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The Glymphatic System

How our brain cleanses itself.

Key points

  • The lymphatic system of our central nervous system is called the glymphatic system and is made up of water channels, pores, and more.
  • It is the transport system for our central nervous system, brain and spinal cord, debris.
  • The effective function of the glymphatic system depends on various factors, including heart, immune, and vessel health.

Once thought not to exist, the lymphatic system of our central nervous system is referred to as the glymphatic system and is made up of water channels, pores, and other clearance pathways. It is essentially the transport system for our central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) debris.

Our cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) also simulates the flow through these pathways. Therefore, the glymphatic system is thought to be important not only for waste removal but also for intracranial fluid volume regulation and central nervous system immune health. The CSF is replenished by glymphatic flow, and the CSF excretes molecules into the glymphatic flow for transport. It is a mutually convenient exchange.

Why would the brain need a waste removal mechanism? The brain, as with other organs, produces waste as part of the natural activation of biochemical pathways. All enzymatic reactions can have waste compounds that are not necessarily needed for other functions and are therefore compounded and degraded.

Indeed, neurodegenerative diseases are very commonly associated with the build-up of byproducts of cellular metabolism that are not appropriately packaged and excreted. These byproducts include proteins, reactive oxygen species, excessive ions, and other compounds.

The effective function of the glymphatic system depends on various factors, including heart, immune, and vessel health. Inflammation, disease, and poor dietary and lifestyle choices can impede the lymphatic drainage of the brain and adversely affect the health of both your body and brain.

Research has shown the glymphatic system is more efficient and robust when our hearts are pumping, our blood is flowing, our bodies are moving, and our brains are getting regular restorative sleep.

The glymphatic system is most active during reparative sleep stages since that is when our bodies and brains are cleared of inflammatory mediators to allow for restoration and rejuvenation.

How can we best optimize our glymphatic system, so it supports all of our detoxification efforts?

My top recommendations with the highest yield include:

1. Hydration, hydration, hydration. The volume of fluid within our vessels helps to support cerebral blood flow. Blood has to pump from the heart to the brain against gravity. When we have consumed too many not-hydrating beverages, we can have impaired cerebral blood flow. This can lead to fatigue, dizziness, and poor waste removal. The use of occasional electrolyte powders in your water can be useful to maintain intravascular volume.

2. Sleep, sleep, sleep. Restorative sleep is crucial for health and well-being, of course, but critical for glymphatic drainage. Proper and regular sleep hygiene can go a long way. Go to sleep the same time each night and wake the same time each morning. This applies to weekdays and weekends!

Get morning light before 10 am. Exercise each day. Eat your meals at regular times if possible. Our brains are circadian organs and thrive on rhythm (it is why babies and toddlers develop well with rhythm and routine), so the best we can simulate a circadian rhythm, the better chance we have of good sleep. Some great natural sleep herbs that I use with my patients can be useful to cement the sleep cycle.

3. Move, move, move. Exercise gets our heart pumping and our blood moving. It delivers and exchanges nutrients, oxygen, and metabolic byproducts, so it participates in both glymphatic and lymphatic drainage. Delivery of blood supports cellular metabolism so that intracellular debris can be packaged and released and aids efficient clearance.

4. Eat, eat, eat. Well, eat foods that support brain health. This includes the vast array of fruits and vegetables, which contain the multitudes of compounds important for combatting reactive oxygen species, free radicals, and inflammatory mediators. Be sure to include magnesium-rich foods as magnesium salts contribute to vessel wall health.

5. Poop, poop, poop. When the body has to divert much of its energy to digesting, absorbing, cleansing, and moving your bowels, there is less energy to support the bioenergetics of glymphatic drainage. Speak to your physician for help in addressing any underlying concerns. Try intermittent fasting, which can help allow the gastrointestinal tract to heal itself. Also, increase fiber consumption in your diet.

A healthy functioning glymphatic system can help keep us healthy for years to come, protect our cognition, and even reduce the risk of neurodegenerative disease. Patients can experience fewer headaches, more mental clarity, increased energy, increased ability to focus, less anxiety and sadness, and decreased overall pain when following these easy steps. Small changes can sometimes have exponential positive effects.