With sleep taking up roughly a third of each day, it’s important to do it well. As you probably know first-hand, sleeping well can be easier said than done. Even in the best of times, sound sleep can be a challenge and the past few years have only added to it. While there are almost countless ways for a good night’s rest to be interrupted, perhaps one of the most overlooked is sleep position. If your body’s not in a comfortable, nicely aligned position, not only may you struggle to get your 40 winks, you may find other aspects of your health impacted as well. Here’s how to chose a good sleeping position to help make your nights as restful as possible:
Stiffness and pain mean it’s time to reset.
While you sleep, your body does its repairs, clears out cellular debris and makes and releases special proteins that can help fight inflammation and infection. So, the better you sleep, the better for your overall health. If you’re having sleep problems, one easy diagnostic approach is to consider how the actual mechanics of your body in the bed make you feel when you get up. Is your spine aligned, and in a comfortable, neutral position? If not, it will likely make itself known with morning stiffness or pain in areas like your neck, shoulders, back, and arms.
Proper sleeping position is a bit subjective.
The optimal sleeping position is somewhat subjective –some positions that feel good to you might not feel great for your partner. For example, a pregnant person may not be comfortable sleeping on their belly; those with back problems may like belly-sleeping just fine. But it’s always important to listen closely to your body. If you’re frequently greeting the day with an assortment of aches and pains, that’s your cue to consider changing the position that may be triggering the trouble. The good news is, with a little training (or retraining) and a pillow or two to help you adjust, you can.
Stomach sleeping comes with a few sleep-disrupting downsides.
While we wouldn’t say its flat out ‘wrong’ to sleep on your belly, it is among the least common positions and the least supportive of healthy spine alignment. It may well be interfering with the quality of your sleep even if you think it feels comfortable. While stomach sleeping can open up airways and help tame snoring, it also tends to make your body work a bit harder to suck in air while you’re holding your neck in an unnaturally twisted or over-extended position. What’s more, stomach sleeping is hard on your face, with all your head weight (roughly 10 pounds!) pressing into your pillow night after night, contributing to the development of facial wrinkles.
Not ready to turn over a new sleeping leaf? For stomach sleepers, experts suggest going pillow-free, or using a very thin one to tame neck strain. If needed, you can also add a small pillow under each hip to help support your spine.
Back sleeping makes spine alignment – and breathing – easier.
In terms of popularity, back sleeping comes in ahead of stomach sleeping but behind side sleeping (more on that later). There are several variations on the back sleeping theme, with the two most common being the straight up and down, all-in-a-line ‘soldier’ style, and the arms and legs outstretched (often akimbo) ‘starfish’ position, which does take up quite a bit of mattress space (just ask their bed mates).
On the plus side, back sleepers enjoy more evenly distributed body weight, which reduces pressure on the back, spine and neck, compared to stomach sleeping. Back sleeping encourages better alignment of the spine and is considered the best choice for neck pain sufferers, particularly when you add some neck support to your pillow – we like to do that with a small, rolled up towel. You can also pick up a specialized pillow with built-in neck support and a well to cradle your head.
Yes, a bit of bed-head may be a minor downside to sleeping on your back, but less back pain and fewer wrinkles more than compensate. Got nasal congestion? Back sleeping can help here too, enabling easier airflow and sinus drainage.
Not everyone should sleep on their backs.
For those who snore or have sleep apnea, back sleeping can spell trouble. While you’re on your back, the soft tissue in your throat relaxes and may collapse, preventing proper airflow, so your body has to keep waking itself up to get the air it needs. Left untreated, those moments, or ‘apneas,’ that interrupt sleep make for a lousy night’s sleep and can have severe consequences for your long-term health – think, increased risk hypertension, diabetes, heart attack, stroke and cognitive issues –so don’t take snoring or apnea lightly. Another potential downside for back sleeping: some preliminary animal studies suggests back sleepers may be less adept at clearing out cellular debris from the brain, which may contribute to more rapid brain aging and cognitive decline.
Back sleeping may also be far from ideal for pregnant people, as the position adds pressure on the heart. Most doctors recommend side sleeping instead, and preferably on the left side, to help facilitate blood flow to the fetus. If you are troubled by acid reflux and/or GERD, you too should probably avoid back sleeping, as lying totally flat can encourage flare-ups.
OK, but what if you’re an extra hard-core, snoring back sleeper?
Get a helping hand to help you switch up your sleeping position(s) from time to time. Gadgets like the Smart Nora, ZEEQ Smart Pillow, and Philips SmartSleep Snoring Relief Band detect snoring and either create gentle movement to prompt you to shift positions (the ZEEQ and Philips SmartSleep) or use a small pump to actually change the shape of your pillow to make that shift for you (Nora).
And if your snoring is driving your partner bananas, you may be able to get some relief by subtly raising the level of your head to help open your airways. You can do this by either by adding a pillow or adding an adjustable base that can create a minor (but effective) incline in your mattress. These are nice, inexpensive alternatives to investing in a mattress that can be elevated on one side.
Side sleeping works best for most.
Not to play favorites here but side sleeping is the most common sleeping position and the one least likely to cause you trouble. It makes breathing easier, whether you have breathing issues or not. It promotes proper spinal alignment. Got a back that’s getting on in years? Side sleeping can help you sleep more comfortably by reducing pressure on the back as spinal flexibility wanes.
But, which side works better for what? For those with heart issues, sleeping on the right side tends to have a more positive impact on circulation and eases breathing, whereas those with acid reflux tend to experience fewer symptoms and improved digestion sleeping on the left, and that’s a good side for pregnant people too.
As far as who shouldn’t side sleep, those with tight shoulders or shoulder pain may choose to avoid it, or switch sides often to mitigate any soreness or stiffness. But generally speaking, one side isn’t ‘better’ than the other – each side has its strengths. Above all, listen to your body: if you’re waking up raring to go and pain-free, you’re doing it right and have found your sleep sweet spot.
Ultimately, the “right” side for you is the one that doesn’t cause you pain, exacerbate any existing health conditions or trigger new ones!
Stomach, side or back – your mattress matters a lot too!
No sleep position will be a good one if your mattress has seen better days. That means, it’s more than 7 -10 years old; it’s got lumps or divots; you’ve noticed that it’s no longer supportive; or it’s sleeping hotter than usual (in part because of all the organic materials we shed and our mattresses soak up), then it’s time to start the hunt for a new mattress.
When you find one you like, be sure to try it for at least 30 nights at home, in real life conditions – not just a 5-minute lie down in the store. If you don’t need a new one just yet, then until you do, encase your existing mattress in a breathable protector, and vacuum your mattress occasionally, to keep it clean and relatively organic material-free.
Position yourself with good pillows.
Much like your mattress, a good pillow is crucial for spinal alignment, which in turn leads to less aches and pains, which in turn leads to less interrupted sleep (not to mention better quality of life). And, if we’re being honest, most of us keep our pillows for far too long – so if you have a few that you cant actually recall when you bought them, it likely time to upgrade your supply.
When you lie on a pillow, it should support your neck and keep it in a straight line with your spine. Don’t focus on finding a pillow for the “type” of sleeper you are (side, back, stomach)—as most of us wind up switching sleep positions about 20 times a night. Your pillow should support you no matter how you’re sleeping on it. Where to begin your pillow search? Two great resources for finding reviews of the best bed-related gear are thesleepjudge.com and tuck.com.