Sleeping in This Position Reduces Your Alzheimer's Risk, Study Says


Some people know which position always works best for helping themselves fall asleep. For others, it can take some tossing and turning before you find just the right comfort level to doze off. And while it's not uncommon to have woken up with back or neck pain from resting the wrong way, most assume the best way to sleep is whatever makes you most comfortable. But research has shown that sleeping in certain positions can benefit your brain by reducing your risk of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease. Read on to see how you might want to be catching your forty winks.

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Sleeping on your side can help your brain clear itself of waste most efficiently.

In a study published in The Journal of Neuroscience in August 2015, a team of researchers from Stony Brook University examined how different sleeping positions might affect the brain's glymphatic pathway, which is a system that works to clean out waste chemicals from the brain similar to the way the body's lymphatic system clears waste from other organs. To test their theory, the team used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to scan the brains of rats sleeping in a lateral position on their side, prone position face down, or supine position face up on their backs.

Results found that sleeping in the lateral position allowed the system to work more efficiently at clearing waste than sleeping in the prone or supine position. "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," Helene Benveniste, MD, PhD, the study's lead researcher, said in a statement.

The reduction of brain waste can decrease the likelihood of Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease.

The results shed light on how the brain uses the time while we sleep to clear itself of potentially harmful chemicals, including amyloid and tau proteins that can lead to neurological conditions when they build up. Experts say this means that while resting in the lateral position has already been shown to provide support for the spine and reduce acid reflux, it could be good for brain health as well.

"Sleeping on your side has been found to be the most beneficial position for your brain, with the position helping your brain to clear out interstitial waste faster than other positions," Narwan Amini, an expert with sleep health website Eachnight, told The Sun. "This leads to multiple benefits including potentially reducing the risk of developing neurological diseases such as Parkinson's or Alzheimer's."

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Further testing in humans is needed to better understand the study's results.

Benveniste concludes that while similar testing in humans would likely yield similar results, it is necessary to fully understand how sleep affects the glymphatic system. Still, others involved with the research pointed out the potential importance of the study's findings.

"It is interesting that the lateral sleep position is already the most popular in humans and most animals—even in the wild—and it appears that we have adapted the lateral sleep position to most efficiently clear our brain of the metabolic waste products that built up while we are awake," Maiken Nedergaard, MD, one of the study's co-authors, said in a statement. "The study therefore adds further support to the concept that sleep subserves a distinct biological function of sleep and that is to 'clean up' the mess that accumulates while we are awake."

"Many types of dementia are linked to sleep disturbances, including difficulties in falling asleep," she added. "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."

Experts say getting comfortable sleeping on your side can sometimes require the right kind of pillow.

If you're looking to change your preferred sleeping position, it may not be as easy for some as just rolling over: Having the right setup for your bed can also have a noticeable effect on transitioning to being a side sleeper.

"Pillows are serious sleep products that have a big impact on both your sleep and your overall health," Michael Breus, author of The Sleep Doctor's Diet Plan, told Prevention. "The main purpose of a pillow is to align the cervical spine [the part in your neck] so there is no flexion [bend] or tension [muscle tightness] in the neck during sleep."

Breus warns that pillows that are too thick or thin can throw your body out of alignment while you're drifting off, noting it's essential for your head not to be tilted up or down while you're resting. To check if everything lines up, he suggests having your sleep partner or a friend check your position while lying dine to see if everything is straight. "Pick a pillow thick enough to fill the space between your ear and shoulder [5 to 6 inches]," he recommends, adding that if you still notice neck pain, "try a scoop, S-shape, or neck bolster."

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