NeuroNation \ Healthy Living, Mind and Brain

The right sleeping position will help your brain detox

Long has it been known that the amount of sleep we get is important for our mental health. For people with insomnia this has been quite an irritating revelation. Better news however come from recent studies that now reveal that something as simple as the position we sleep in plays a crucial role in our mental well-being.

The amount of sleep we get and the quality of it is a central component in keeping us fit and healthy. Everyone who has experienced a bad night’s sleep knows that the sleep-deprived mood we are in the next day isn’t exactly pleasant [1].

On top of that, the long-term effects of sleep deficiency are just as bad for our health. Chronic insomnia can for example increase the risk of Alzheimer’s later in life. In the U.S., 40 million people are diagnosed each year with a chronic sleep disorder, and an additional 20 million individuals at some point will experience significant troubles sleeping, says the Centre of Disease Control and Prevention. We have looked at what studies say about why sleep is so important for us. Here is what we found:

Our sleep’s cleaning squad

When we sleep, our inner cleaning squad goes to work and removes all toxins that have accumulated in our brain throughout the day. The toxins are being transported out of our body through the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). Particularly, substances such as amyloid, tau proteins, and other molecules – which can lead to Alzheimer’s if allowed to build up in the brain – are eliminated through the route of our CSF. In order for this cleaning process to be successful and rid our body of all waste substances, we need to get a sufficient amount of good quality sleep. So far, so good. But where does our sleeping position come in?

The position we sleep in

Dr. Helene Benveniste and her colleagues of Stony Brook University School of Medicine initiated a study to explore how the position we sleep in affects our brain and the process of ridding the body of metabolic waste [2]. Mice were used to examine the glymphatic pathway – the route which cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) filters through the body and is exchanged with interstitial fluid (ISF) to clear waste. During sleep, these glymphatic pathways are very active, ridding the body of toxins, such as amyloid, tau proteins, and other molecules.

These mice were put to sleep on their side, back, or stomachs using anesthesia, and their glymphatic pathways were then examined using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). As it turns out, the mice’s metabolic waste was cleared most efficiently when they were put to sleep on their side. This shows that sleeping on our side is the best way to stimulate our brain’s nightly detoxification process.

Tips for a healthy sleep

Apart from our sleeping position, there are a few easy things that can help us have a better and more relaxing sleep:

Stay away from your smart phone in bed: A study revealed that people who use their smart phones or tablets before going to sleep have a worse quality of sleep than people who do not use their smart phones before bed. The study found that the problem is in fact the light of the tablet or smart phone that negatively affects our sleep quality [3].

  • Don’t drink alcohol before bed: Contrary to what we might think, alcohol can actually damage our sleep quality as it robs our body of REM sleep and other deeper stages of our sleep cycle that are responsible for ensuring that we wake up feeling rested.
  • Regular exercise: Additionally to all other heath benefits we already know of, regular exercise also helps us sleep better, feel less depressed, and have more energy. If you find it difficult to exercise right before bed, try squeezing in a morning run or a lunchtime yoga class. It doesn’t matter when you exercise as long as you do it on a regular basis.
  • Practice meditation:  Regular meditation is a powerful tool for insomniacs. The ‘why’ part is still largely unknown by scientists, but we do know that meditation sends signals to the sympathetic nervous system’s “fight or flight” response, commanding it to relax.
  • 4-7-8 Method: According to Dr. Weil, this breathing technique can make a person fall asleep in less than one minute. We created an infographic about this trick to fall asleep.

A healthy brain makes sleep a priority

There are many ways to keep our brain in good shape – but sleep is one that comes naturally without any effort. Get a good night’s sleep, and try to optimize the quality of your slumber, to keep your brain healthy and decrease the risk of developing neurological diseases in later years.

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1: Walker, M. P. (2009). The Role of Sleep in Cognition and Emotion. The Year in Cognitive Neuroscience 2009, 168-197.

2: Lee, H., Xie, L., Yu, M., Kang, H., Feng, T., Deane, R., Logan, J., Nedergaard, M., & Benveniste, H. (2015). The Effect of Body Posture on Brain Glymphatic Transport. The Journal of Neuroscience, 35(31), 11034-11044.

3: Chang, A.-M., Aeschbach, D., Duffy, J. F., & Czeislter, C. A. (2014). Evening use of light-emitting eReaders negatively affects sleep, circadian timing, and next-morning alertness. PNAS, 112(4), 1232-1237.

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