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Can Certain Sleeping Positions Prevent Brain Damage Better Than Others?

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Sufficient snoozing is a key ingredient for happiness and productivity, but it turns out how you sleep—not just how much—may impact the health of your brain in the years to come. In fact, sleeping on your side may help you avoid neurological diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's in the future, reports a new study in the Journal of Neuroscience. (Other positions have different perks, though. Find out the Strange Ways Sleeping Positions Affect Your Health.)

"The brain is one of the most metabolically active organs in the body," says lead study author Helene Benveniste, M.D., Ph.D., professor of anesthesiology and radiology at Stony Brook University in New York. Over the course of the day, clutter accumulates in our brains—what researchers call waste. When this clutter builds up, it can have serious long-term effects, including increasing your chances of developing seriously neurological diseases.

Sleeping, though, helps your body dispose of the waste. "The glymphatic pathway is the system responsible for clearing waste from the brain. It's almost like our brains need to prune," Benveniste explains. This pathway is designed in a very special way in that it works better under certain conditions. It specifically seems to clear waste better when you are asleep than when you are awake, and, according to her study, your sleeping position can also help it perform more efficiently. (Another surprise: How Your Sleep Style Affects Your Relationship.)

Benveniste's team analyzed the quality of sleep and performance of the glymphatic pathway in rats sleeping on their stomachs, backs, and sides. They found that the brain was about 25 percent more efficient at removing waste when the rats were sleeping on their sides. Interestingly, side sleeping is already the most popular position for most people, as two-thirds of Americans prefer to score shuteye in this position.

Emptying your brain waste more effeciently will help with neurological diseases down the road, but what about how well your brain works now? "We certainly do need our sleep to function properly but we don't know the short term effects yet," says Benveniste. (Optimize your z's benefit with 5 Ways to Sleep Well All Summer Long.)

If you're not already a side sleeper? "You're unconscious when you sleep, so you can't just say 'oh I'm going to sleep this way now' if that's not your natural tendency," says Benveniste. She suggests splurging on a special pillow that promotes side sleeping, like The Pillow Bar's l-shaped pillow ($326; bedbathandbeyond.com) or the Tempur-Pedic Tempur Side Sleeper Pillow ($130; bedbathandbeyond.com), which provide support for your shoulder and neck. Want a low-cost option? Stack your pillows in a way that it makes falling asleep on your side more comfortable, like putting a pillow between your legs or sleeping with one next to your body. 

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