Every night, when you turn out your light and pull up the covers, there’s a good chance you settle into the same sleeping position. If you’re like most people, you sleep on your side with your knees tucked up in the fetal position. But lots of people also sleep on their back, sprawled out on their stomach, or twisted up around three pillows and a stuffed animal — different strokes for different folks.
The question is whether there’s one ‘best sleeping position’ that’s objectively better than the others. There’s a lot of pseudoscience on this matter out there, but the real answer is that it depends.
If you’re dosing off without a problem and not waking up with weird aches and pains, your setup is probably okay. However, if you have some complaints, the way you sleep could be the issue. We’ll talk about the effects of different positions, as well as which ones could be best for a particular condition below.
When it comes to sleeping on your side, there are some pros and cons, each depending on the side you choose to sleep on. For example, sleeping on your right side seems to aggravate heartburn. None of the sample sizes were huge, but a handful of studies have shown that people lying on their right side after eating high-fat meals had higher acid levels in their esophagus.
We don’t really know why that is, but some scientists think sleeping on that side relaxes the valve connecting your stomach and esophagus. This valve usually keeps stomach acid where it belongs. Therefore, if you struggle with heartburn, it might be worth rolling over.
As a bonus, sleeping on your left side may also improve circulation, although focused studies haven’t really looked into it. Your body returns blood to hour heart from the right side, so sleeping on the left means your body weight isn’t compressing those vessels. Check out our list of best mattresses for side sleepers.
Sleeping on your back puts your spine in a neutral position, so it can be good for back pain. It also keeps your head elevated on a pillow, where gravity can keep stomach acid out of your esophagus, and cut down on heartburn.
But sleeping on your back with your head on a pillow also makes your neck flex forward, which tightens your airway and makes it harder for air to pass through. That can make snoring and sleep apnea more severe. Sleep apnea is a condition that causes breathing to stop and start during sleep. The right mattress for back sleepers can rectify this issue to a certain extent.
What happens during snoring is that airflow gets partially blocked by tissues in the airway, as evidenced by the snoring sound. More often than not, people tend to assume that snoring is mostly a nuisance to one’s sleeping partner and that the effect on sleep quality is not enough to cause alarm.
However, studies have shown otherwise, with snoring proven to affect not only sleep quality but mental capacity and general wellbeing.
Each position has its pros and cons, but if there’s any position that’s objectively the worst, it’s probably sleeping on your stomach. This puts pressure on your entire body and doesn’t let the spine sit naturally.
It puts a strain on the spine and causes pain in the neck and lower back. Since the blood circulation is cut off from the face, it causes the development of wrinkles. It also puts unnecessary stress on the internal organs. If you turn your face sideways to breathe, that also awkwardly contorts your neck.
Most experts advise against sleeping on your stomach for these reasons. So, if you wake up feeling sore, and you sleep on your stomach, it might be something to think about. In some cases, however, it has been found to reduce snoring.
If this is really your jam, a flatter pillow can at least help reduce neck strain, and a softer mattress for stomach sleepers is a must.
What is the Ideal Position for your Problem?
Since we spend about a third of our lives sleeping, it follows that the sleep quality and efficiency of our sleep must be paramount. There are a lot of ways to improve sleep quality, as we’ve discussed in our other guides and articles, but in this one, we’ll focus mostly on sleeping posture and how it can be used to help solve some physical and psychological issues you may be suffering from.
To prevent back pain, you want to be as aligned as possible while sleeping. Of course, we understand that you’re going to shift in your sleep, which is fine, and it’s a good reason to get a bed for back pain. However, you should try to start in the best sleeping position possible.
After a while, maybe your body will start to find it more comfortable and want to stay in that position all night. Most people sleep on their side, as we mentioned earlier, and when you do so, usually, your top shoulder collapses forward crunching your ribcage and reinforcing those patterns of tightness in your upper back.
A thing that people often do that aggravates neck pain is that they use a pillow that’s either too big or too small, which pushes the head to one side or the other. Another thing is not having a proper sleeping surface for neck pain. The first thing you can do to minimize the issue is to make sure you have a pillow that’s the right size for your shoulders and neck.
You always want to keep your neck straight and long, not stretched into an unnatural position to the side. You can use a special ergonomic pillow for this. These pillows usually have a bit more support in the neck area. It might take a bit of getting used to, but it’s worth it in the end.
When it comes to anxiety, as well as other issues related to your mind, sleeping on the side might be a smart choice. Side sleeping is the most common with primates, our closest animal relatives.
Scientists speculate that primates may have evolved to sleep this way because it’s the best way to clear brain waste. That said, until there are some studies done on people confirming this speculation, it’s probably not worth shaking up your routine.
Another thing that happens is that the knees end up falling towards each other, and it creates more tension in the inner thigh, adductor muscles and lower back, which are all associated with sciatica. This could exacerbate your sciatic pain, and what you can do to prevent that is put a pillow between your knees while you’re on the side, or under your knees while you’re on your back.
There are special knee-pillows that you can purchase, shaped roughly like a toy bone, but a regular pillow will do just fine as well. Probably the best thing you could do, of course, is to get a good quality bed for sciatica.
For pregnant women, experts recommend sleeping on the left side. As we mentioned previously, left side sleeping is good for blood flow, which means more blood and nutrients get transported to the placenta during the night. It also keeps the growing uterus from compressing the liver, which is on the right.
Putting a pillow between your knees can be extra helpful in this situation as well, and many women use this trick. Also, you could roll up a blanket and put it behind your back if you’re sleeping on your side. This way, you can relieve a bit of pressure on the spine. Try to avoid sleeping on your back during pregnancy.
Kyphosis is a curvature of the upper aspect of the spine that can cause all sorts of discomfort and if left unchecked, some deformity of the spine. To prevent it from becoming severe, you can do some exercises as well as try to adjust your sleep position to improve posture.
One thing that seems to help a lot is having a pillow in front of you that you can throw one arm over if you’re sleeping on the side. This will help with the problem that we mentioned earlier of your shoulder collapsing forward as you sleep.
Want to Change Your Sleeping Position?
If you’re having issues with pain, snoring, or anxiety, changing your sleep position may be worth a shot. It could be a challenging thing to do but might end up being worth it in the end, if it means you’re going to have a higher-quality sleep and a healthier body as a result.
Don’t give up
Habits are difficult to break, which is why most people get stuck dozing off in the same position on their mattress for years, even though they keep experiencing sleep position related issues.
Practice makes perfect, so whichever change you’re trying to implement in your life, you need to keep pushing until it sticks. The same goes for sleep positions.
Sometimes altering your position also calls for changing some of your sleeping accessories such as pillows, or getting some extra ones for things like knee or shoulder support.
A contour pillow is an excellent idea for those sleeping on their side, as it will provide adequate neck, shoulder, and head support. If you want to switch to sleeping on the back, try getting a softer pillow. This will eliminate some of the stress from the top of your spine while providing excellent support for the back of your neck.
Saying that one way to sleep is ‘the best’ would likely be an unfair conclusion. Everyone has a different body and different needs in terms of sleep. What’s most important is for you to find the one position that fits those needs for you in particular. If you keep experiencing pain or other problems throughout the night, don’t be afraid to talk to your doctor about it as well.
Ultimately, the best sleeping position seems to depend on the person. If you’re pregnant or snore, some might be more beneficial than others. But in general, if you’re comfortable, whatever sends you off to dreamland best is probably perfectly fine.