Every night, when you’re off in dreamland, things are happening. Processes are underway throughout your body, all of it with the purpose of setting you off on the right foot tomorrow, and potentially many days after that.
Some of the most important actions are taking place in your brain, where a biological cleaning crew comes through and washes out the trash.
“One can think of sleep as a top way to take care of your brain,” says sleep specialist Dr. Phyllis Zee. During non-REM slow-wave sleep, in particular, your sleep appears to provide much-needed custodial services.
A small study published in Science shows that cerebral spinal fluid enters the brain during periods of slow-wave sleep, rinsing out metabolic waste products that can impair memory and cognitive function. Slow-wave sleep is a period of deep sleep when brain activity slows right down (so no dreams), as does heart rate and blood flow.
The fluid removes beta-amyloid proteins, waste products that accumulate and tangle in the brains of people with dementia.
Although the study does not necessarily prove that a good night’s sleep can prevent dementia, it does show that it does an excellent job of getting rid of the stuff that may. Removing beta-amyloid and other waste products helps to promote brain health by keeping neural pathways open to communication. It is also believed memory consolidation and storage take place during slow-wave sleep.
Poor sleep is linked with several chronic illnesses, including dementia, and there is work indicating that just one night of sleep deprivation can increase beta-amyloid presence in healthy adults.
No matter how you want to slice it, good sleep is one of the pillars of good health. Unfortunately, it’s a lot harder to get than most people would like. If you’re having trouble falling or staying asleep, there are several things you can try. Melatonin is useful for some people and can help if you experience occasional trouble with sleep, maybe one or two nights per week. If problems more frequent, further lifestyle measures focusing on sleep hygiene are recommended.