What Is The Glymphatic System
The Glymphatic system is the brain’s method of removing toxic debris from itself. The brain is a complex organ and doesn’t have a circulatory or lymphatic system running throughout it like the rest of the body that allows for continuous detoxification. Instead, the brain relies on a system called the Glymphatic System.
When the brain consumes energy and other biological processes occur, waste products like Amyloid-Beta are left behind. If not properly removed from the brain, this debris can build and contribute to disease like Dementia.
The Glymphatic system is largely active during sleep, although some activity can be found during wakeful hours. During sleep, the extracellular space in between brain cells is increased and flooded with Cerebrospinal Fluid (CSF) that collects waste metabolites & toxins. The waste fluid is then transported out of the brain, through the brain stem and spinal cord, until ultimately diffused into the bodies normal waste systems. It can be likened to a Car Wash for your brain.
The easiest way to tell if you have an under-performing Glymphatic System is to ask yourself whether or not you wake up refreshed & full of energy. If not, you aren’t giving your glymphatic system the time (or efficiency/functionality) it needs to properly do it’s job.
Because the glymphatic system is an absolutely integral part of brain health, it’s deficiency in operation negatively affects every aspect of cognition & mental health. Before symptoms of Dementia & Alzheimer’s occur, the build-up of waste and toxic metabolites can contribute to & manifest as what we call “getting older” or “normal wear-and-tear”. Remember, Dementia & Alzheimer’s occur over years before the diagnostic symptoms emerge.
Symptoms of a Poor Glymphatic System:
- Poor Memory
- Poor Reflex
- Lack of Focus & Brain Fog
- Personality Changes & Disorders
- Lack of Motivation
- Inability To Follow Through With Tasks & Hobbies
- Difficulty With Perception
Conversely, improving the Glymphatic System improves all of these symptoms. Benefits of improving the Glymphatic System include:
- Improved Memory & Focus
- Increased Motivation
- Decreased Cognitive Decline With Age
- Prevention & Improvement of Alzheimer’s & Dementia
- Improvement of Most Mental Disorders
- Enhanced Overall Cognitive Function (working memory, pattern recognition, etc)
The Glymphatic System is still in early research, but one could say that much of the reasoning behind the cognitive & mood differences between a night of good sleep and a night of poor sleep, can be attributed to the efficacy of the Glymphatic waste clearance. Indeed, grogginess and acute black-outs (that you often aren’t even aware of) during sleep deprivation is the brain attempting remove what waste it can.
How To Improve The Glymphatic System
A study on rats looked at the effect different sleeping positions had on glymphatic transport. The researchers found that sleeping on the right side (lateral) promoted the best glymphatic flow, whilst sleeping on the stomach (prone) had glymphatic transport and waste clearance. (R)
The contorting of the neck in the prone position puts pressure on the spine, hindering the flow of CSF. This is why it’s common to wake with neck pain after sleeping prone and why prone-position sleepers are more likely to develop chronic neck pain.
For this reason, sleeping on your side, particularly the right, is best for glymphatic function.
The researchers noted that respiratory rate & heart rate may have played a role in these differences, as the prone position hinders airflow and increases sleep-apnea instances, which leads into the next point.
Breathing / Respiration
The glymphatic & CSF system don’t have a pump of their own unlike the circulatory system with the heart. Instead, they rely on respiration and arterial pulsatility (heart beat) to facilitate their movement.
Our ability to breath and our breathing rhythm has been hindered? due to our modern lifestyle. Stress, coffee, sedentary lifestyle, and constant stimulus has weakened our lungs and altered our breathing rhythm. Proper breathing consists of breathing deeply into the lower portions of the lungs with the diaphragm, through the nose, and in a consistent rhythm.
Indeed, one study had researchers observe the flow of CSF in participants whilst breathing using MRI. They observed that CSF flowed almost exclusively with respiration. Forced breathing (Deep Breathing) elicited the highest flow of CSF whilst holding the breath suppressed the flow of CSF. (R)
The most common cause for poor sleep and waking up exhausted is sleep apnea. Dust, dirt, irritant, allergens, and inflammatory foods that are ever prevalent cause nasal inflammation, making it hard to breathe comfortably through the nose and causing sleep apnea. The body can even asphyxiate and cause you to wake up several times throughout the night because you can’t get any oxygen.
This makes a lot of sense when you look at how important the role of breathing has on the movement of several different fluids in the body and how integral the diaphragm & gut health is.
For instance the Vagus Nerve can and will calm the mind and body when ‘massaged’ by diaphragmatic breathing and breathing deeply & soundly.
The brain & body rely on information gathered from the nerves & parasympathetic nervous system. All things in the body work in unison, with fluid movement especially.
Rhythmatic & deep breathing (with the diaphragm) stimulates the Vagus Nerve to promote relaxation & healing. This, along with massaging other organs & nerves to promote relaxtion, might in part explain the superior CNS/glymphatic flow in the side sleeping position, tying into the Sleep Duration/Quality aspect of improving glymphatic flow and its importance in glymphatic flow.
It is easiest to imagine when you think of the body’s fluid systems as hydraulic pumps (since they are essentially) and picture how the lungs & diaphragm press against the spine and organs.
You Can Strengthen The Lungs & Improve Breathing By:
- Exercising Regularly
- Stretching Throughout The Day, Especially If You Have A Sedentary Job
- Limit Caffeine & Stress
- Practice Meditation & Breathing Exercises
- Maintain Good Posture
- Avoid Allergens & Irritants Like Synthetic Air Fresheners or Detergents
- Improve Indoor Air Quality & Keep A Flow of Fresh Air (e.g. open a window)
- Be More Aware of How You Are Breathing
Sleep Duration & Quality
Being asleep doesn’t mean you’re sleeping well. In order to facilitate it’s full potential, the mind & body must be able to relax and enter deep sleep.
The researchers in the sleeping position study noted that unlike respiration, a decreased heart rate was seen in the lateral position compared to the other positions, possibly suggesting a deeper, more restful state.
You can improve sleep & promote deep sleep by:
- Keeping Your Bedroom Pitch Dark
- Eliminating Noise, Including White Noise
- Keeping Your Room & Self Cool
- Avoiding Caffeine In The Afternoon & Evening
- Avoid Stimulus & Stress In The Afternoon & Evening (complete stressful tasks in the first half of the day)
- Alternatively, Some White Noise or A Fan May Help You Sleep
A study on aged mice found that voluntary exercise via running on a wheel, significantly decreased Amyloid Beta and accelerated the efficiency of glymphatic clearance. (R)
Another study on mice found that exercise significantly enhances Glymphatic Influx during wakeful hours after running. (R)
The improvement in glymphatic function may in part explain the well studied positive effects exercise has on cognitive health. Exercise is also the greatest way to strengthen the lungs and heart, in addition to promoting deep restful sleep during the night.
Improving Circulation & Heart Strength / Arterial Pulsatility
As previously stated, the movement of CSF relies on respiration and arterial pulsatility.
One study found that cardiac pulsatility had a greater contribution to CSF velocity, while respiration exerted a greater effect on CSF displacement. (R)
The most powerful way to strengthen the heart & circulatory system is exercise. When you exercise, your muscles need more oxygen & nutrients, so your heart must work harder to deliver these things. The heart responds to this repeated stimulus by getting stronger, being able to pump harder, faster, & more blood.
Additional Ways To Strengthen The Heart & Circulatory System:
- Lose Excess Body-Fat
- Exercise (but not overtraining)
- Adequate Intake of Magnesium, Potassium, & Sodium (electrolytes in general)
- Prevention & Reversal of Atherosclerosis
- Improve Posture
- Limit Sedentary Lifestyle
- Stretch & Move Several Times A Day