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Sharp Health News

Can the way you sleep affect the health of your brain?

Sept. 21, 2015

Sleep positions and your health

We all know the benefits of a good night’s sleep. Improved mood, clearer thoughts and more energy come to mind. But did you know that how you sleep might also make a difference?

Researchers at Stony Brook University in New York found that sleeping on your side, rather than on your back or stomach, may more effectively remove your brain’s “waste” and reduce the chance you’ll develop Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and other neurological illnesses.

In a study performed on rats, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) was used to examine the glymphatic pathways to determine which sleep position most efficiently clears brain waste that builds up when we are awake. Brain waste is made up of amyloid and tau proteins that can negatively affect the brain’s ability to process information. Amyloid and tau proteins are linked to the development of degenerative neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s disease.

The study’s findings show that when the anesthetized rats were placed in the lateral (side) position, brain waste was cleared more efficiently compared to when they were in a supine (on their backs) or prone (on their stomach) position.

According to Dr. Victoria Sharma, medical director of the Sharp Grossmont Hospital Sleep Disorders Center, it may be too early to tell whether sleep position can affect our chance of developing neurological disease. However, she agrees the study brings up a fascinating concept.

“If the same is true in humans, it could — in theory — change your risk of developing neurological disease,” she said. “Animals and humans have evolved to behave a certain way to increase survival. Besides a potential increase in waste removal in the brain, humans tend to have less obstructive sleep apnea in the lateral position, which could certainly increase survival. So, perhaps there are many reasons why lateral sleep may be preferable.”

Although Dr. Sharma does not think treatment for Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s will be altered on the basis of this study, she agrees more research must be done to correlate waste removal due to lateral sleep and the development of neurological disease in humans.

If you aren’t already sleeping on your side, which happens to be the most common sleep position in both humans and animals, you can train yourself to sleep in a lateral position. While you might be making it easier for your brain to eliminate waste buildup, getting adequate sleep each night can also help you avoid other health problems including cardiovascular disease, obesity and diabetes.

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