Hate clutter? So does your brain. During the day, toxins and metabolic waste products — the brain’s “clutter” — build up, slowing it down. It’s a key reason some 16 million Americans feel forgetful and foggy, according to the CDC. That buildup has also been linked to depression and has been shown to put us at greater risk for neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.
The good news is that the brain has a self-cleaning system that eliminates the clutter. “The glymphatic system removes troublemaking waste by washing the brain with cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), a clear liquid that acts as a cushion to provide protection for the brain,” explains Helene Benveniste, MD, PhD, a researcher at the Yale School of Medicine. But this waste clearance process becomes 40 percent less efficient as we age. To the rescue: simple strategies to make your brain’s self-cleaning cycle more effective to preserve focus and mood and ward off more serious problems down the road.
Best sleep position: On your side.
The glymphatic system is 90 percent more active and clears waste 200 percent faster during sleep than when you’re awake, according to scientists at New York University. “The research showed that this is due to a drop in ‘wakefulness’ brain chemicals, which expands the space between brain cells, allowing more CSF to flow through,” explains Dr. Benveniste. To boost this benefit, sleep on your side. Recent research from Harvard Medical School suggests this opens up even more space for a deeper cleaning. If you need help staying on your side, W. Christopher Winter, MD, author of The Sleep Solution ($11.55, Amazon), offers this advice: “Create a barrier to prevent rolling over by wedging pillows behind your back.”
Best exercise: A simple stretch.
Every decade after your 50th birthday, the body pumps 5 percent less CSF through the brain, according to Mayo Clinic researchers. It’s like using less and less detergent in your laundry — the wash cycle may be the same length, but more dirt stays behind each time. One way to get CSF pumping: “Gently flex the spine for at least five minutes daily,” advises Daniel Gonzalez, a chiropractor in Austin, Texas. The Cat-Cow yoga pose — where you get down on all fours and alternate between gently arching your back (like a cat), then pulling down to drop your belly (like a cow) — does wonders, says Gonzalez, because it keeps CSF moving. For a free video of additional spine stretches from Gonzalez, visit FamilyHealthChiropractic.com and click “articles.”
Best tipple: A glass of red wine.
In an animal study conducted at the University of Rochester Medical Center, mice given a small amount of alcohol (equivalent to a human serving of 5 oz. of wine, 12 oz. of beer or 1.5 oz. of spirits) daily had more active glymphatic systems than those who drank more or less. “That’s because a small amount of alcohol decreases inflammation, helping the glymphatic system work more efficiently,” says neurologist David Perlmutter, MD, author of Grain Brain ($18.30, Amazon). For best results, pick red wine. “Antioxidants in grape skin help preserve brain cells and improve blood flow to the brain, reducing the risk of brain diseases,” says Dr. Perlmutter. In fact, research shows that a daily glass lowers the risk of Alzheimer’s by as much as 23 percent and depression by 32 percent.
This article originally appeared in our print magazine.
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