Improve Brain Health While You Sleep
Today we’re going to talk about sleeping positions for a healthier brain (brain health).
It’s been a really interesting couple of years in brain anatomy. That may not sound terribly exciting, but it actually has been a very interesting couple of years because some new things have been discovered in the brain that we used to believe were not there.
If you’ve ever heard of the lymphatic system, the lymphatic system is a part of the typical, what people will say is the immune system. It clears waste from the body and takes it into lymph nodes, where pathogens and bacteria can be destroyed and all that kind of cool stuff.
For all of human history, up until a couple of years ago, we used to believe that the lymphatic system for some reason kind of stopped and never actually reached the brain, which everyone thought was weird. As new technology has emerged, what we’ve suddenly discovered is that guess what?
We actually have a lymphatic system in the brain, and they put a G in front of it, so it’s called the glymphatic system because that’s attached to some of the names of some of the cells that are involved within the brain. Here’s why this is super important. Over the last 3 years, some research has been done on this, and what’s fascinating when you look at it is how the brain’s lymphatic system is designed to work.
The number one thing I will tell you is that it is functional mainly when you’re sleeping.
How Brain Health is Improved at Night
What is becoming popular thought, at least among sleep experts, is that one of the reasons that humans and animals need to sleep is so that our brains can detox, because what happens is we use our brain, sometimes we’ll build up these strange proteins and other things that when they grow in number and we’re unable to clear them, may show up in things like MS and Parkinson’s disease and other things like that.
So it’s kind of a strange realm right now that we don’t have a lot of great answers on. What we do know is that you need to have great sleeping in order to have great brain detoxification. That’s very, very important.
The second thing I wanted to talk about today is if that’s the case, is there a position in which sleeping seems to do a better job in helping brain clearance, and the answer is yes.
A study published last year did this cool dynamic MRI stuff where they were looking at actual fluid motion within the brain during the sleep cycle. What they found very clearly was that side sleeping, as opposed to sleeping on your back or your front, actually caused greater drainage of the waste products out of the brain.
Brain Health Rehab and Prevention (and Gut Health)
Right now, the researchers in that study are starting to recommend that treatment or even a part of prevention for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s may involve getting very, very specific about getting people to sleep on their sides.
Doctors have talked about this for many, many years because we also know that if you sleep on your left side, that will often reduce digestive symptoms. If you sleep on your right side, it will increase them.
There’s a lot of kind of strange stuff that goes into this, but because it’s my blog, I’m going to tell you what you should be working on. The basic is learn to sleep on your side, and if you’re going to sleep on your side, emphasize your left side. Now, how do you go about doing that? While sleeping, obviously you’re not awake, so it’s a little bit of a habitual deal you’ve got to work on.
There’s an old school method and there’s a new school method. The old school method for getting you to sleep on your side has been around a long time is to make it uncomfortable to do anything else. People would often tape tennis balls to them or put tennis balls somewhere in their clothes or in their bed, so if they wound up on their back, they were actually getting a reminder that this is an uncomfortable position, and that will cause them to roll onto their side.
Changing Old Sleep Habits for Brain Health
That’s old school. You can also put something in the middle of the bed that doesn’t allow you to flop over. You can try that if it works for you.
The other option in today’s world is pillows. When you talk to sleep experts, one of the things that they actually recommend that a lot of people don’t like sleeping on their side because they have poor mattress quality. On top of that, their body doesn’t feel supported, which is why they choose either their front or back. Using a big body pillow or multiple pillows placed so that your knees and everything else are more comfortable is often also a good way to start the side sleeping process.
The third thing I’m going to bring up in this is if you have a sleep issue, it’s probably also related to your breathing. One of the things that sleep apnea experts will tell you is that most people will default to the position in sleeping that allows them the greatest ability to breathe.
So a lot of people that struggle with side sleeping or back sleeping, it’s because the airways close down.
The Role of Respiration in Sleep Position & Brain Health
Most sleep apnea people will say if you have a really closed down airway, most people wind up sleeping on their stomach. I say all that just so that you can maybe self-identify and start to recognize that if you do have issues, you always wind up on your stomach or your back, you may also want to look into your breathing.
A lot of that can come from jaw position, throat strength, and just basic respiratory practices. If you want to know more about that, you can watch some of our other blogs.
So there you have it.
Think about sleeping on the left side.
It would be good for your brain, good for your gut, good for everything that you do.
Here are some references to jumpstart your research:
Benveniste, H. (2016) Glymphatic System May Play Key Role in Removing Brain Waste. Neurology Reviews, 24(10) p. 13.
Iliff, J. et al. (2014) Impairment of Glymphatic Pathway Function Promotes Tau Pathology after Traumatic Brain Injury. Journal of Neurosciene, 34(49) p. 16180–16193.
Lee, H., Xie, L., Yu, M., Kang, H., Feng, T., Deane, R., … & Benveniste, H. (2015). The effect of body posture on brain glymphatic transport. Journal of Neuroscience, 35(31), 11034-11044.
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