How can we enlist these three fantastic factors for optimized brain health?
The human body is a scientific marvel of systems and functions, all designed
to work together in making the healthiest ‘you’ possible.
The catchy “Dry Bones” song many of us learned as kids, in
which the lyrics feature one bone in the body connecting to another, can
apply to so much more than just our skeletal system. I see so many body
system connections to optimal brain health. The recently discovered, and
seldomly-discussed (at least in public forums) glymphatic system is one
factor of brain health empowered by
sleep health. The quality of a person’s sleep hygiene is enhanced by exercise.
Understanding these connections helps us achieve optimal brain and overall
wellness across the lifespan.
To better understand the connections between exercise, sleep, and the glymphatic
system, it is essential to define how each of these functions is essential
to brain health. It might surprise you to learn that the glymphatic system
is a relatively new (within the last decade) discovery in neurological
science. Fundamentally, it acts as the waste clearance system for our
central nervous system. The Glymphatic System functions to clear toxins,
proteins, and waste products from the brain (similar to the lymphatic
system for the rest of the body). Although this system has only recently
been recognized, an explosion of research and insight is currently underway
and evolving relative to this system and its importance in brain health.
Sleep has long been known by the medical, scientific, and neurological
community to have a significant impact on health across the lifespan,
including its role in optimizing brain function. A lack of consistently
adequate sleep doesn’t just make us tired, it has a significantly
negative impact on our brain and overall health. Many studies have shown
a chronic lack of sleep to be a factor in an increased risk of cognitive
impairment, dementia, memory and mood disorders, and a lower life expectancy.
Simply stated: high-quality sleep is critical to our survival.
Not only does quality sleep play a role in overall health and wellness,
but it is also crucial to optimal performance – in athletics and
life in general. Studies have shown that getting less than six hours of
sleep at night is associated with decreased time to physical exhaustion,
reduced aerobic output, reduced peak and sustained muscle strength, impaired
metabolic capabilities, and increased injury risk. As a
Sports Neurologist, I am particularly concerned with how impaired sleep affects the glymphatic
system, which, in addition to clearing waste and toxins from the brain,
also contributes to neurological restoration, efficiency, and performance.
Sleep health and optimization of sleep efficiency may be the most effective
intervention a person can make to optimize their overall performance,
whether on a sports court, in a classroom, or at work. What newer research
has also revealed is that the glymphatic system I explained above functions
most significantly and efficiently during sleep. You can probably see
where I’m going next with this…
The optimization of the glymphatic system gives yet another reason to value
and protect sleep health. Most people recognize the need to exercise their
bodies. Exercise is known to improve the speed at which individuals fall
asleep and regular exercise has been shown to enhance sleep quality. But
keep in mind, exercising too close to bedtime can impair your ability
to fall asleep. In addition, exercise appears to improve glymphatic system
function, which has significant potential implications for chronic neurological
disorders such as Alzheimer’s dementia, Parkinson’s Disease,
and optimizing general neurologic function across the lifespan.
As the neurological science world turns, I believe even more revelations
will be made about how critical the glymphatic system is to our brain
and overall health. Our body systems work together to help us perform
at the optimal level of function we were intricately designed for. Recognizing
and supporting these connections can help keep us running smoothly and
efficiently well into our golden years.