How Your Sleep Position Can Impact Your Brain’s Waste Removal

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If you aren’t sleeping in the right position, you could be increasing your odds of developing Alzheimer’s and other neurological disorders later in life.

This shocking conclusion was the result of a study performed by researchers at Stony Brook University when studying the effects of sleeping positions on the removal of brain waste.

Before understanding how the research was conducted and what the findings can mean for your health, it’s first important to understand what brain waste is and how improper removal can negatively impact your health.

Brain Waste and the Devastating Role It Can Play

With the amount of work that your brain performs on a daily basis, it’s no wonder that there will be an excess of waste that requires removal. While our brains don’t have the luxuries of custodians and garbage collectors, they do have their own mechanism for cleaning, and that’s the glymphatic system.

An extensive and organized system of pipes that works to clear brain waste just as the lympathic system clears waste in the rest of the body, this system for waste removal was unknown until 2012 when a group of researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center made the discovery.

Simply put, brain waste is a combination of amyloids and tau proteins that have overstayed their welcome. The buildup of these improperly functioning proteins has been linked to Alzheimer’s and other neurological disorders and can have truly devastating effects.

The glymphatic system, which functions at all times during the day but which is most active during sleep, is what makes the removal of these proteins possible. Without this system in place, the non-soluble proteins would continue to buildup, leading to a plaque formation within our brain’s cells and wreaking havoc on our nervous system.

How the Research was Conducted

With the use of MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) and contrast dye, the researchers were able to locate the glympathic system and track the movement of its waste-clearing substance in the brains of anesthetized mice.

The mice were then manipulated into lying in one of three different positions — lateral (side), supine (on the back), and prone (on the stomach).

Researchers tracked the rates of waste removal based on these three positions, and the lateral position during sleep had an overwhelming advantage.

What this Discovery Means for You and How You Sleep

While this experiment was performed on mice and has yet to be done on human subjects, there are still some things that we can learn from the study’s conclusion.

The benefits of these findings were best explained by Dr. Nedergaard, a researcher from the University of Rochester and co-author of the study:

“Many types of dementia are linked to sleep disturbances, including difficulties in falling asleep. It is increasing[ly] 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.”

While there is still much research to be done, the conclusion of this study is clear:

“The analysis showed us consistently that glymphatic transport was most efficient in the [side] position when compared to the [back] or [stomach] positions,” said Dr. Benveniste.

The Future of Sleep and Brain Studies

While this new study may not be enough to convince diehard back and stomach sleepers to change their sleep positions, it does lead to future research questions and gives hope to those with a history of Alzheimer’s and similar disorders in their family.

The mysteries of the brain and nervous system are only now beginning to be solved — what this study and similar studies does is prove that each day we are one step closer to a fuller understanding of the human brain and how this knowledge can be used to fight the crippling and fatal effects of neurological diseases.