What position do you find most comfortable for sleeping? Some sleeping positions are healthier than others, and some can be harmful.
Most of us know that a solid night’s sleep is crucial when it comes to good health. We all have a default sleeping position; however, our favourite sleeping style may be contributing to back or neck pain, abdominal upset, or breathing problems. When it comes to sleep, position matters.
The Canadian Chiropractic Association endorses both side and back sleeping. In these positions, Dr. Stephanie Louie, a family chiropractor, says that “the spine can retain its neutral position.” Side and back sleeping have potential negative impacts too, but there are ways to make them more restorative.
Back (supine) sleepers
The good news
Back sleepers keep their necks and spines happy. When sleeping in corpse pose, the back is fully supported by the mattress, and the spine can more easily maintain a neutral position. Sleeping on their backs also benefits people concerned about signs of aging. Sleeping with our face up—rather than pushed into a pillow—helps prevent sleep lines, which are wrinkles accentuated by pillow contact.
The bad news
Sleeping on our back could be keeping our partner up all night: it causes the throat to relax, resulting in a blocked airway that can cause snoring. Back sleeping is also linked to increased risk of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), and approximately half of OSA patients experience worse symptoms when sleeping in the supine position. Most people just don’t find sleeping on their backs very comfortable and are unable to naturally maintain this position throughout the night. Research shows that as we age, more sleepers prefer sleeping on their sides.
Tips for back sleepers
Louie recommends placing a pillow under your knees to keep the low back in a neutral position. This is especially important if you already experience back pain.
Side (lateral) sleepers
The good news
Whether they’re curled up in fetal position or lying straight on their sides, most Canadians prefer to sleep in a lateral position. This is good news, considering that sleeping on our side can be spine friendly and can decrease symptoms of OSA and snoring.
For moms-to-be, sleeping on their left side during the third trimester is good for their baby’s health, allowing for the best blood flow to the fetus, uterus, and kidneys.
The bad news
Lateral sleeping has been associated with carpal tunnel syndrome. Researchers hypothesize that wrist flexion and extension may compress the median nerve in the wrist when sleeping on one’s side. Furthermore, sleeping with our face pressed into a pillow all night can accentuate facial wrinkles. Right-side sleeping can also intensify heartburn and acid reflux symptoms, making it difficult for people who suffer from these conditions to fall asleep or sleep soundly.
Tips for side sleepers
- Louie recommends placing a pillow between the knees to keep the back in alignment.
- To prevent carpal tunnel syndrome, avoid sleeping with the elbows flexed and your wrists curled inward.
- If you suffer from acid reflux disease, try sleeping on your left side.
- Alternate sides to avoid potential muscle imbalance, pain, and increased sleep lines on one side of the face.
- To prevent acne, which can be irritated by the natural oils from our face that linger in the pillow, make sure to wash and change the pillowcase regularly.
What about stomach sleepers?
The bad news
Unfortunately for stomach sleepers, slumbering on the abdomen is not recommended. According to Louie, stomach sleeping forces the neck to turn out of its neutral position, putting pressure on muscles, joints, and nerves, and potentially leading to headaches as well as neck, jaw, and arm pain.
Change your position
We spend a significant amount of time sleeping—about a third of our lives for most of us. During this time, our bodies grow and heal themselves; thus, it’s important to spend our slumber in a restorative and healing position. However, according to Louie, “Most of us are unable to control our actions when we sleep.” In fact, adults change their sleep position around 11 to 13 times per night. Louie encourages her patients to “try to fall asleep starting out on their back or side,” to begin the night in a healing position.
If you suffer from position-dependent snoring or OSA, specialty pillows, commercially available vests, or even sewing a tennis ball into the back of your pyjamas can help you switch from sleeping on your back to sleeping on your side.
If snoring and OSA are not a concern and sleeping on your back is your goal, changing your pillow can help: a study found that memory foam or latex pillows may be the most comfortable for supine sleeping. Look for natural foam or latex, which are hypoallergenic, dust-mite resistant, and chemical free
Did you know?
During World War I, soldiers were advised to sleep with their backpacks on in order to prevent sleeping on their backs, thus reducing levels of snoring that could give away their position to the enemy.
Tips for a peaceful sleep
- Use a comfortable pillow that is neither too thick nor too thin. In one study, participants who used feather pillows reported low levels of comfort and poor sleep quality.
- Select a medium-firm mattress to reduce symptoms of back pain and improve sleep quality.
- Choose organic cotton, bamboo, or hemp sheets, and look for materials without formaldehyde, which is added to fabrics for wrinkle resistance, but is linked to skin irritation, asthma, and certain types of cancers.
- Turn your bedroom into a quiet, cool, and dark environment to help induce sleep.
- Use your bed only for sleep and intimacy—avoid texting, tweeting, or watching television while between the sheets. And if you tend to take your problems to bed with you, try writing them down in a journal and putting them aside until the morning.