonstrated that insufficient sleep and disrupted circadian rhythms caused over 700 genes to inappropriately turn on or off. These genes signals were associated with circadian rhythm mechanisms, sleep homeostasis, oxidative stress, and metabolism. The lack of adequate quality sleep led to RNA/DNA modifications, gene polymorphisms, changes in major metabolic function, inflammation, immune imbalances, and higher levels of stress responses.

Sleep deprivation is known to also cause changes in several hormones. It leads to increased insulin and reduced sensitivity, lowered growth hormone, elevated cortisol, reduced prolactin and leptin, elevated grehlin, decreased DHEA, both increased and decreased TSH and free T4 depending on the duration of disruption, and lowered testosterone by as much as 70%. The brain repair compound, BDNF was also diminished by 33% with sleep deprivation and exhaustive activity. It also negatively affected the pathways that these hormones use and elevated inflammatory markers such as C-Reactive Protein and several inflammatory cytokines. The consequences to these changes are profound.

These findings should be a wake up call for all of us to work on sleep hygiene and ensuring that our families get adequate sleep. Turning off exposure to bright lights and electronics one to two hours before going to bed helps support the natural rhythm of the powerful sleep antioxidant and hormone melatonin in the body. Using melatonin to engage imbalanced sleep-wake cycles can be helpful. Using nutrients that support GABA to allow the recovery from daily stimulation are vital as well. If you are one of the nearly two individuals with sleep problems, don’t wait to become a statistic of more serious disease from sleep deprivation. Do something about it now.

Share this content



Optimize cognitive performance!