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We all know sleep can be restorative, but a key function of our nightly slumber is less about what gets renewed and more about what is flushed away. As we sleep, our brains work to flush away "brain waste" chemicals, which are thought to contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other neurological diseases, and the researchers think brains are better able to do this when we are on our sides.
We know that exercise may help stave off Alzheimer’s, but the notion that a sleep position may help protect our minds is intriguing.
The researchers used brain scans of rodents to map the movement of spinal and brain fluids during sleep. Their findings, which are published in the August 2015 online edition of Journal of Neuroscience, suggest that the side position (also called the lateral posture) allows the fluids that filter through the brain to better break down and clear substances that are known to build up in the brain and impede function. The next step is to test the findings on human subjects.
Luckily, according to the University of Rochester’s Maiken Nedergaard, most of us already sleep on our sides. "It is interesting that the lateral sleep position is already the most popular in humans and most animals—even in the wild—and it appears that we have adapted the lateral sleep position to most efficiently clear our brain of the metabolic waste products that built up while we are awake," she said in the press release.
More reasons to sleep on your side
While we wait for more news, there are already other good reasons to sleep on our sides. There’s psychological research suggesting that side-sleeping folks are more social and easy-going. And sleeping on your back can make sleep apnea and snoring worse. Sleeping on your stomach can crane your neck and cause hip problems, which, in turn, can affect the quality of sleep itself.
Previous research also found that people who report sleeping on their sides were less likely than people who slept on their backs or stomachs to report waking up during the night due to pain in the neck or shoulder.
Wherever the research takes us next, here’s to a better sleep tonight—for your brain.
Read on for other ways to prevent Alzheimer’s and improve your brain health.