Recharge Your Brain with a Good Night’s Sleep

A late night at work, too many things on the to-do list, or maybe you were awakened by a nightmare . . .Insommnia - young asian woman looking at her watch, unable to fa

. . . most of us have experienced lack of sleep at some point in our lives (and for some, it can feel more like the norm than the exception).

But, missing out on sleep can lead to learning difficulties, problems with motor control, and general irritability – it just makes our brain unhappy.

So what exactly is going on when we do get a good night’s sleep that helps us feel so refreshed and clear-headed?

So what exactly is going on when we get a good night's sleep that helps us feel so refreshed? Click To Tweet

Well, a couple years ago, Maiken Nedergaard, MD, DMSc and her team of researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center discovered important mechanisms in the brain that are responsible for preventing waste products to build up. They called it the “glymphatic” system.

Essentially, the glymphatic system flushes fluid from the brain through the space between brain cells, carrying away any “debris” to the liver, where it gets disposed.

More recently, Dr. Nedergaard had a hunch that the sleep-wake cycle might play a role in regulating the glymphatic system, so she set to work using new imaging technology called two-photon microscopy to examine the brains of live mice.

Researchers did a series of experiments looking primarily at the amyloid-beta, a natural byproduct of brain function that, when it builds up, can lead to Alzheimer’s disease.

During the experiments, the researchers compared the brains of mice that were awake, mice who were asleep, and mice who were under anesthesia to see if there was any difference in the way the glymphatic system worked to flush out the amyloid-beta protein.

So what were the results?

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Well, researchers found that during sleep, the glymphatic system was 10 times more active than it was while the mice were awake. Not to mention, sleep helped rid the brain of more amyloid-beta than other brain toxins.

And brain cells actually shrank by 60%, causing more efficient movement of the brain fluid that flushes toxins away.

Teenage girl laying in her bed with pillow

So without us doing a thing the brain is performing some important maintenance while we sleep, allowing us to not only feel refreshed, but actually wake up with a clearer head – so to speak.

And, when we talk about transforming the brain, we can add sleep to the list of things that promote healthy brain change.

Of course one caveat to this study is that it was done with mice, so that limits our ability to generalize its findings. But given the similarities between the mouse brain and the human brain, researchers feel that this study is a step toward understanding the way the brain works while we’re asleep.

If you’re interested in reading more, the full study can be found in the October 2013 issue of Science.

And to find out more ways you can change your brain and live a fuller, bigger life, check out our free webinar series on The New Brain Science.

What are some techniques you or your clients have used to get a better night’s sleep? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.


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  1. Geneveive, Chiroprctor & Teacher says:

    Dear Ruth,

    To prepare myself for a better night’s sleep, I listen to 2 hymns I resonate with; the first one is about being a woman of peace & the final one expresses gratitude.

    Then, I lay down & pray my Novena for people who I know that are ill; praying for their healing.

    For the majority of nights, I fall asleep by the end of the Novena & feel very settled as I pray the Novena.

  2. Bonnie Olson, Certified Life Coach says:

    Doing a body scan from toe to head and consciously breathing turns on the parasympathetic nervous system and helps us get out of our thinking mind. I find this helps me to turn off and fall asleep. I suggest this to clients as well, and they also have good results. I also suggest hand on heart. It really quiets and comforts.

    • David Currie, therapist, Ontario Canada says:

      Well said Bonnie ……….. thanks for your comments! I’ll use this! :)

  3. Billy says:

    Hello Ruth and subscribers, the brain definately gets recharged during the night. I am always amazed how well I can remember all the chinese words I have learned in the evening after I got up in the morning. Much better then the words I learn in the morning and repeat in the afternoon.
    sleep well,

  4. Kathy, Storrs says:

    Ruth, thank you for your extremely helpful posts! Have you ever written about the brain benefits of humor/laughter?

  5. Jerry Hirschfield, Ph.D., Author, Hollywood Florida says:

    Here’s what I recommend and what I do when having trouble going to sleep:
    1. Make yourself as comfortable in bed as you can. Soft pillows on both sides of your body and under your head make a cozy cocoon where you can feel safe and protected. Just enough covers (or none)to feel warm but not too hot.
    2. Loosen your jaw, meaning unclench your teeth. Thinking (the voice of your ego in your head) is what keeps you awake and it’s very difficult to think with a loose jaw. Just let it hang loose with a closed mouth. No effort required.
    3. Repeat these words or your won version of them slowly and silently to yourself over and over until you go to sleep: “Let go, let God: Thank you God for sound sleep.” If you don’t like the word “God”, substitute any word you wish that stands for a power greater than yourself that you believe constantly showers you with love and all the gifts you wish for. If you don’t believe in such a power, invent one and make it Real for yourself. Keep it simple.
    4. You’ll be surprised at how quickly this works.
    Good sleeping!

  6. Geri Lubash, RN, Advanced Eden Energy Medicine Practitioner says:

    1. 1 hour before going to bed, turn off all electronics and get ready for bed.
    2. When all ready for bed, Inhale as you stretch 1 hand up high flat toward Heavens and stretch the
    other hand down low flat toward Earth. Hold your breath. Feel your stress drain into the Earth.
    Exhale and switch hands. Do entire cycle 2 more times.
    3. Place your thumb pads over your little fingernails. In this position, rest the end of your thumbs on
    your temples, and your extended other fingers on your forehead, fingertips facing fingertips.
    Relax in gratitude. Breathe in peace. When ready, move on to #4.
    4. Place the pads of your little fingers on your temples. Drag up, over, down around your ears and
    down the sides of your neck. Do this slowly 3 times. The 3rd time slide your hands on down and
    cross them over your heart. Relax in gratitude. Breathe in peace. When ready move on to #5.
    5. Place soles of feet together. Place middle fingertips inside legs on the bottom of anklebones. Slide
    your fingers slightly forward into small dip. Close eyes. Hold this position x 2-5 minutes.

    Sleep Well!

  7. Elizabeth, psychotherapist, Seattle, WA says:

    Great info on why we need sleep. I have been impressed with an app called Brainwave Studio which has many options for increasing alpha and theta frequencies to induce sleep or beta waves for focus, concentration.

  8. genna alter social worker PA says:

    can not seem to get pass the sign in. I write words in crypt. I read a few paragraphs in all topics but nowhere else to view. Help.

  9. jay, Ayurveda practitioner says:

    …….And “secret services” or “secret police” know the devastating effects of sleep
    deprivation and use it to torture their subjects!


  10. sigrid, old age-pensioner, australia says:

    thank you, ruth buczynski!!!
    in my humble opinion your work not only saves brains from declining, but also people’s lifes.
    offering your knowledge for free is astounding.
    hopefully i will one day even get rid of the panic attacks.
    thanks!!! ,sigrid

  11. Faye. Family Support Counselor. CP. ON. Canada says:

    More information is always a move forward!

  12. Michelle. Homemaker/Aidworker. England. says:

    Thank you, this is very interesting and after practicing Mindfulness meditation in the late evening for a long period of time I have certainly noticed a huge improvement in my sleep pattern.It does help you to relax before sleep.
    I sleep much deeper and wake feeling much more refreshed and alert than I ever did.
    I certainly notice that if I miss doing the meditation which is rare I do notice the difference. I don’t sleep well and wake up irritable, tired and unfocused.

  13. Anne, Solution Focused Hypnotherapist, South Wales, UK. says:

    Ration breathing is good for getting off to sleep.

    • Susan, therapist and coach Richmond, VA says:

      What is ration breathing?

  14. Cherionna Menzam-Sills, Therapist, UK says:

    Thank you for this information. I had read about the study before. I would love to see this research extended to comparing what happens with brain cells and fluid movement between them during deep states of mindfulness meditation, or the states of fluid stillness we enter into in craniosacral therapy or Continuum Movement practices.

  15. Louise poet Sarasota says:

    As a survivor of TBI/PTSD, I had Brain-Spect imaging done. It shows that my limbic system is on high alert day and night, so it gets no rest, which has meant lots of problems with sleep, adrenal fatigue, and Hashimoto’s. I’ve been doing Interactive Metronome and am seeing much better sleep. It seems to have calmed my system down enough to get better sleep. If I wake I take some GABA and use Belleruth Naparstek’s “Health Sleep” CD, which I practiced with in the afternoons for over a month, and go back to sleep very quickly. I’ve also just discovered in the last week, that because of adrenal fatigue if I abstain from sugar I am much less likely to wake up. It’s only been a few days, but I’m hopeful!!

  16. mm cliggett reynolds says:

    Thank you for this article, Ruth. So many of my patients/students suffer mysteriously from the inability to sleep. We know from studies of people who do mindfulness training that reduced morning cortisol levels are associated with better sleep during the night.

    Your video on strategies for improving sleep is wonderful in the way it encourages people to shift their automatic response to unfamiliar things, to practice a new personal, philosophical and neurological habit to reduce the stress of things feared.

    Regarding this video on learning new things for brain health, your mindfulness series also pointed out that learning mindfulness skills involves shifting from one’s usual perceptions and reactions (auto-pilot) to an increased capacity to choose one’s focus of attention. Mindfulness skills are not mentioned in this video, but certainly your previous offerings, and hundred’s of studies, suggest that learning new mindfulness skills opens up a new kind of comfort zone, firing up the wiring of new neuronal responses to what was formerly stressful. Mindfulness changes wiring/firing/and experiencing. Happily so for many people. Thanks again.

  17. Soma, retired , ontario, Canada says:

    What are the effects of taking an ounce of brandy on the body and mind including the brain before going to sleep everyday.

    • CE Bower, retired public health researcher, Connecticut says:

      Alcohol will put you you to sleep more quickly , but it is disruptive to sleep later on.

      “When you take a swig of alcohol, it goes right into the bloodstream, and it’s in your brain within minutes.

      Alcohol mimics gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), the major inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain. When bound to a GABA receptor on a neuron, alcohol allows the influx of negative (or efflux of positive) ions, giving the cell a more negative charge. Thus, the neuron’s attempt to fire an action potential is thwarted. Alcohol also inhibits the brain’s major excitatory neurotransmitter, glutamate, by blocking function at glutamate’s NMDA receptors.

      Since glutamatergic and GABAergic neurons comprise 90 percent of all brain cells, this is a pretty big deal. Especially since alcohol also enhances GABA absorption back into the neuron, and even more especially since GABA is recycled into glutamate in a vicious cycle: After an evening of drinking, the theory is that GABA dominates the first half of the night, allowing us to fall asleep (and deeply!). But once GABA is metabolized, much of it becomes the excitatory glutamate. And it’s in glutamate-releasing brain regions (such as the reticular activating system which partially modulates sleep/wake and arousal) that the midnight disruptions kick in.

      Is one drink before bed going to affect that much?

      A typical person can metabolize something like a quarter of an ounce of alcohol each hour — which is quite slow, given the speed at which it’s absorbed.

      So keep the drink small, and keep it early. An evening cap.”

      This was excerpted from the Washington Post, December 2, 2013

  18. Joan Lyons, Adjunct Professor, Miami, FL says:

    Years ago, Gaylord Houser, a nutritionist to the stars, recommended for those that had a challenge getting to sleep should make yourself a mental cocktail. While lying in bed one needs to go through their senses, one at a time, bringing to mind the nicest thing they ever felt, saw, heard or tasted. I never got through the whole series of senses. By time I recalled the sweet smell of my grandmother’s Tweed cologne, the smooth feeling of my aunt’s monkey skin coat, the delightful taste of gramma’s pancakesssss, zzzz I was in dreamland. Conjuring up pleasant memories relaxed me and put me to sleep. Be blessed, Joan

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