Do you sleep on your back, side, or belly? You may have a favorite sleeping position, or you may change it up now and then. And if you become pregnant, or have certain health problems, the way you sleep can sometimes change. In those cases, getting your sleeping posture right can make a big difference in the way you feel when you wake up. Are you choosing the best sleeping position for your situation?
Sleeping in the wrong way can cause or aggravate neck or back pain. It may also obstruct the airways to your lungs, leading to problems like obstructive sleep apnea. Some research even suggests that the wrong sleeping position may cause toxins to filter out of your brain more slowly. Keep reading to learn how the way you sleep could be impacting your health in several ways.
Approximately 7% of people sleep on their stomach. This is sometimes called the prone position. It may help ease snoring by shifting fleshy obstructions from your airway. But sleeping in this position may aggravate other medical conditions.
Your neck and spine are not in a neutral position when you sleep on your stomach. This may cause neck and back pain. Stomach sleeping can put pressure on nerves and cause numbness, tingling, and nerve pain.
It's best to choose another sleep position if you are a stomach sleeper. If you can't break the habit, prop your forehead up on a pillow so your head and spine remain in a neutral position and you have room to breathe.
About 7% of people sleep on their stomachs with their heads turned to the side. People who sleep this way have their arms wrapped around a pillow or tucked under a pillow.
Back-sleeping has its advantages and disadvantages, too. Sleep experts refer to this as the supine position.
Let's start with the bad news. Some people who sleep on their backs may experience low back pain. It can also make existing back pain worse, so this is not the best sleep position for lower back pain. If you suffer from snoring or sleep apnea, sleeping on your back may aggravate these conditions as well. Women should avoid this position during late pregnancy.
There are health benefits to sleeping on your back, too. Your head, neck, and spine are in a neutral position so you're less likely to experience neck pain. Sleeping on your back with your head slightly elevated with a small pillow is considered the best sleeping position for heartburn.
In this position, the sleepers lie on their backs and their arms are down and close to the body. Approximately 8% of people sleep like this.
This one is a poor choice for snoring and may prevent you from getting a restful night's sleep. Talk to your doctor if snoring keeps you from getting enough rest.
People who sleep in a starfish position sleep on their backs with their arms up over their heads. Approximately 5% of people sleep this way.
As all those who sleep on their backs, people who sleep in the starfish position may be prone to snoring and sleep problems.
The side sleeping position is the most popular by far. It's also known as lateral sleeping position by sleep scientists.
This position may be good for those who snore. If you have some forms of arthritis, sleeping in the side position may make you sore, though. Curling up may also prevent you from breathing deeply because doing so may restrict your diaphragm.
Side-Sleeping and Brain Waste
It's possible that sleeping on your side could be good for your brain. Scientists recently learned that our brains clear out waste more quickly while we sleep.
Whether or not the position you sleep in influences this waste removal is unclear. But one study performed on rats suggests side-sleeping might clear brain waste more efficiently than other postures.
Although side-sleepers enjoy many advantages, one disadvantage may appear as you age. Because you press down on your face in the lateral position, this posture may both cause facial wrinkles and cause the skin on your face to expand over time.
Side-sleeping women may find that their breast ligament (the Coopers Ligament) slowly stretches over time, causing breast sag. This hasn't been proven scientifically, yet continues to be a concern for many. If this concerns you, a simple solution is to support your breasts with a pillow. Women with larger breasts may find it more comfortable to sleep with a bra for additional support.
Approximately 41% of people sleep using a specific side position by curling up on their sides with their knees bent. Side sleepers who sleep with their legs bent and curled toward their torsos are sleeping in the fetal position.
Some studies suggest that more women than men sleep in this position, although other research disputes this. It may be a good choice for pregnant women because this posture improves circulation for both the mother and fetus.
If sleeping this way hurts your hips, placing a pillow between your knees may help relieve pressure.
People who sleep in the log position sleep on their sides with their arms down next to their bodies. Approximately 15% of people sleep like a log. This sleep position may be good for you if you snore, but if you have arthritis, you may wake up in pain.
People who sleep in the yearner position sleep on their sides with their arms outstretched in front of the body. The position may be good if you have breathing problems when you snooze, but bad if you suffer from arthritis. Approximately 13% of people sleep in this position.
Spooning is a side sleeping position for couples; the person in the back holds the one in the front close to their body. As with other postures, this one comes with its own advantages and disadvantages. As for disadvantages, couples may wake up more frequently sleeping this way, as you are more likely to be jostled by your partner.
But spooning allows for cuddling, too, which stimulates the release of oxytocin. This is a hormone that promotes bonding, decreases stress, and may help you get to sleep more quickly. Cuddling for as little as 10 minutes is enough to trigger the release of oxytocin.
Believe it or not, knowing the best side to sleep on may reduce your acid reflux symptoms. Sleeping on your right side can cause more acid to leak through your esophagus. Sleeping on your stomach or back makes GERD symptoms worse, too. To lower the risk of GERD problems, patients usually sleep best on their left sides.
People with congestive heart failure avoid sleeping on their backs and their left sides. Their heartbeats may disturb their sleep in these postures. These patients tend to prefer sleeping on their right side. In fact, sleeping on the right side may protect people with heart failure from further health damage.
If you sleep on your stomach or side, your face is smooshed into the pillow all night. That stretches your skin over time, leading to wrinkles. If you want to prevent this, back sleeping works best.
To minimize the risk of snoring, it's usually best to sleep on your side. Sleeping on your back may aggravate snoring, but for a smaller number of snorers, back sleeping helps them feel more restful the next day.
Tips to Stop Snoring
If you snore, but still want to sleep on your back, try stacking a few pillows underneath your head to reduce the risk of snoring. If snoring wakes you up or if you wake up gasping or feel tired during the day, it's time to see your doctor.
Severe or loud snoring may be a sign of sleep apnea, a condition that causes you to stop and start breathing while you sleep due to airway obstructions. Sleep apnea is associated with high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke.
If you have sleep apnea, the way you sleep is well-known to influence how sleepy you feel throughout the next day.
One large study found that most patients with obstructive sleep apnea slept better on their sides, experienced less interrupted sleep, and were more wakeful the next day. However, this same study found that people with severe OSA actually felt sleepier the next day if they slept on their sides, as compared to their backs. Ask your doctor for sleep recommendations if you think you might have OSA.
If you have back pain, sleeping on your stomach or back may aggravate your pain. Switch to side sleeping to minimize your risk of back pain.
For further relief, put a pillow between your knees to keep your hips in alignment. If you must sleep on your back, placing a pillow under your knees will take some strain off of your back.
Shoulder, Neck, and Upper Back Pain
Arthritis and other painful conditions along your upper spine can worsen or improve while you sleep. Studies seem to disagree, though, on what positions are ideal.
One large study found that people had less shoulder pain who slept in the starfish position—on their backs, with hands up near their chest or head. But it couldn't explain if those people had less shoulder pain because of the way they slept, or if they slept that way because they had less pain.
A later study found that people who slept on their backs with their arms at their sides—the soldier position—activated their shoulder muscles less, and thus may experience less shoulder pain.
If you are pregnant, sleeping on your stomach or back will be uncomfortable or impossible. You will be most comfortable sleeping on your side. Favor your left side to maximize circulation for both you and your baby. Placing a body pillow or pillow under your belly can help relieve back pain. Place another pillow between your legs and bend your knees to be even more comfortable.
Avoid This Position During Pregnancy
You've probably already heard this from your doctor, but just in case—pregnant women should not sleep on their backs during the third trimester of pregnancy. For more than half a century, we've known that pregnant back sleepers are reducing blood flow to their fetus.
But only recently researchers discovered that this sleep style also raises the risk of a stillbirth, even in otherwise healthy pregnancies. You should also avoid lying on your back during the day—just 30 minutes of this posture has been shown to force your fetus to shift to a state that requires less oxygen to survive. These results suggest that lying on your back—even for a short rest—reduces the oxygen available to your fetus.
Mattresses are made of a variety of materials. Some are softer or firmer. The type of material that a mattress is made out of affect your body temperature.
When it comes to the firmness of a mattress, you want one that is firm enough to support your spine, but also soft enough to conform to the shape of your body. People who suffer from back pain may be most comfortable on a mattress that is softer and more cushioning.
You can't know for sure how your mattress will work out until you've been resting on it for a while. When shopping for a mattress, buy one from a store that will let you test it for several weeks and exchange it if it doesn't work for you.
That depends on what you consider "personality." In the 70s and 80s, some researchers claimed they could use sleeping postures to predict if someone were impulsive, feminine, anxious, self-confident--even whether they could be hypnotized.
More recent studies have cast doubt on these theories. The research has been criticized for using "woefully small" numbers of sleepers. Many contradictions have been found between these studies as well.
A more recent attempt to associate personality traits to body positions during sleep came up empty-handed. It showed only a "very weak relationship between sleep positions and personality," and, using predictions from earlier models, failed to reliably predict the participants' personality traits.
But on the Other Hand...
Even if earlier studies are unreliable, there may be another way that our sleep postures say something about our personalities. Some sleeping positions are associated with well-rested sleepers. Maybe people who prefer them wake up less crabby and irritable, and are more alert during the day.
Here are some examples, using the Big Five personality traits. A group of 22,000 American and Japanese adults were measured over 10 years. The ones who slept poorly tended to become less conscientious over time. The ones who slept best were the most extroverted and the least neurotic.
So, at the end of the day, the best sleeping position for you may simply be the one that leaves you feeling your best the next day.
IMAGES PROVIDED BY:
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- The American Journal of Gastroenterology: "Influence of spontaneous sleep positions on nighttime recumbent reflux in patients with gastroesophageal reflux disease."
- Auris, Nasus, Larynx. "Gender difference and laterality of sleep position."
- BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders: "Is sleep position associated with glenohumeral shoulder pain and rotator cuff tendinopathy: A cross-sectional study."
- The Better Sleep Council: "Starfish or Freefall? What Your Sleep Position Can Tell You."
- Health Psychology: "Personality and sleep quality: Evidence from four prospective studies."
- Journal of the American College of Cardiology: "Avoidance of the left lateral decubitus position during sleep in patients with heart failure: relationship to cardiac size and function."
- Journal of Cosmetic and Laser Therapy: "The influence of the sleeping on the formation of facial wrinkles."
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- Journal of Physical Therapy Science: "Effect of sleep posture on neck muscle activity."
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- North American Journal of Psychology: "Sleep positions and personality: Zuckerman-Kuhlman's big five, creativity, creativity styles, and hypnotizability."
- Respiration: "Relationship between the body position-specific apnea-hypopnea index and subjective sleepiness."