It’s something we are all well acquainted with. It’s something we spend about a third of our lives doing. Haven’t guessed what we are referring to yet? Why, sleep, of course. It’s something that no living being can do without.
And yet, even in this modern day and age, sleep continues to puzzle and amaze us as we have yet to completely understand this simple, yet oh so complicated process.
In ancient times, one of the most important medical researchers called Galen, had come up with a very interesting theory concerning the connection between our brains and sleep.
He suggested that, during the time when we are awake, the juice from our brains – its motive force, would travel to the other parts of our body and animate them. This, however, would leave the brain in a drained state.
Galen believed that, while we are asleep, all the fluids that had left the brain during its active stage would flow right back into it, thus successfully moisturizing and refreshing our brain.
Now, we are aware that this sounds like ‘mumbo-jumbo’ in our time, but this ancient wise man was trying to explain a natural process through which we go over every single day.
We are already familiar with the fact that when we are awake for longer periods, it leaves our mind feeling hazy and exhausted. On the other hand, when we sleep, we are giving our brain a chance to relax and regain its energy for the upcoming morning.
Yet, even though we have evolved well beyond the time when Galen walked the earth, we are still not 100% sure what gives the brain its restorative function and why it’s so important for the functioning of our entire body.
Our Brain – What an Organ!
Even though the brain only accounts for about 2% of the entire body mass, the electrical activity it produces uses up as much as a fourth of the entire energy supply in our bodies.
So, it appears that your circulatory system can solve any problems delivering nutrients in your body because it sends out blood vessels which supply oxygen and nutrients to our entire body.
Proof of this is the research conducted on a mouse. Scientists screened images of the blood vessels inside the mouse’s brain, which form a complex network. They begin at the surface of the brain, and continue by diving down into the tissue.
They supply the oxygen and nutrients to each cell of the host’s brain by spreading out.
Having said this, just as every brain cell is in need of nutrients in order to function, it also produces waste as a byproduct. Here’s where the second issue that needs solving arises. Each organ has to deal with the clearance of that waste.
This is where the lymphatic system shows its importance. It collects the proteins and waste from the spaces between each cell, and then proceeds to dump them into the blood so that they can be adequately disposed of.
Shocking yet Amazing
But here’s the curious part. The one that doesn’t make all that much sense. When scientists zoomed into the head of a human, one of the main things they noticed straight away was that there were no lymphatic vessels in his brain!
But then, how does our brain, which produces a large amount of waste byproduct on a daily basis, manage without the lymphatic vessels?
Apparently, it needs to take a different approach to the rest of the organs when it comes to clearing this waste. But how? What the researchers found was no less than astounding, and, pardon the pun, mind-blowing.
Let us explain it to you. In each of our brains there is this large pool crystal-clear, clean liquid which was given the name ‘cerebrospinal liquid’, and rightly so. But let’s simplify things by calling it CSF from now on.
This liquid fills up the space around the brain. The waste from inside the brain makes its way to the CSF, which then dumps it in the blood, along with the byproduct. Hm, that does sound quite a bit like the lymphatic system, right?
But what’s interesting to note is that the waste and the fluid from the brain don’t simply penetrate their way in a random order out to the CSF. Rather, there is a specific plumbing network of sorts whose job it is to organize this whole process as well as make it easier.
Here’s Something Even More Peculiar
But what’s further surprising is this other discovery which occurred while analyzing the brain of the mouse. It turns out that, the fluid which was outside of the brain, the CSF, didn’t stay on the outside.
Rather, it pumped itself back in and through the brain, along the outer sides of the blood vessels. And, as it was flushed down along those sides, it was helping clear away and clean the waste from the spaces between the cells of the brain.
A truly clever design solution, when one stops to think about it. Basically, it is repurposing one set of vessels, the blood vessels, to take on the role of a second set, the lymphatic vessels.
Thus, successfully making it so you don’t need the lymphatic vessels for this ever-so-crucial function. As if this wasn’t intriguing enough, it’s well worth noting that no other organ out there uses quite the same method for cleaning the waste byproduct between the cells.
The brain is completely unique in this area.
But now it’s time for the most important fact from all we’ve discussed.
This entire process we told you about, it only happens when we are asleep.
The scientists observed that in the brain of a mouse which was awake, the CSF practically showed no movement. However, just as soon as the little rodent started off on the path of slumber, the CSF rushed through the brain, and not only that.
They also discovered that, while the brain is asleep, the brain cells seem to shrink. That way, they also open up spaces between them, successfully allowing for the fluid to rush through and clear out waste without any problems.
Right All Along?
Are you shocked to discover that Galen may actually have been somewhat right after all? About the whole fluid process rushing through the brain when sleep has set in.
The simple way to explain all this is that, when awake the brain is too busy with all of the activities and has to store the waste, so that later, when we’re asleep it has time to clear it and clean and reorganize itself.
If you want a common comparison, it is hardly any different than when we put off the household chores during the week when we are busy with other matters, only to do them on the weekend, that way catching up.
Another Thing Worth Discussing
Now, we’ve already established that the brain needs to clean itself and get rid of waste in order to stay healthy. But, just what kind of waste are we talking?
The recent studies focused most on the amyloid beta, a protein made in the brain at all times. In fact, your brain is making amyloid beta even as you are reading this, it’s natural.
But in certain unwanted situations, such as in those with Alzheimer’s disease, this protein can build up and collect in the spaces between your brain cells. This, instead of being cleared up like it’s meant to be.
In fact, it is this unnatural buildup of amyloid-beta that may be one of the contributing factors of this horrible disease’s development.
And, non-surprisingly, when they measured how much and how fast the amyloid-beta protein cleared up in the brain of awake and asleep individuals, the numbers were very much in favor of the second group.
And if sleep really is the solution to the clearance of waste, then we need to seriously rethink the connection between our brains, sleep and Alzheimer’s.
To further back this up, there have been several clinical studies which suggest that, for the individuals who have not yet developed this disease, a worsening in their sleep duration and quality, lead to their brains not being able to clean out the waste properly and this lead to other problems.
Now, this doesn’t necessarily state 100% that lack of sleep strictly leads to Alzheimer’s disease, but it does imply a connection.
But to finish up, this recent research shows us what Galen knew as far back as 2000 years ago, that sleep helps clean and refresh the brain, preparing it for the activities of an upcoming day.
And getting sufficient amounts is one of the crucial factors for achieving optimal health.
One thing is for sure, even while during slumber hours when our bodies are still and our minds are drifting in dreamland, the complex and extremely efficient machine known as our brain is always at work, keeping busy and maintaining our mental, as well as physical health.
Because if we decide to stop cleaning our houses, sure, we’d pretty soon be living in squalor, but if our brain stopped cleaning itself, the consequences would be far, far worse.
We are definitely on the right track to discovering the mystery that is both sleeping and our brain in general, which, in the future, will help us greatly in treating all kinds of diseases.