We all know that getting enough sleep is necessary to look and feel your best, and that quality of sleep matters also. But did you know that how you sleep is also important? Your preferred sleep position may have more of an impact on your overall health than you realize.
Your body does amazing things while you sleep. We all know that a good night’s slumber is the only way to feel truly refreshed and energetic the next day. It’s also the time when the body performs a repair process on muscles, skin, and tissues, and helps balance hormones and other body functions.
Unfortunately, many people aren’t getting enough sleep, or the sleep they are getting is of poor quality. The National Sleep Foundation says adults need seven to nine hours per night, but about 40 percent of Americans are getting less than seven hours on average.
While you may be tempted to try to get by with extra caffeine, getting proper rest is crucial for a number of reasons. Lack of sleep puts you at risk for:
- Accidents (drowsy driving can be as dangerous as drunk driving)
- Thinking and memory problems
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
But, there may be more to sleep than just the number of hours you’re resting. Some research has found that your sleep position can affect your digestion, brain health, and your appearance.
Sleep position and heartburn
If you have heartburn or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), you may have been told to sleep with your upper body elevated to keep acids down. This is good advice, as an article in JAMA confirms that sleeping on your back with a wedge underneath the upper body does help people with GERD.
For those with GERD who simply can’t sleep well on their back, there may be another option. The same article suggests that sleeping on your left side may improve symptoms of heartburn and GERD. At the very least, it seems to allow for improved movement of acid through the digestive system compared to those who sleep on the right side. Another small study confirms that left-side sleeping resulted in fewer GERD episodes when compared to right-side sleeping.
Avoid lying flat on your back or stomach sleeping if you have heartburn or GERD because it allows gravity to move stomach contents upward more easily.
Sleep on your left side to help your colon
Hopefully, you’re already eating plenty of fiber and drinking water to avoid uncomfortable bloating and constipation. Fiber and water can also help you feel fuller so you can control hunger between meals.
Even if you’re eating a great diet, however, sleeping on your right side could actually be harming your body’s ability to move waste out. The colon is not symmetrical: it moves waste from the right side of the body to the left. Therefore, it’s best to sleep on your left side to allow gravity to aid the colon in its work.
If you do sleep on your left side for better digestion, avoid curling the legs up tight in a fetal position. This can cause the back to curve and may stress the knees and hips. Try to keep hips and knees only slightly bent, and lie with the back straight.
How to sleep for a healthier brain
Did you know that the brain actually clears itself of waste during sleep? The brain has its own system, known as a glymphatic pathway, that allows for waste products to be removed during sleep. This could explain why someone who is sleep deprived has trouble concentrating or remembering things the next day.
Some research suggests that you can optimize your glymphatic pathway’s work by sleeping on your side. Back sleeping may also be helpful, but the authors suggest that side sleeping evolved in humans due to its superior ability to aid the brain in rejuvenating itself. Try side sleeping if you struggle with focus, memory, or concentration.
The best sleep position for aesthetics
Aesthetic and beauty experts will often recommend that you sleep on your back. This is because your face doesn’t get pressed against the pillow, which can lead to wrinkles over time. And, back sleeping may help gravity do its work to keep the skin on your face pulled back, rather than sagging forward or to the side.
In addition, women may find that their breasts are better supported by the body when lying on the back. This may help prevent sagging. Side sleeping, on the other hand, tends to push breasts together in the middle. This can lead to unwanted vertical lines and wrinkles in the décolletage area.
Stomach sleeping is not recommended for aesthetic reasons. The face gets squashed against the bed or pillow, and breasts may be compressed into undesirable positions. If your concern is facial or chest wrinkles, back sleeping may be the best option for you.
Body aches and sleep position
There’s no easy answer when it comes to sleeping with back pain. In many cases, people who have back problems may find that back sleeping is actually the most comfortable position for them. Back sleeping may help keep the spine aligned, especially if you put a pillow under your knees to take pressure off the lower back. It also avoids specific pressure points and distributes weight more evenly across the mattress.
Back sleeping is also helpful for people with shoulder injuries or pain. People who have shoulder problems often find that side sleeping is nearly impossible. Side sleeping puts too much pressure on the shoulder, even if you change to the other side during the night.
People who have shoulder, neck, or back pain should avoid stomach sleeping. This position tends to curve the spine and neck into a backward position because the weight in the front of the body pushes deeper into the mattress. A pillow will further exacerbate this curved position, especially in the neck.
When snoring is an issue
Snoring is not just an annoyance for your bed partner. It is an interruption in your air flow while you sleep, which can lead to health problems. At the very least, it will leave you groggy due to fragmented and poor quality sleep, even if you don’t realize it’s waking you up. Some people who snore wake up hundreds of times per night.
People who snore should avoid back sleeping. This position pushes the tongue and soft palate back into the throat, making snoring more likely to happen. Instead, you should sleep on your side to optimize airflow through your nose and throat. If you snore, consider participating in a sleep study to find out the root cause of your problem and your treatment options.
In addition, consider healthy lifestyle changes that could help. Weight loss can often reduce or eliminate snoring issues. Find out about the customized weight-loss plans we offer at Garcia Weight Loss and Wellness Centers.
Teeth grinding, stress, and sleep position
Do you wake up with headaches or pain in your face, jaw, or teeth? Does your partner complain that they can hear you grinding your teeth at night? You could have a teeth grinding problem, and it can disrupt your sleep in several ways.
People who grind their teeth may wish to avoid side sleeping because this position puts pressure on the jaw. Pressing on the side of the face may prompt someone who is prone to grinding to clench their jaw muscles even more.
If you find that side sleeping is the only position for you, wear a night guard to protect your teeth from damage. Ask your dentist about obtaining a custom night guard that’s made to fit your teeth comfortably. And, take steps to lower your stress levels so you can sleep better at night and grind less. Meditation, relaxation, or deep breathing before bed can make a big difference in those who clench their jaw at night.
The right pillow is key
Of course, your sleep position is only optimal if you have a pillow that works for your body. The same pillow does not work well for different sleep positions, body types, and health issues. And, you need to be comfortable so you can get deep, restorative sleep. Otherwise, even the best sleep position won’t be helpful for you.
Take a look at your current pillow and determine whether it meets your needs with regard to your sleep position:
- Back sleepers: Use a pillow that provides some support under the neck, but make sure it’s flat enough to keep the spine, shoulders, neck, and head in a straight line. As mentioned above, however, people with GERD should invest in a large wedge pillow. If you’re trying to switch to back sleeping but keep rolling to your side during the night, try putting pillows next to your sides to discourage rolling over.
- Side sleepers: You’ll generally need a pillow that is firmer and larger than a back pillow. It should be contoured to allow for the spine, neck, and head to remain aligned. In addition, use a firm, but not too large, pillow between the knees to keep the spine straight as you sleep.
- Stomach sleepers: Although this position is not recommended, if you must sleep on your stomach, choose a very thin pillow that won’t push your head back further. Or, try sleeping with no pillow at all.
In addition to the correct pillow, pay attention to your mattress. Most mattresses should be replaced about every 10 years, and you’ll want to choose one that is a comfortable firmness and level of support for you.
Don’t neglect sleep
There is no single sleep position that is right for everyone. But, one thing is clear: we all need to get plenty of quality sleep each night to look and feel our best.
If you’re struggling to get the rest you need, it’s well worth it to find out the cause and your potential solutions. Sleep deprivation could be sabotaging your weight-loss efforts and can even lead to hormonal imbalance. A no-cost consultation at Dr. Garcia’s Weight Loss and Wellness Centers can help you discover safe and natural ways to slim down and get your body back into balance so you can feel like yourself again!
Medically reviewed by Jay J. Garcia, MD on September 12, 2018
Karen Eisenbraun is a certified holistic nutrition consultant and writer with a background in digital marketing. She has written extensively on the topics of nutrition and holistic health for many leading websites.
Karen received her nutrition certification from the American College of Healthcare Sciences in 2012. She follows a ketogenic diet and practices intermittent fasting. Karen advocates a whole foods approach to nutrition and believes in empowering yourself with information that allows you to make smarter decisions about your health.