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Did you know that we spent a third of our lives asleep? That means if you live to 75, you’ll have spent 25 of those tucked up in bed. For something we spend so much time doing, it’s important to make sure that we’re doing it right. It might seem strange to consider something that we do naturally ‘right’ or ‘wrong,' but there are definite benefits and disadvantages to how exactly we sleep.
Poor sleep can lead to a lot of health issues, with recent research suggesting links to dementia, diabetes, heart disease and many other problems. If you are having real issues such as insomnia or sleep apnea, it’s worth seeing a sleep specialist. In the meantime, let’s look at something we can adapt ourselves – the position you sleep in.
The Most Common Sleep Positions
On Your Back
Sleeping on your back is often seen as the best for the spine since you’re not curled up into any strange positions. It also means you can take full advantage of the mattress’ support – assuming, of course, you have a good mattress! However, it’s not quite as simple as you might think. Firstly, to get the most out of this, you need to be completely flat – and that means no pillows. Removing the pillows turns this into quite an uncomfortable position for many people, often increasing neck pain rather than reducing it.
Secondly, gravity comes into play straight down on your tongue and airway. This pressure often leads to snoring, so while your spine might be unhappy, your partner probably won’t be.
Back sleeping has its benefits, and we’ll look more at what conditions or issues are best helped by it, but don’t forget that it’s not necessarily the perfect method some people would claim.
On Your Stomach
Sleeping on your stomach is pretty much the worst of the three positions, removing any support for the spine, stretching the neck an uncomfortable amount, and limiting breathing. If you’re a heavy snorer, you might have been recommended this – and it can help – but it’s worth knowing what other issues it could bring out.
That said; don’t let it worry you if you find you have to lay on your front in order to get to sleep. The position we start the night in isn’t usually the one we spend the whole night in. If you’re waking in a different position, or without back/neck issues, then it’s almost certainly not a problem. However, if you do find yourself in pain or shortness of breath, then it might be worth trying to change to one of the other positions.
On Your Side
A vast majority of people say that they sleep on their sides, making this the most popular position. Or at least, the most popular position they remember – after all, we move around during the night! Sleeping on the side is considered a safe and comfortable position, with some exceptions. If you sleep on your left, you’ll be increasing circulation to the heart and reducing heartburn. You might, however, be putting some pressure on your stomach and lungs.
In order to avoid this, you’ll want to switch sides throughout the night (something most of us will do naturally anyway). A more mundane, but irritating, issue is that lying on your side can leave your arm numb – or worse, with pins and needles! Switching sides can reduce this, but it’s worth keeping an eye on. In most cases, it will simply be a mild inconvenience, but if it becomes an ongoing long-term problem, you might need to change how you sleep.
Finding the Ideal Position for Your Problem
We’ve talked a lot about potentially needing to change the way you sleep, but not necessarily detailed why. We can’t objectively say ‘this position is best,' since there are so many variables, but we can say ‘this position is best for…’ And that’s what we’re going to do! Let’s take a look at some common problems, and how changing your sleep position can help.
This can be a tricky one, as there are a few different ‘types’ of neck pain and you can’t apply the same solution to them all. The first thing to check is whether the neck pain is linked to your sleep habits – do you wake up with it, or does it come on later in the day? If you wake up just fine but feel tense and sore by the end of the day, it probably isn’t your sleep habits but rather, how tense you get throughout the day! However, if you find it is at its worst after waking up, it’s time to reassess how you sleep.
Firstly, identify where the pain is. Do you wake with a stiff neck that feels strained, as though your neck has been stretched into an uncomfortable position? If this is the case, you may want to try back sleeping, as it is the most neutral position, and puts the least strain on your neck. If you struggle with this, you might need to switch to side sleeping and adapt your pillow. You want to ensure the pillow is higher under your neck than your head – if the pillow is too stiff, or too high, it will keep your neck ‘active’ overnight, rather than allowing it to relax.
Rather than a stiff neck, do you find that you get a sharp, throbbing pain? If this is the case, the issue might well be at the base of the neck or shoulders – a quick feel should be able to notice any obvious knots. If this is the case, it’s probably to do with the position your shoulders are in. You may want to switch to back sleeping in order to avoid adding pressure to them or try resting your arm between two pillows with your head on top of them if you still prefer side sleeping.
If neither of these solutions work, you might need to consider the next point – it may well be something else that is radiating pain into your neck.
Let’s start quickly with what ‘kyphosis’ is – in the simplest of terms. It’s the curve in the middle of your back. A little bit of a curve is fine, but if it is excessive, you’ll likely run into issues. Unfortunately, if it gets to the point where it is a huge problem, there are not many ‘fixes’ for it – prevention is the best solution for this. Similar to neck pain, you’ll want to make sure your pillow is not worsening the issue – an orthopedic pillow should help, as long as you also ensure you have good sleeping habits.
Once you have the pillow sorted, you want to position it correctly. Many people sleep with it below their shoulders, or even with the whole upper body on it! Ideally, you want it below your head and neck – not your shoulders at all. Once again, back sleeping is ideal for kyphosis as it forces you to straighten your spine, but if you can’t manage this, then side sleeping can be adapted to suit. The important part is not to curve yourself in – so if you sleep curled up/in a fetal position, you’ll need to learn to straighten out. We’ll have more tips on this later.
It might seem strange that the position you sleep in could affect your anxiety, but you’d be surprised! In this case, stomach, back, and side can all work but need some adjusting. When we have anxiety, we can often end up in a cycle – we feel anxious, so we tense, and in feeling tense, we increase our anxiety.
Sleeping in a position that makes your tense can increase your anxiety, and this can loop back around into sleeping in a tense position. Tight, curled-up side sleepers are the worst for this – for back and stomach sleepers you can relax into space, rather than keeping your muscles ‘active’.
Try to relax your muscles as you get comfortable consciously – this will make the most difference to your sleeping habits.
The main way to avoid pain during the night for sciatica is to avoid putting pressure on the sciatic nerve. This nerve runs from the lower back, down each leg and through to the feet – so it can be quite tricky to avoid! You’ll also want to look into other things that can help, such as a harder mattress. If you sleep best on your back, this can be adapted to be less painful by placing a pillow underneath your knees.
If you prefer to sleep on your side, you’ll need to do a bit more work to make it suit you. Ideally, you want to bend your top near up towards your head and place some pillows between the knees until you feel comfortable. Both of these methods involve lessening the pressure on the nerve, and it’s worth trying both to see which is better for you.
If you have issues with digestion, you can adjust how you sleep to help. To start with, try and avoid eating within two hours of going to bed – especially spicy or fatty foods.
This will reduce the amount of work your digestive system will be doing overnight, which makes it easier to accommodate digestion issues. The key trick here is to sleep specifically on your left-hand side.
This has been proven to reduce heartburn symptoms, and you can improve this even more by elevating your head. An often suggested alternative is sleeping on your stomach, but, as mentioned previously, this can create more problems than it solves.
Finally, let’s consider the ideal sleep position for pregnancy. One of the three can be ruled out very easily – sleeping on your stomach becomes near impossible, especially in later months. Sleeping on your back can be more comfortable, but it is theorized that the pressure of the baby can reduce the blood flow to the heart, and thus, the supply to the baby.
However, there are only limited studies on this. It can lead to more disturbed sleep as well, due to the increased chance of snoring and sleep apnea. Generally speaking, the recommended position is sleeping on the left side specifically – the right-hand side can have similar if lesser, blood-flow issues than sleeping on the back. Another major advantage of side sleeping is that you can support your belly and legs with pillows, to reduce strain and pressure.
How To Change
We’ve talked a lot about changing your sleeping position, but not so much about how to. Here are some top tips to help.
Assess Your Bed
We often sleep in a way that suits the bed we’re in, and this can lead to bad habits or just certain ways of getting comfortable.
It’s worth considering if there are any physical changes you could make to your bed to allow yourself to sleep differently. Consider whether you need more back support – if so, a harder mattress would be good for you.
You might also want to get a larger one if you find that you curl up out of space issues. Spend some time considering whether your bed really suits your needs, or if you’ve just been ‘making do’ – it can make a huge difference.
Add Some Pillows
When we say add some pillows, we don’t just mean under your head. Making sure you have the right amount of neck and head support is important, but it’s not the only place to think about. Adding support to your lower back, knees, or stomach can help adjust you to a new sleeping position – for example, if you find sleeping on your side uncomfortable due to how your legs sit, adding a pillow between them can reduce the pressure on your lower leg and help raise your hip.
This is particularly useful for people with pain problems, as the additional support can reduce strain and help the body adapt to a new, better-suited sleep position.
Prepare Yourself to Sleep
This might sound obvious, but ensuring you’re tired before attempting to sleep is key to changing positions. If you lie in bed awake, you’re more likely to notice discomfort and go back to your previous method, so being thoroughly tired can prevent this. Tricks such as having a hot bath, drinking warm milk or only getting in bed when you need to sleep can encourage this behavior – and you can even use these methods to change the time you go to bed too.
Finally, it’s all about consistency and persistence. It’s not an instant fix, but if you repeatedly start the night in the better position, reinforce this with extra support and on waking, readjust if needed, your body will adapt.
Hopefully, you’ll now have a better idea of what each position’s advantages and disadvantages are, how best to sleep for certain issues, and how to adapt your sleep position accordingly. Happy sleeping!
Sources and References:
- Changing your sleep habits – medlineplus.gov
- How to Stop Sleeping on Your Stomach – WikiHow
- Sleeping Positions During Pregnancy – Americanpregnancy.org
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Author: Sarah Cummings
I think we’re all nerds, but I’m probably the biggest nerd in the group. Put me nose deep in a spreadsheet and I'll start smiling.
I love to travel, hang out with positive people, and love cycling when I find the time!
My hope is that everyone who visits our site will walk away with a fresh perspective. I think too many people in society downplay the importance of sleep. In my opinion, it’s the difference between an average life and an amazing one.