We’re all familiar with the havoc a poor night’s sleep can wreak on our health and well-being. Memory and concentration are compromised, we are physically fatigued, emotionally frayed, and everything feels a bit more difficult. An animal-based study published August 5, 2015 in The Journal of Neuroscience showed that side sleeping may play a role in how rapidly our brains age.
Activating the Glymphatic System
Sleep truly is the body and brain’s time to rest and rejuvenate. Your brain’s detoxification mechanisms kick in to overdrive when you sleep. Brain cells called glial cells control your brain’s toxic waste removal system—the glymphatic system. Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) cascades through your brain’s tissues, flushing out toxins from the brain and back into the circulatory system, where the waste is then processed and eventually eliminated by the liver. Included in this waste are dangerous amyloid beta proteins, a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease.
When you sleep, the glymphatic system is 10 times more active than when you are awake. It also works more effectively because your brain cells shrink by 60% when you sleep. New research shows that the position you sleep in can also enhance the ability of your glymphatic system to eliminate noxious elements from the brain.
Side Sleepers Celebrate!
Most healthcare experts advocate sleeping on your back as the most advantageous to overall health. It helps protect your back, spine, and neck, and protects your skin from accelerated wrinkling. When it comes to defending against age-related brain decline, however, side sleeping might be your best bet.
A research team led by led by Helene Benveniste, a professor of anesthesiology at Stony Brook University, NY measured activity of the glymphatic pathways in anesthetized rodents using MRI scans and computer modeling. Researchers took measurements with the rodents positioned on their sides, stomachs, and backs. Results showed that when the rodents lied on their sides, the glymphatic system functioned the most optimally at eliminating toxins, including harmful amyloid beta proteins.
Prof. Benveniste concludes:
“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.”
Sleep Is the Most Important Factor
Regardless of what position you choose, getting enough sleep, especially in your senior years, is the most important factor for brain and body health. A 2015 study published in Nature Neuroscience showed that cognitively healthy older adults who enjoyed undisrupted sleep had fewer amyloid plaques in the brain than did cognitively normal older adults suffering from interrupted sleep. Sleep disruption also led to poorer performance on memory tests.
Amyloid accumulation in the brain may provoke subtle changes before escalating into full-scale Alzheimer’s or dementia. A different study in the journal Neurology showed that lack of sleep may also contribute to a more rapidly shrinking brain in adults 60 years and older.
Sleep can be elusive. Experts recommend implementing healthy sleep habits. Establishing a routine, such as no viewing of electronics (TV, computer, phone) two hours before bed, relaxing in a warm bath or with a fiction book, and always going to bed and waking up at relatively the same times.