High-quality sleep is important for many facets of our health and functions of our bodies, but a recent study has just uncovered one more way healthy sleep can contribute to a healthy life.
Researchers at Stony Brook University studied MRI brain scans of rats and discovered that the rats’ glymphatic pathways—the routes by which the brain clears out its waste—were most effective when the rats slept on their sides, rather than their backs or their bellies. The team believes that these findings are likely to translate to humans as well.
“The study adds further support to the concept that sleep is a biological function to ‘clean up’ the mess that accumulates while we are awake,” says Dr. Helene Benveniste. “Many types of dementia are linked to sleep disturbances, including difficulties in falling asleep. It is increasingly acknowledged that these sleep disturbances may accelerate memory loss in Alzheimer’s disease. Our finding brings new insight into this topic by showing it is also important what position you sleep in.”
When we sleep, our cerebrospinal fluid filters through our brain and comes into contact with interstitial fluid, where it picks up waste products and carries them out of the brain. If the brain is unable to clear out its waste, amyloid and tau proteins build up in the brain and may cause dementia. Picking the right sleep position appears to be one way in which we can help out brain clear out waste and prevent dementia.
“The analysis showed us consistently that glymphatic transport was most efficient in the lateral position when compared to the supine or prone positions,” says Dr. Benveniste. “Because of this finding, we propose that the body posture and sleep quality should be considered when standardizing future diagnostic imaging procedures to assess CSF-ISF transport in humans and therefore the assessment of the clearance of damaging brain proteins that may contribute to or cause brain diseases.”
Luckily, side sleeping is the most common sleep position, so this news will come as a welcome relief to many sleepers. Of course, sleeping on your side isn’t a foolproof way to avoid developing dementia, but it can’t hurt to give your brain that little bit of extra help it needs to clear out waste.
But if sleeping on your side just isn’t working, experts recommend sleeping on your back rather than your stomach. Aside from not allowing the brain to clear out its waste products, stomach sleeping also puts pressure on the muscles and joints. Many stomach sleepers wake up feeling tingly or numb, which can lead to more permanent damage over time. Back sleeping is also better for the alignment of the spine, which contributes to overall health.
There are other things you can do to improve your sleep too. You may want to try relaxing for some time before bed by taking a bath or reading a book. If you mind races before bed, write a to-do list for the next day. You can also try sleeping alone, sleeping in a dark and cool space, and making sure you give yourself plenty of time to sleep.
Whatever sleep position you choose, be sure to support it well with the proper mattress and pillows. If you’re waking up sore, tired, or unrefreshed, it’s time to change something! Your body will thank you!
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?