Dr. Greg Wells is a scientist and performance physiologist and he recently introduced us to a concept that we love: washing your brain.
“Every night while we sleep the neurons in the brain shrink by 60%, the glymphatic system becomes activated and the brain washes itself out of virus waste products,” says Dr. Wells, who cribbed the concept from Jeff Iliff in a popular TEDTalk and then extrapolated the information for performance athletes. “The brain heals, recovers and regenerates itself every night while we sleep and one of the fundamental shifts in sports over the last 20 years is a shift away from high-volume training to thinking more about recovery—and the key to recovery is sleep.”
Wells calls this approach the “24-hour athlete,” and mentions stretching, nutrition, cold tubs and massage as being just as important to an athlete as speed work and long runs. Sleep, he says, is the key to any racing success. “When we sleep, we release the growth hormone HGH in the brain. It’s a magic recovery tool and it heals our body every night, if it’s activated properly.”
Washing your brain—which is really just a fun way to describe sleeping—reduces anxiety, but also has been known to help reduce cancer risks and diseases like Alzheimers. We repair our tissues while we’re sleeping. We also repair our bones, build our blood cells and rebuild and make new connections between cerebral neurons.
Dr. Wells, also a competitive athlete, marathon runner, swimmer and coach, sets an evening alarm clock for bed. He tries not to set an alarm for his morning, but rather his evenings, when he knows it’s time to turn off the television and begin the process of readying himself for sleep. He keeps his home between 19 and 21-degrees and makes the bedroom pitch black. He takes his training seriously and says that his sleep is equally as important. “I use black-out blinds and make sure there’s no devices or alarm clocks because the older we get, the less melatonin we produce, so I defend my last hour before bedtime to make sure nothing activates me: no television news, no Netflix.”
Dr. Wells recommends reading fiction, meditating or taking a hot bath to downshift and settle in from a long day. He approaches sleep the same way he does a long run—with a pre-sleep routine. “You wouldn’t go out for a run with no preparation. You’d hydrate, fuel. If sleep is the number one thing you need to train hard, why not prepare for your sleep?”
When we sleep, the glymphatic system washes out the tissues of the brain and cerebrospinal fluid flows, picking up dead white blood cells that fight off neural invaders. Sleep washes the brain like a car wash, like a dishwasher.
“Sleep to the brain is like taking a dirty sponge and squeezing it out over and over again. That process occurs every night when we sleep.”
Sleep, says Dr. Wells, means the difference between going through your days foggy, exhausted, agitated and injured versus facing the day with energy, focus, happiness and confidence. “Washing your brain,” he says, “gives you the chance to live the life you want to live, to live out your dreams.”
For more from Dr. Greg Wells, please see DrGregWells.com.