Hopefully by now you have wrapped your head around the lymph and how to take care of it. Which is great! Now, let me introduce you to a lesser known cousin of the lymphatic system – the glymphatic system!

The glymphatic system is a highly specialised network of vessels that is responsible for draining the brain and central nervous system of fluid(1). The brain and central nervous system relies on special fluid called cerebrospinal fluid to transport metabolic waste, proteins, brain chemicals and toxins away from the brain. Yes, the brain has its own lymphatic system and as it turns out, glymphatic health is crucial for brain longevity and the prevention of diseases such as dementia.

Put simply, the glymphatic network is a garbage disposal system for the brain.

Interestingly, this fluid doesn’t just transport waste, but also moves fuel around brain, including the sugars and fats that the brain needs to perform at its best!

The study of the glymphatic system is a relatively new area of research, but here is what we know:

It works while you sleep

Unfortunately for the insomniacs amongst us, the glymphatic system does its best work at night when we are asleep, functioning less during wakefulness. Brain activity is lower during sleep and so the glymphatic system takes this opportunity to remove potentially neurotoxic proteins like ß-amyloid (1). This type of protein can accumulate to form the kind of plaque seen in brains suffering from Alzheimer’s disease(1).

Naturally, you might be wondering which sleeping position optimises glymphatic drainage! More fluid drains when lying on the right side compared to you back or stomach, however maintaining that position all night is rare with most people rolling over ten times per night (2).

Depression is associated with reduced glymphatic flow

As the brain’s waste disposal system, a decline in glymphatic flow can result in the build-up of metabolic waste in the brain. This can produce inflammation in the brain which further sabotages glymphatic drainage, but can also manifest as depression(3). In fact, depression is a risk factor for the onset of dementia in later life, which makes sense given that disturbed sleep is a commonly reported symptom within depression.

Sluggish glymphatic drainage is a major risk factor for Parkinson’s disease and stroke

The build-up of amyloid protein in the brain is also associated with Parkinson’s disease, stroke as well as age related memory and cognitive decline(1). In short? Forget the sudoku puzzles, prioritising your sleep is more important for preserving healthy brain function into your later years!

Do lymphatic issues affect glymphatic function?

All roads lead to the lymph! Although the glymphatic system is structurally very different to the lymphatic system, the cerebrospinal fluid that drains the brain of its metabolic “junk” does eventually flush through the meninges at the base of the skull and into the lymph system(4).

So we know that optimising glymphatic function may help to prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative conditions. So how can we support this incredible system!?

Improve your sleep quality

Deep REM state sleep appears to be the stage of sleep where the glymphatic system is most active(3), due to lower levels of norepinephrine in the brain at this time. Norepinephrine is a brain hormone that is responsible for alertness, affecting wakefulness, mood and concentration. Given that the glymphatic system is suppressed when we are awake, getting as much high quality sleep as possible is the best way to optimise the glymph!

Manage stress and anxiety

The production of norepinephrine is increased when the fight-flight stress response is activated, leading to that sensation of hyper arousal and jumpiness that comes with feeling anxious. Chronic stress that results in elevated levels of brain hormones like norepinephrine suppress glymphatic function at night, so staying on top of stress through exercise and limiting excessive alcohol consumption is an easy way to improve your sleep quality and glymphatic function(2)!

Sort out your circadian rhythm

Glymphatic drainage is regulated in part by the circadian rhythm, commonly known as the sleep-wake cycle. Day naps are not as effective when it comes to getting the glymphatic fluid draining, so keeping regular hours of sleep will help your brain to tap into that glymphatic goodness during the night. If you’re a night owl, one way to bring your sleep-wake cycle back to balance is to get outside for some natural sunlight at dawn and dusk every day. This is one sure fire way to normalise the release of cortisol (stress hormone) and melatonin (sleep hormone) and regulate your circadian rhythm. Going camping is one way to do it, or kill two birds with one stone and get your daily exercise in first thing in the morning!

Get more omega-3 fats in your diet

Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids found in oily fish, walnuts, flax seeds and flaxseed oil have been shown to improve glymphatic function by reducing inflammation in the glymphatic vessels of the brain(6). These healthy fats may also reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases by enhancing the removal of amyloid protein through glymphatic drainage(6).

Want to get started in a great feeling, self-massage kind of way?

I guarantee you already have all you need!

Simply grab a toothbrush (yes, a toothbrush), and use it stimulate glymphatic flow.

As a bonus, you can even carry a toothbrush with you and do this anywhere to boost that brain wellness throughout the day! It’s a discreet exercise, it’s mighty effective and takes less than a minute.

Here’s a video of the lymphatic queen herself taking care of her Glymphatic system.

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Reference List:

  • (1) Jessen et al. 2015. “The Glymphatics System – A Beginner’s Guide” Neurochemical Research, vol. 40(12)
  • (2) Reddy & van der Werf. 2020. “The Sleeping Brain: Harnessing the Power of the Glymphatic System through Lifestyle Choices” Brain Science, vol.10(11)
  • (3) Yan et al. 2021. “Glymphatic Dysfunction: A Bridge Between Sleep Disturbance and Mood Disorders” Frontiers in Psychology, vol.12:658340
  • (4) Louveau et al. 2016. “Lymphatics in Neurological Disorders: A neuro-lympho-vascular Component of Multiple Sclerosis and Alzheimer’s Disease” Neuron, vol.91(5);957-973
  • (5) Szot P. 2016. “Elevated Cerebrospinal Fluid Norepinephrine in the Elderly can Link Depression and A Reduced Glymphatic System as Risk Factors for Alzheimer’s Disease” Journal of Aging Science, vol.4:2
  • (6) Zhang et al. 2020. “Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids Alleviate Traumatic Brain Injury by Regulating the Glymphatic Pathway in Mice” Frontiers in Neurology, vol.11:707.