Unlocking the Power of Brain Flushing: A Path to Mental Well-Being

May 12, 2023 | Blog, Sleep Disorders, Sleep Tips

Did you know that your brain has its own cleanup crew called the glymphatic (glim-FAT-ik) system? It helps eliminate waste, including a protein connected to Alzheimer’s disease. When working, it keeps your brain healthy by clearing out debris. If not functioning well, waste can pile up and lead to problems like inflammation and brain disorders.

How Was Brain Flushing Discovered and How Does It Work?

Dr. Maiken Nedergaard and her team at the University of Rochester Medical Center found that when we sleep, the glymphatic system kicks in.1 This brain-flushing mechanism controls the flow of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) around your brain cells,  removing built-up toxins.2

To make this discovery, the researchers injected a special dye into the CSF of mice and observed what happened. They noticed that the dye moved quickly through the mice’s brains when they were asleep. But while awake, the dye hardly moved at all. Afterward, the researchers measured the space between the mice’s brain cells and found it had increased by 60%.

They deduced that this change allowed for more efficient waste removal.1 Therefore, it can be said that sleep, particularly deep sleep, plays a key role in optimal brain flushing.

Brain Flushing, Sleep Disorders, and Mental Health

When someone has trouble sleeping, it can cause a protein called beta-amyloid to build up in the brain.3 Sleep disorders like obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) can make it even harder for the brain to get rid of this protein.

In this study, scientists looked at how OSA affects the brain’s glymphatic system and found that in people with the disorder, it does not work as well. This happens because specific brain pathways experience a decrease in flow, leading to less oxygen in the brain.

The study also suggested that worsening OSA symptoms can affect the brain’s communication pathways. This causes stress and inflammation, which impairs waste elimination.3

Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) is a common treatment for OSA and using it can make a big difference in a person’s long-term health. Early treatment can help certain biomarkers break down substances linked to Alzheimer’s, even before symptoms appear and plaques form.4

It is important to note, however, that the majority of research on brain flushing has been conducted on rodents. Further study is required to gain a better understanding of how this relates to human health.

Brain Flushing and Mental Health

Recent studies have demonstrated the critical role brain flushing may play in brain function and mental health. When the brain is inflamed, it can lead to mental illnesses like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depressive disorder.5

People with depression have more inflammation in their bodies, and the brains of those who commit suicide show increased activity in immune cells that cause inflammation.6 In a study involving cancer patients, researchers found that an inflammation-causing drug led to many of the patients becoming depressed, despite not having depression prior.6

Chronic stress can also drastically impact the brain. For example, studies exposing animals to various stressors have shown a decreased ability to remove waste from the brain.7

How to Encourage Brain Flushing

Certain lifestyle factors can affect how well brain flushing works. Things like not getting enough sleep, not exercising, and having a poor diet can make the system less effective.

So, if you want to take care of your brain, try making these lifestyle choices:

  • Getting enough quality sleep: Sleep deprivation can lead to increased waste products in the brain.8
  • Exercising regularly: Exercise promotes brain flushing by increasing blood flow.9
  • Eating a variety of foods: Polyphenols found in green tea and blueberries could reduce inflammation.10
  • Managing stress: Finding healthy ways to manage stress may support brain flushing.11
  • Avoiding toxins: Smoking and excessive alcohol consumption can impair waste removal.9

Further research is necessary to gain a complete understanding of brain flushing. However, living a healthy lifestyle can greatly improve one’s well-being. So next time you are considering skipping a workout or staying up all night, think about your brain and give it the support it needs!

Learn More

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  1. Xie, L., Kang, H., Xu, Q., Chen, M. J., Liao, Y., Thiyagarajan, M., … & Nedergaard, M. (2013). Sleep drives metabolite clearance from the adult brain. Science, 342(6156), 373-377.
  2. Anthony L. Komaroff, M. (2021, July 1). Are toxins flushed out of the brain during sleep?. Harvard Health
  3. Roy B, Nunez A, Aysola RS, Kang DW, Vacas S, Kumar R. Impaired Glymphatic System Actions in Obstructive Sleep Apnea Adults. Front Neurosci. 2022 May 6;16:884234.
  4. Andrade AG, Bubu OM, Varga AW, Osorio RS. The Relationship between Obstructive Sleep Apnea and Alzheimer’s Disease. J Alzheimers Dis. 2018;64(s1):S255-S270.
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  8. Shokri-Kojori, E., Wang, G. J., Wiers, C. E., Demiral, Ş. B., Guo, M., Kim, S. W., … & Tomasi, D. (2018). β-Amyloid accumulation in the human brain after one night of sleep deprivation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118(23), e2024172118.
  9. Zhang E, Wan X, Yang L, Wang D, Chen Z, Chen Y, Liu M, Zhang G, Wu J, Han H, Fan Z. Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids Alleviate Traumatic Brain Injury by Regulating the Glymphatic Pathway in Mice. Front Neurol. 2020 Jul 17;11:707.
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  11. Reddy OC, van der Werf YD. The Sleeping Brain: Harnessing the Power of the Glymphatic System through Lifestyle Choices. Brain Sci. 2020 Nov 17;10(11):868.
  12. Ide, K., Yamada, H., Takuma, N., Park, M., Wakamiya, N., Nakase, J., … & Shioda, S. (2014). Green tea consumption affects cognitive dysfunction in the elderly: a pilot study. Nutrients.
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