Ah. The cozy feeling of snuggling into your bed at night. Safe, sound, and ready to head to Dreamland. While you may enjoy drifting off to catch some z’s at the end of a long day, did you ever stop to wonder why we sleep?
Judging on an average of eight hours of sleep per night, humans will spend ⅓ of their life between the sheets. It would only make sense that we spend so much time fulfilling a biological need if doing so was an integral part of our health. While we’ve understood sleep to be an important component to our wellness and wellbeing, we weren’t fully aware of the vital, nocturnal processes the brain undergoes during sleep until quite recently.
Why We Sleep
The ritual of sleep allows our bodies the opportunity to perform many critical functions. During sleep, memories are consolidated and cells are renewed; we wake up refreshed, energized, and well rested….but only if we’ve gotten our zz’s.
During sleeping hours, our brain uses an almost equivalent amount of energy as it does when we are active and awake. Seem strange? If you consider all of the activity taking place inside your brain, it shouldn’t.
In 2013, scientists uncovered data proving that our brain undergoes a nightly detox that is a crucial part of our biological functioning. When the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) first announced their findings about the brain’s detoxification process, the study (published in the medical journal, Science) exposed why getting high-quality sleep is vital to our daily functioning.
How Your Brain Detoxifies
Do you remember learning about the lymphatic system in your middle school, Science class? Well, while it’s efficient in removing waste from the body, this system isn’t able to detoxify the brain. Instead, the glymphatic system operates the brain detoxification process with its own internal, irrigation system.
According to the URMC study, when we sleep, our brain cells shrivel by up to 60% allowing the brain to, quite literally, wash away the buildup of the day. While we’re awake, our brain accumulates cellular “garbage” during normal, neural activity; when we sleep, the glymphatic system powers up to remove this molecular detritus or, in non-scientific terms, dead particles of organic waste material.
These by-products are, then, rinsed away by our glymphatic plumbing system which works in conjunction with the brain’s blood vessels. Cerebrospinal fluid is pumped through the brain’s tissue and, simultaneously, washes waste material back into the blood. Once these unwanted byproducts reach the circulatory system, they flow through the liver where they’re filtered out of the bloodstream before passing out of the body.
Thought your body was at rest when you’re asleep? Hardly! In fact, the study proved that as the body shuts down during sleep, the glymphatic system becomes ten times more active!
Dangers of Sleep Deprivation
Due to this nightly cell shrinkage, not only are fluids more successful at flushing out toxins and waste, certain damaging proteins are also more easily removed. Linked to Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological disorders, these proteins have the fascinating opportunity to be washed from the brain if you’re getting an ample and consistent amount of shut-eye.
Other studies believe that a lack of sleep can be linked to weight gain, an increased risk of heart disease, and increased blood pressure. For those who are suffering from Parkinson’s disease, Multiple Sclerosis, kidney disease, certain cancers, or gastrointestinal disorders, a lack of sleep may further exacerbate (and, in some cases, may even cause!) these chronic conditions.
The underlying lesson? Make sleep a priority, and be sure to get plenty of it each and every night! It’s not only a critical part of living a balanced life, it’s absolutely vital to your health.