If you’re like a lot of people who check Google News on a regular basis, you may have seen the news about sleep clearing the brain of metabolic build-up after a hard day’s work. Sleep is an important part of every living being, across all species, but until recently (medical) people haven’t know exactly why that is. Esoteric practitioners have a lot of different explanations for why we sleep, but in terms of hard science, the importance of sleep has been a mystery.
Not long ago, researchers discovered that when we sleep, the glymphatic system (the functional waste removal system for our central nervous system, or CNS), clears out metabolic buildup (read, junk that’s left over from our busy minds’ activities), getting rid of a lot of stuff that we don’t need. It just gets in the way. Which is why we need to sleep.
Here’s a video explaining the new research:
Not getting enough sleep means not getting enough time to clear out all the sludge from your brain that comes from all the mental activity we’re engaged in. It means you’re still — literally — carrying around extra “baggage” (albeit very miniscule stuff) from before, that you should really just let go — via a good night’s sleep that opens up passages in our brains to let the extra junk pass through and out — to our livers, where it’s processed out of our systems.
I’ve been pretty excited to hear about this, especially because concussion / mild traumatic brain injury produces an abnormal and complex neurometabolic cascade that floods the brain with all sorts of extras, like potassium, calcium, glucose, and other neurotransmitters which get our brains all worked up — it can really get us pumping. And afterwards, we’ve got a whole bunch of junk in our brains that we’re not used to having there… and we need to clear out.
This combination of extra junk in your system is one of the things that makes you foggy and dull after a concussion. All that stuff needs to get cleared out, for your brain to right itself — and then it’s got to do the extra work of healing and (re)learning how to do stuff that may seem very simple, but suddenly becomes hard.
So, long story short, sleep helps after concussion / tbi, because it cleans the junk out of your brain. Lots of sleep is good. At the same time, too much sleep can be a problem, too. So, you have to find a balance.
One of the issues that I have with my long-term concussion / PCS / TBI issues is problems with sleep. I have trouble getting to sleep, and I have trouble getting more than 6-7 hours a night. If I get 8 hours or more, it’s like a jackpot. Interestingly, when I get more than 8 hours, I usually feel drugged and not quite right in the head. In some ways, it’s worse than only getting 6 hours.
But when I only get 6 hours, like last night, I definitely feel it. I’m pretty much of a zombie, feeling jet-lagged and depressed and really down. The time change this past weekend did a number on me, for sure. And now that I’ve read about the glymphatic system and what it does, now I’ve got this much clearer sensation that I’m dull for a reason — there’s too much crap still clogging the lines of my brain. It’s bad enough being tired. But having my brain full of metabolic waste, on top of it… geez.
So, if I can’t seem to get at least 8 hours of sleep a night, no matter what I do, how can I ever hope to clear all the crap out of my brain? I mean, seriously, this is a real concern for me. I have been doing daily exercises to warm myself up in the morning and get the blood flowing to clear out the cobwebs and help my lymphatic system fight off infection, but while waking, the pathways in our brains through which waste passes are 60% smaller than when we’re asleep. How can I take advantage of my body’s systems and help them do their job?
Coincidentally (or perhaps not), I got an email from Coherence.com about how coherent breathing may help to wash the brain (you can read the PDF by clicking here), in a similar way that sleep does. A steady cadence of 5 full breaths per minute — about 6 seconds inhale and 6 seconds exhale — helps to not only balance the autonomic nervous system (ANS), getting you out of fight-flight craziness, but may also help to jump-start the glymphatic system which removes the leftover junk from your brain.
I find this encouraging. While it’s not proven by rigorous scientific studies, the logic makes sense to me. And it’s something I can do, even when I’m not getting enough sleep — like this morning, with my whopping ~6 hours.
So, this morning as I lay in bed at 6:15 (I woke up a little before 6 and got to sleep a little before midnight), I relaxed and did my coherent breathing — counting six seconds in and six seconds out. I focused on my diaphragm, making sure I was breathing deeply so that my belly was rising and falling smoothly, and I just counted. I timed myself a few times, to make sure I wasn’t going too fast — if anything, I breathe more slowly than 6-seconds in-out, but I can’t worry about that. The main thing is that I’m in the range and that I’m balanced with the length of time I’m inhaling and exhaling.
I didn’t worry about how many breaths I was taking — I used to count my breaths, back when I was sitting and breathing each morning — and I just lay flat, because that helps to regulate the overall system pressures in the body, which aids the flow of fluids (as in cerebrospinal fluid, or CSF).
I just focused on my breathing, keeping myself in the count-of-6-in / count-of-6-out zone, knowing that I was doing something good for myself, and that not only was I balancing out my nervous system so I wouldn’t start the day in fight-flight mode, but I was also moving the crap out of my system.
That’s an important part of this, because it is incredibly difficult for me to just sit still – especially first thing in the morning, when my head is racing and I want to get going! Getting my system to calm down and focusing my mind is quite difficult – especially after a short night’s sleep, when I’m waking up riding a wave of adrenaline.
Focusing on the idea that I’m making myself more functional and more capable, helps me to calm my system down and keep me focused. Definitely knowing that I did not get enough sleep last night — and haven’t gotten enough sleep in months, if not years — gives me all the more incentive to clear out the sludge that comes from my brain having to work so hard, day in and day out. Heck, even if it’s just conjecture and the folks who promote coherent breathing aren’t 100% correct about clearing out the metabolic waste with that technique, the fact of the matter is, my system chilled out, and I got up feeling a whole lot better than I did when I first woke up. And that’s no small potatoes.
I probably spent about 20 minutes doing this — probably longer than I would have done, were it not so cold this morning. I wanted to stay in bed, so this was good justification. 🙂 And after a few minutes, I started to feel a lot less “jazzed” and amped up. Waking up after a short night’s sleep can be pretty rough — I just jolt awake, all systems GO, with my heart racing and the blood pumping. While it’s sometimes energizing, over time it gets to be a pain in the ass, because it wears me down, and I crash later in the morning, after the pump wears off — major let-down.
This way — as was the case when I was sitting and breathing regularly, back about a year or so ago — I can stay in my warm bed a bit longer, I can work on my breathing to calm down my ANS, and I can also help my brain get a “clean start” on the day.
It’s a win-win all around. Good stuff.