The glymphatic system

After my philosophising last week, I’m back on the science this week – more precisely, physiology which I’m afraid I can get a bit geeky about.  I remember somewhat dreading the Anatomy and Physiology qualification I had to do as part of my Aromatherapy training and then surprising myself by finding it absolutely fascinating.  I’ll try to keep myself in check though – I know for some of us it’s like car engines, as long as they work we really don’t need to know the how!

So we’ve probably all heard of the lymphatic system, although we might not be entirely sure of what it does (other than make our ankles swell!)   Here’s a very concise explanation from Livescience.com:  ‘The lymphatic system is a network of tissues and organs that help rid the body of toxins, waste and other unwanted materials. The primary function of the lymphatic system is to transport lymph, a fluid containing infection-fighting white blood cells, throughout the body.  The tonsils, adenoids, spleen and thymus are all part of the lymphatic system.’

We’ll talk some more at some point about how to keep the lymphatic system as healthy as possible, but for now I want to have a wee look at another system that has actually only been recently discovered – the glymphatic system.  How amazing is it that we’re still finding out major things about the human body!

The glymphatic system has been described as the brain’s waste disposal system, so it’s similar to the lymphatic system in that respect.  It is a network of tendrils that penetrate into all the areas of the brain and allows the cerebrospinal fluid that cushions the brain inside our skulls to wash through, nourishing and detoxifying as it goes.  I’m sure that’s horribly over-simplified but still, pretty cool, huh?

Now we all want to look after the health of our brains – I think most of us fear losing our marbles more than losing our physical abilities (correct me if I’m wrong!)  So how can we best take care of our glymphatic system so that the waste products in our brains, which are a normal result of living our day to day lives, don’t get backed up, gunked up, or otherwise remain unflushed?

Well, the most important thing seems to be to do our best to get good quality sleep as that’s when most of the detoxification happens.  As Dave Asprey puts it: ‘While you rest, your brain is busy sweeping the floor, washing the dishes, and taking out the trash to prepare itself for the next day.‘  I wonder if that’s why we feel fuzzy-headed when we’ve not slept well?  Anyway, the way it works is that brain cells shrink when we sleep, allowing more space for the cerebrospinal fluid to move through it.  The waste dissolves into the fluid and is carried away.  (Apparently, sleeping on your side is better for this process than sleeping on  you back – or it least that was the case for mice!)

As the cerebrospinal fluid also flows around the spinal column, some of the suggestions I came across focus on taking care of the spine – through yoga (especially inversions – remember that doesn’t have to mean headstands, any posture where your head is below your heart is an inversion!), and therapies such as chiropractic, craniosacral therapy and massage.

Things that improve the flow of fluids in the body are also recommended, such as movement of any kind (although rebounding seems to get a gold star for lymph flow in general – click here if you don’t know what I’m talking about), massage again, and keeping well hydrated.

And finally, the same nutritional advice that leads to a healthy body also leads to a healthy brain and glymphatic system.  Eat the rainbow with plenty of vegetables and fruit, as little sugar, processed food and white carbs as possible, and good fats such as those found in avocados, nuts and seeds.  Intermittent fasting is also reputed to benefit mitochondrial function (mitochondria are like the battery-packs in your cells, to quote Dave Aspery again – and it’s the mitochondria that clear the waste out of the cells) and that can be done by limiting the eating window during the day, so instead of grazing all day until bedtime, you have a late breakfast/brunch and and early supper, then stop – sounds so easy, doesn’t it!

So there you have it – more amazingness from  your brain.  Did I mention that I’m fascinated by this stuff …..?

2 Replies to “The glymphatic system”

    1. Thank you! The recent discovery of it makes me wonder how many other important things we don’t know about yet. But the basic lifestyle advice doesn’t seem to change much so I guess we’re on the right track whatever.

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