I recently dislocated my shoulder?while swimming–an intensely painful (not to mention frightening!) experience. This unfortunate injury has really been affecting my sleep. Even in my most comfortable position I still experience moderate pain. Incidentally, a visitor to my website also asked about the healthiest sleeping position. The combination of the two items got me thinking: “What really is the healthiest position to sleep in”? If I can’t sleep well then my healing process will delayed after all. I’m sure I’m not the only one with this burning question so let’s get to it!
Why Does My Sleeping Position Matter?
Believe it or not, your sleeping posture can make the difference between waking up on the right vs the wrong side of the bed. Back, side or stomach, each carries its own pros and cons with which one must reckon before making a choice. This is one of those issues for which doing what feels ‘most comfortable’ may not necessarily be the right option. Why? To be concise,?there are certain effects associated with each position, from snoring to lower back pain that you should carefully judge before playing the ‘comfort’ card. At the same time though, trying to switch your preferred sleep position arbitrarily could harm the quality of your sleep so be very careful. You’re unlikely to stay in the same position all night anyway. The aim of this post therefore is to furnish?you, dear Reader, with enough information regarding?how your preferred sleeping position can influence your health.
Sleeping On Your Back: It’s Good But…
I’m ?a bonafide back sleeper through and through. When I was in my early 20s, I developed lower back problems due to another athletic injury (breakdancing, go figure!). Sleeping on my stomach was my preference at the time but I found the pain in the morning from my stressed spine to be excruciating. I trained myself thereafter to sleep ‘belly up’, and I’ve never looked back.?Spinal alignment and comfort are important for me so it was a natural fit. Where snoring is concerned though…that’s another story. Naturally not everyone feels this way about sleeping in a supine position however so let’s get down to business by checking out the pros and cons.
- Spinal Support – Sleeping on your back is great for offering the spine the support it needs at night. Combined with a great mattress and a supporting pillow, this can lead to some high-quality ZZZs. The spine stays in a neutral position when sleeping on your back, and, in my opinion, this takes full advantage of your mattress’ orthopaedic capabilities. As a lower back pain sufferer, I can confirm that this position made a world of difference to my recuperative process, alongside yoga and core-strengthening exercises. Note however that there are no guarantees because there are persons who sleep on their backs and experience poor sleep.
- Better Skin – Though I’m in my early 30s, I sometimes get called a teenager (jokingly) because I still have a somewhat youthful appearance. I’m not bragging about that because it certainly does me more harm than good in most situations (especially when people realise I’m a manager–it’s kind of hard to take someone seriously who looks that young I guess).?I think that my physical appearance is owed in part to my sleeping position because, as a back sleeper, I’m not giving gravity that chance to pull on my skin excessively and produce heavy wrinkling. For women as well this position can prove to be pretty great for maintaining the tightness of facial skin, and can even help prevent sagging breasts!
- Less Acid Reflux – I used to work on a shift system at one point and started developing reflux pretty early (mid 20s). It’s pretty well known that sleeping on your back can actually help mitigate this condition so I gave it a shot. It took a little while to get my pillow arrangement right but, once I did, it sure helped. I just needed enough elevation to have my stomach below the level of my neck/head without causing neck strain in the morning. A?few other things had to be changed to get rid of my reflux but sleeping on my back definitely contributed.
- Snoring! – There’s almost no getting away from it…sleeping on your back can cause snoring. Even worse it can increase the risk of one developing sleep apnea. Recall that on your back it is much easier for the soft tissues at the back of the throat to fall backward into the airway, when causes a chain of unfavourable events. Over time this can definitely have detrimental effects (and can also lead to a very disgruntled spouse!). There are natural ways to help manage sleep apnea of course, but be mindful!
Sleeping On Your Side: Left or Right?
The lefties vs the righties. Who will win? If you like sleeping on your side then this is a debate for you. What’s interesting about this is that many persons favour one or the other, and some switch between fairly frequently. ?Consequently, there are various implications for your health depending on which orientation you select! I sometimes find myself in this position during the night with varying levels of comfort. Since my back is pretty sensitive I oftentimes place a pillow between my knees and/or above my hip for spinal alignment. I have a long neck however so staying on either side for too long can cause me to wake up with neck aches, which aren’t pleasant.
So which side are you? Check out the pros and cons below:
- Pregnancy Benefits – In pregnant women, sleeping on the left side optimises blood flow to the placenta and can also help to reduce swelling of the ankles and feet. This is particularly beneficial to those in their final trimester. If strain on the spine is concern, placing a pillow underneath the stomach (or ‘baby bump’) can definitely help.
- Less Acid Reflux – Sleeping on the left can also help with heartburn?since it’s easier to prop the head higher than the stomach in this position. Easing these conditions can help afflicted persons have a better night’s sleep.
- Reduced snoring – While it is definitely possible to snore in this position since the muscles at the back of the throat are no longer under the pull of gravity and are less likely to fall into the airway.
- Organ Strain – Before you ask…yes, “organ strain” is a very real thing! Most of us aren’t particularly concerned with this when going to bed, but if sleeping on the the left side, the liver, lungs and stomach come under the pull of gravity. These are in some way either anchored to or constricted by other bodily features?and have a lot of nerves and vascular tissue surrounding them so irritation here can definitely interfere with long-term function. It is recommended therefore to alternate sides during the night, or just sleep on your back which allows your organs to expand and relax.
- Rubber arm – Sometimes we like to prop our heads up by resting it on the arm that happens to be underneath. Persons with flatter pillows tend to do this. The result is that the arm may go numb due to poor circulation, ie the dreaded ‘rubber arm’! It’s just a little freaky to swing out of bed with your arm just hanging there.
Sleeping On Your Stomach: Look Out!
Unfortunately, sleeping on your stomach is one of the worst positions you could assume. I honestly did not realise how bad this posture was until after my back injury when my lower back muscles were compromised. Additionally I would oftentimes have neck pain–to the point where it would sometimes be difficult to turn my head for a few hours after waking. To the stomach sleepers out there, please be mindful! As you get older it is likely that this position can lead to some additional issues.
There are a few techniques I’ve adopted though in the event that I end up sleeping on my stomach, one of ?which is placing?a thin pillow under my abdomen and hips to help give my back a boost. I’ve found that this can help mitigate?back pain but I still get?stiffness in my shoulder and back upon awakening. In any case, let’s do a thorough review!
- Reduced Snoring – Sleeping on your stomach is great for getting rid of snoring and reducing the likelihood of sleep apnea. The upper airways are far more open in this position than any of the others we’ve looked at so far.
- Reduced Movement – In a prone position you are less likely to move around. As a result, you sleep may be deeper and longer (provided everything else is in place for comfort).
- Lack of Spinal Support – It goes without saying that this position certainly does not follow the natural curve of the spine.?If anything, it can actually cause overarching–which can lead to lumbar pressure and of course lower back issues. This problem plagued me for months after my back injury and I’m pretty sure it served to undo some of the benefits of the physiotherapy I was involved in at the time. Please don’t let that happen to you!
- Neck pain – Sleeping on the stomach forces you to turn the head to either side. This can put pressure on the neck joints which naturally leads to stiffness, pain and a possibly reduced range of motion in the long term.
- Organ Strain – Your heart and lungs settle under the direct force of gravity in this position which places them under internal stress. If you are either very bulky or obese, it may actually take more energy for you to sleep in this way since your lungs must now move up and out against your own upper body weight.
So What’s the Healthiest?Sleeping Position??
Given everything we’ve looked at, I would venture to say that sleeping on your back is safest so long as you find a way to deal with the snoring that may accompany it. It has the least cons of the lot, but it should be mentioned that said disadvantage can be pretty serious if left unchecked. My recommendation therefore would be to employ some kind of physical intervention that can help prevent snoring. This could include using a snore guard with a tongue suppressor, a chinstrap (for mouth breathers) or a face mask that covers both the nose and mouth for CPAP users. If you plan to change your sleeping position, do not do it in a cold turkey fashion! Gradually transition your body by training it over a long period to become well adjusted to the new position, or else you could end up disrupting the quality of your sleep.
What position do you sleep in today and what do you think of this article’s recommendation? I would love to hear from you!
Snooze safely until next time.