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Exercise, Sleep, and The Glymphatic System


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.