Sleep on Your Side to ‘Clean’ Your Brain

And other startling discoveries that can help you get better shut-eye this year

So that we may rest more easily in this new year, it’s worth noting some of the most recent discoveries about sleep and health. There is fresh understanding about sleep mechanisms and new hope for the chronically sleepless.

Some new discoveries also fly in the face of currently popular dogma about sleep patterns in Western society.

Here are the top five sleep stories from the past year that will help most of us this year.

1: Side sleeping sweeps away brain waste.
Scientists have described how fluids wash through the brain during sleep, cleaning away toxins and waste products, the buildup of which has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease and other neurologic conditions.

Investigators at Stony Brook University School of Medicine and University of Rochester examined how sleep positions influenced this process. They found the glymphatic transport system responsible for this “wash down” process works most efficiently when animal subjects were sleeping in the lateral position (on their sides) rather than on their backs or stomachs.

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One investigator, Maiken Nedergaard, commented, “It is interesting that the lateral sleep position is already the most popular in humans and animals — even in the wild — and it appears we have adapted (it) to most efficiently clear our brain of the metabolic waste products that built up while we are awake.”

2: Maybe we are getting enough sleep.
Over the past 10 years we’ve heard plenty about the terrible effects of sleep deprivation. We have become convinced that we need eight hours of sleep to stay healthy and be at our best. Data from the American Cancer Society and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that most Americans are not getting nearly enough sleep to steer clear of apparently dire consequences. Technology, our 24-7 lifestyles and the overabundance of light and distraction are called out as the main culprits.

Yet a new report, in the October issue of Current Biology, suggests people in high-speed, high-tech societies are getting about the same amount of sleep as our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

University of California, Los Angeles neuroscientist Jerome Siegel concluded that after recording the sleep patterns of preindustrial communities in South America and Africa. People living in these remote villages, unexposed to excess light, electronic gadgets, commute traffic and work stress, spent 6.9 to 8.5 hours in bed each night, logging actual sleep durations of 5.7 to 7.2 hours a night, about the same as their supposedly sleep-deprived Western counterparts. They did not report insomnia. They didn’t even have a word for it.

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Also, falling temperatures were found to be at least as important as light fluctuations to regulate sleep.

While the study didn’t attempt to link short sleep hours to the medical conditions that are present in undeveloped communities, the findings may tip the way sleep experts think about sleep requirements and how best to meet them.

3. Use those oms for zzzs.
Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder in America, says the National Sleep Foundation. Defined as difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep or feeling refreshed from sleep, insomnia pushes people to try to find the right treatments. Drugs, schedule changes and cognitive behavioral therapy are among the most common strategies.

A team of Southern California researchers discovered mindfulness meditation may also be useful after only six weeks of practice. The small study published in the February 2015 issue of JAMA Internal Medicine compared six weeks of meditation training to six weeks of instruction on healthy sleep habits. Study participants were middle-aged and elder adults who had longstanding insomnia and had never had a steady meditation practice before. They met for two hours, once a week for six weeks, and were taught mind-calming exercises focusing on breathing and awareness. Many medical schools including Harvard, Stanford and MIT now suggest mindfulness meditation for patients and students alike as a relatively simple, non-invasive technique to improve sleep and reduce stress.

4: New sleep aid mimics narcolepsy.
Pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. announced last February that a new insomnia drug, suvorexant, will be available in the U.S., under the brand name Belsomra. Suvorexant is the first drug to target the neurotransmitter orexin. Orexin’s job in the brain is to promote wakefulness. Suvorexant blocks this action, helping insomniacs fall asleep more easily and stay asleep more reliably.

Interestingly, it is a lack of orexin that causes narcolepsy, a condition that leads to falling asleep at unexpected times. Another feature of narcolepsy is a sudden muscle weakness called cataplexy. Intermittent leg weakness is among the listed possible side effects of suvorexant, as well.

In 2016, with nearly a year of experience in the U.S. market, we can expect more real-world reports on how well this new drug works and what its true safety profile will be. 

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5: Sleep deprivation makes the world seem more threatening.
Whether we require 6.5 or 9 hours of sleep to stay healthy and effective, we all know how it feels when we haven’t had enough. We are tired and cranky.

A study from the University of California, Berkeley in 2015 showed that when sleep deprived, we’re also less adept at telling friends from foes. Professor Matthew Walker, the senior author, explained one of the core principles of emotional intelligence is the ability to read others’ facial expressions to determine when they’re happy, sad, confused, angry or even menacing.

Subjects were shown pictures of many different facial expressions while their heart rates were monitored and their brains scanned in a fMRI machine. After a full night of sleep, the participants were able to distinguish between friendly and fearsome faces. Their brains and hearts reacted differently and appropriately to each. After 24 hours of being awake, the same individuals had lost this discerning ability. They were more likely to interpret faces, even the friendly ones, as threatening.

This may be an important consideration when the world seems increasingly dangerous and at a time when our societies are being challenged to meet, include and live peacefully with others whose faces are not familiar to us.

Patty Tucker, a medical practitioner for over two decades, has specialized in sleep medicine since 2001.

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