The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that adults get at least seven hours of sleep per night.1 This probably doesn’t come as a shock to you. But if you’re like nearly 40 percent of Americans, you’re not getting your prescribed full night of sleep.
Yeah, yeah. You’ve heard it before – we won’t beat a dead horse – but do you know why sleep is so essential to our mental health and well-being? It turns out that the benefits of a good night of rest go far beyond a refreshed feeling the following morning.
Poor Sleep Might Trigger Memory Loss
During the time we spend awake, a protein called beta amyloid builds up in the frontal cortex of our brains. Though you may have a positive association of protein as a builder of muscle and vital fuel, these beta amyloids have quite the opposite effect. In fact, recent studies have shown that beta amyloid buildup in the brain leads to memory impairment.2
This sleep-deprivation-linked protein is damaging to both short- and long-term mental health. In our day-to-day lives, beta amyloids block the deep restorative sleep that refreshes the brain. This means that sleep deprivation can be a dangerous self-reinforcing cycle which harms memory and recall abilities.
As if that’s not scary enough for the chronically under-rested, a new study shows a link between the plaque created by beta amyloids and Alzheimer’s disease. While researchers have long known that memory can be harmed by a lack of sleep, a new article3 in the journal Nature Neuroscience, proposes that poor sleep may be both an early indicator for, and contributor to, the degenerative disease.
Sleep… “It’s Like A Dishwasher” For The Brain
Though this may seem like a gloomy prospect, we shouldn’t lose hope. The solution comes naturally to us – as soon as we stop fighting it! When we sleep, our brains are pumped with cerebrospinal fluid. This fluid washes away waste proteins (such as beta amyloids) that build during the time we spend awake. “It’s like a dishwasher,” explains Dr. Maiken Nedergaard4, a sleep research pioneer and professor of neurosurgery at the University of Rochester.
A study5 conducted by Dr. Nedergaard actually discovered that when mice sleep, their brain cells shrink, allowing cerebrospinal fluid to circulate through what is known as the glymphatic pathway (which the central nervous system uses for waste clearance). During hours of wakefulness, the mice’s brain cells enlarged, shutting off the flow of the cerebrospinal fluids but enabling to creatures to engage with their surroundings in an alert manner.
This buildup of beta amyloids is why we feel less mentally sharp after a prolonged period without sleep. Without a good rinse of cerebrospinal fluids, our brains get totally muddled up. It’s no small matter – Dr. Nedergard’s team speculates6 that the buildup of waste that occurs in the brain while we are awake could be the reason that prolonged sleep deprivation can be fatal.
This One Sleep Trick Sweeps
The Brain Clean Of Toxins
So, now that you’re sold on the importance of sleep and ready to commit yourself to seven hours a night, it’s time for an extra credit assignment. As it turns out, sleep position can be a serious determinant of how effectively your brain refreshes itself during rest. If you’ve been falling asleep on your back or stomach, you might want to rethink your stance.
It’s lateral sleep, maybe not incidentally the most popular position among both humans and animals in the wild, that most effectively clears our brains of waste products7. A variety of studies have proven that the multitude of benefits offered by lateral sleep should not be overlooked.
For starters, side-sleepers are the least likely to be bothered by arm, shoulder, or neck pain during the night or upon waking up. These findings were published in an article8 in The Internet Journal of Allied Health Sciences and Practices, which theorized that lateral sleepers benefit from increased support to the spine and neck.
The same article also used magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, to observe gylmphatic pathways in rodents. By comparing lateral, prone (stomach), and supine (back) sleep, the researchers found that glymphatic transport was by far the most efficient in lateral sleepers. This means that by eliminating sleep disturbances through lateral sleep, we actually lessen our likelihood of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s.
You Really Can Sleep Your Way
To Better Brain Health
Between beta amyloids, cerebrospinal fluid, and gylmphatic pathways, the world of sleep is a lot more complicated than you may have once thought. But the takeaways are simple – don’t cheat yourself on sleep. The National Sleep Foundation recommends9 setting a sleep schedule, finding a relaxing bedtime ritual, and exercising daily as steps that make it easier to get your full rest. And don’t forget – sleep on your side for maximum health benefits.