It used to be a mystery: why do humans need to “waste” eight hours (one third) of everyday sleeping? Sleep is so essential to our mental health that if we don’t sleep we go crazy; sleep deprivation is a form of torture. And it is not just our mental health that suffers. My clients who track their blood pressure find that their blood pressure is higher after a night of inadequate sleep. Chronic sleep deprivation has been found to contribute to increased hypertension, chronic heart disease and diabetes. So what is it about sleep that is so essential?
Researcher Maiken Nedergaard, MD, DMSc, and her colleagues at the University of Rochester have solved a big part of the puzzle. Our brains have a cleansing system that operates more efficiently while we sleep. This cleansing system (called the glymphatic system) bathes the brain in cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) under a higher pressure than was previously understood.
Sleep changes the cellular structure of the brain. Nedergaard and her team discovered that when we are sleeping, the space between our brain cells expands so that a greater volume of the CSF can flow into the brain. The CSF flushes waste products out of the brain and into the blood stream where they can be removed from the body.
One of the substances removed by the glymphatic system is beta-amyloid protein. Researchers believe that Alzheimer’s disease is caused by an excess of beta-amyloid proteins in the brain, so they are looking at the relationship between sleep and the development of Alzheimer’s. For those more interested in productivity than health it’s important to note that people who are drunk outperform people who are sleep deprived.
Individuals can vary in their need for sleep. Many people insist they don’t need a full eight hours of sleep to perform and feel well. Excessive sleeping may indicate poor health. Some researchers believe that we don’t need to get our eight hours in one continuous episode; we are able to get the benefits of sleep in segments that include napping during the day. But all agree that about eight hours of sleep total are essential to optimal health and performance.
Or as Nedergaard says, “We need sleep. It cleans up the brain.”