The brain is like a waste paper basket that accumulates rubbish during the day and needs emptying overnight. Neuroscientists call this the glymphatic system. Fluid pumps around the brain and flushes toxic proteins and cellular remnants into the circulatory system, and on for disposal in the liver. This system is mainly active during sleep.
Staying awake regularly for long periods may inhibit this sleep-linked process, and the mind could suffer. Researchers are examining whether there is an association between lack of sleep and the build-up of cellular waste in the brains of those with dementia. Indeed, sleep may also allow the brain to process memories and rest or strengthen neural connections.
Some people live as if ‘life is too short to sleep’. They bounce around during the day and work late into the night. 4 – 5 hours sleep appears to satisfy these high-energy individuals. This may result in a sleep ‘debt’ that builds up and eventually takes its toll. But, to be fair, we do not have enough understanding to assess this claim accurately. Those of us with less drive tend towards 6 – 8 hours of sleep. We are told that 8 hours is the ideal.
Most people appear to want more sleep. And the key to getting that sleep is in letting go. It is tempting to put our minds to a range of activity that keeps them bubbling away well into the evening. Letting go is a discipline that defies our natural instincts. Putting aside our electronic and social stimulants leaves a sense of emptiness as we ‘power down’ for the night.
The latest research suggests that unless we sleep for a reasonable length of time each night, our brains may not handle their daytime functions as efficiently. The essential maintenance of sleep prepares the way for a flourishing mind and body.