In previous newsletters, we’ve discussed the importance of sleep for optimal health and performance. In addition to decreasing the risk of numerous chronic diseases, sleep is when we restore energy levels, repair tissues, and recover from a hard workout. Sleep also helps to regulate appetite, improves mood and mental clarity, and increases immune function.
This week we’re going to focus on another incredibly important function of sleep: removing waste. For all metabolic processes that occur in your body, there is an associated waste. The lymphatic system works with the circulatory system to clear this waste. Lymphatic vessels collect waste from your cells and dump it into the blood to be disposed of to keep your body clean and healthy.
Your brain is made up of around 100 billion neurons! These neurons (or nerve cells) send and receive messages so that you can think, concentrate, and learn throughout the day. This means that your brain is very metabolically active and just like every other part of your body, needs a way to dispose of the waste that accumulates during the day so that it’s healthy and clean. This is done through the glymphatic system.
For a long time, researchers didn’t know how the brain cleared itself of waste. However in 2013, a group of researchers at the University of Rochester discovered that it all comes down to sleep. Looking at mice, the researchers discovered that when we sleep, our brain cells shrink by about 60%, allowing for cerebrospinal fluid to come in and pick up all the waste products that have accumulated throughout the day. This “cerebrospinal fluid wash” is critical for repairing any damage, preparing the brain for the next day, and disposing of waste products, including β-amyloid, which is associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
We now know how important sleep is for the clearance of waste products. This means when you wake up in the morning and feel refreshed, it’s because you’ve actually washed your brain while you sleep! So make sure you’re prioritizing sleep and maintaining a consistent sleep schedule so you can keep your brain squeaky clean. 🙂
This week’s challenge: Set your alarm strategically
When we sleep we alternate between non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. NREM is further divided into Stages 1-4, with Stages 1 and 2 being light sleep, and Stages 3 and 4 being deep sleep. Throughout the night we naturally cycle through these 5 stages in approximately 90-minute cycles. When we wake up naturally, we wake up in a lighter stage of sleep and feel refreshed. However, when we wake up in a deeper stage of sleep, we often feel worse than we did before we went to sleep!
Ideally, we want to wake up naturally every day. Some of you have already started doing this throughout the pandemic – keep it up! We realize that this is not always possible, however we can at least be strategic about how we set our alarm. Often, when our alarm goes off we press the snooze button thinking that 15 minutes of extra sleep will make us feel better. But this will actually cause us to drop into a deeper stage of sleep, and then we’ll be awakened from a state that we’re not physiologically supposed to wake up from. We’ll feel groggy and sluggish for hours. So this week your challenge is to set your alarm for the latest possible moment for when you have to get up. This way you can’t be tempted into hitting the snooze button!
If you do wake up naturally before your alarm, if it’s 30 minutes or less before you have to get up, then just get up! You’ll feel much better than if you try to fall back asleep and then wake up in a deeper stage of sleep 30 minutes later.
Let us know how this goes!
Greg Wells is the CEO and founder of Wells Performance, a global consulting firm on a mission to elevate how we live our lives at work and in life. He has worked with some of the highest-performing individuals on the planet, including Olympic and world champions and elite organizations including General Electric, BMO, Deloitte, KPMG, BMW, Audi, Sysco Foods, YPO and Air Canada. He is also committed to inspiring children and young adults, working with school boards and independent schools around the world.