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9 Ways Your Sleep Position Can Help or Harm Your Health

Hayley Dawes
19 January 2023

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 wink, but you may find other aspects of your health impacted as well. Here’s how to choose a good sleeping position to help make your night 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.

Proper sleeping position is subjective

The optimal sleeping position is somewhat subjective – some positions that feel good to you might not feel great for your partner. It’s always important to listen closely to your body. If you’re frequently waking up 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 adjustment here and there, you can help to avoid this.

Stomach sleeping comes with a few sleep-disrupting downsides

Sleeping on your stomach 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 airways and help reduce 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, it is hard on your face, with all your head weight pressing into your pillow, contributing to the development of facial wrinkles.

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Back sleeping makes spine alignment – and breathing – easier

In terms of popularity, back sleeping comes in ahead of stomach sleeping but behind side sleeping. There are several variations on the back sleeping theme, with the two most common being the straight up and down, all-in-a-line, and the arms and legs outstretched, which does take up quite a bit of mattress space.  

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. A bit of bedhead may be a minor downside to sleeping on your back, but less back pain and fewer wrinkles more than compensate. Back sleeping can also help with nasal congestion, 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 that interrupt sleep make for a bad night’s sleep and can have severe consequences for your long-term health.

OK, but what if you’re an extra hard-core, snoring back sleeper?

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 adding a pillow or adding an adjustable base that can create a minor – but effective – incline in your mattress. 

Side sleeping works best for most

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 spinal alignment.

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. 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.

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, then it’s time to start the hunt for a new mattress. 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.

A mattress that works with your sleep style and body type can help with many issues. It should be firm enough to support your back and sleep position, but soft enough to fit the shape of your body. 

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. When you lie on a pillow, it should support your neck and keep it in a straight line with your spine.