Many of us in medicine thought we were lucky to be able to sacrifice sleep and do more work. I used to exist on 4½ hours a night weekdays so I could read the latest clinical and scientific papers, analyze data and write grant applications and research papers.  

But sleep deprivation like that leads to a much higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. I’ve changed and hopefully you will start to consider sleep more important. 

In the brain, that storm comes in the form of gunk that builds up to mess up the connection. That gunk comes from waste from the brain. Some of it is called tau protein; some called beta-amyloid. Essentially, the gunk attracts inflammation and that buildup disrupts the connections, either through tangling those spider legs or tree branches, and making the power lines ineffective, or gobbling up the connections and reducing the size by making the connections absent. 

So that becomes a double whammy to our brain. We buildup the plaques that cause problems through unhealthy choices and we’re not able to clear them out because of similar unhealthy choices. That means the connections get weaker and the brain function degenerates.

The good news is we’ve learned from recent data that initially arose from the University of Rochester researchers, but now has much more data, that you have a way of clearing that waste. Now, beta- amyloid buildup or other waste material build up is a natural biological process, so expect to be able to get rid of it through another system, a waste-disposal system. And you do have one. Yes, part of the way we clear those plaques and other brain waste is through your waste disposal system. In the rest of the body, this is called the lymphatic system, and you are likely familiar with the function, which is to clear waste and toxins out of the body through lungs and other waste-disposal organs. 

In the brain, there’s a similar system called the glia-lymphatic system, which clears the brain of gunk that can cause problems. But one of the issues is that often times, we don’t have optimal ability to clear the waste from the area – and not surprisingly this is largely related to things like food we eat, exercise and other lifestyle choices, especially sleep and becoming slightly – just slightly dehydrated as we sleep. 

As you sleep and do not take in water, your brain shrinks a little. Your brain cells shrink more as you sleep longer, making your glia-lymphatic pathways bigger. That brain shrinkage and glia-lymphatic widening is key for getting rid of your brain poop. That means the sixth and seventh hour of sleep are key to getting rid of brain waste and decreasing inflammation that would otherwise destroy brain connections and functioning including ability to make new memories. 

The other element that is related to shrinkage and is most related to brain degeneration is the size of your hippocampus. This can decrease when those branches are pruned. As those connections get smaller and nonfunctional, the hippocampus shrinks. This also can happen when hormones related to stress affect the hippocampus’s function, meaning that managing stress is a key element to protecting your brain.

When you are making the decision to self-engineer your body and brain, you can visualize this as the benefit. Preventing the buildup of the substances will weaken the connections between neurons and also powering a waste-removal system that removes any gunk that forms naturally in the brain.                                        

Dr. Michael Roizen writes about wellness for the Cleveland Jewish News. He is chief wellness officer and chair of the Wellness Institute at Cleveland Clinic.

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