Which Sleep Position Is Best?

It’s no secret that a lot of Americans are sleep deprived. In fact, more than a third of American adults are not getting enough sleep on a regular basis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC). Poor sleep is attributed to many negative health outcomes, including changes in mood and the ability to retain information, as well as obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

Did you know that the way you’re sleeping can affect your health, too? We’ve done the research and ranked the best sleep positions (for your health) and why it matters. If you have back pain, snore or are pregnant we’ve also compiled a list of tips to help you sleep more comfortably at night.

Recognizing a poor sleep position and making a change won’t happen overnight. You may need to play around with positions to see which is the most comfortable for you. Happy snoozing!

[Editor’s Note: The information provided should not be considered a substitute for professional advice. Please consult a sleep doctor or other medical expert if you have questions related to your own health.]

Back

While experts regard sleeping on your back the healthiest position, only eight percent of Americans are sleeping this way.

Do Eye Masks Really Help You Sleep Better?George Rudy/Shutterstock

Pros

  • It’s good for neutral alignment. Sleeping on your back allows for your head, neck, and spine to stay in a neutral position, which is ideal for relieving unwanted pressure. It also means you’re less likely to experience pain when you sleep, according to the folks at the National Sleep Foundation.
  • It helps keep acne and wrinkles at bay. When you’re asleep on your back your face isn’t touching the pillow – this means there’s less of a chance for the drool, facial oils, and dead skin cells that can live on your pillow to clog pores. It may lessen the number of facial wrinkles you have, as well.
  • It’s pretty good for acid reflux.  Lying on your back (with a pillow or at an incline) means the head is elevated, and the stomach is able to sit below the esophagus, making it less likely for digested substances to come back up, according to a post from online health and science news site, MedicalDaily.

Cons

  • It’s not great for snoring. According to the folks at The Snoring Center, with your head propped up on a pillow, you are restricting the flow of air through your passageway, leading to snoring. “Snoring is usually most frequent and severe when sleeping on the back,” said Eric Olson, MD, a sleep medicine specialist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. to Health.com. 
  • It’s linked to sleep apnea. People who suffer from sleep apnea may be better off on their side at night. In a study from the National Institute of Health, researchers looked at 30 male patients with sleep apnea and found that the incidence of sleep apnea was twice as high when patients slept on their backs (versus sleeping on their sides).
  • It should be avoided if you’re pregnant. The American Pregnancy Association explains why sleeping on your stomach is bad for pregnancy. “[Back sleeping] can cause problems with backaches, breathing, the digestive system, hemorrhoids, low blood pressure and cause a decrease in circulation to your heart and your baby,” they said in a post on their website. “This is a result of your abdomen resting on your intestines and major blood vessels (the aorta and vena cava).”

Side

The majority of people sleep on their sides – in two different ways. About 15 perfect of the population enjoys sleeping on their side with their torso and legs straight while a whopping 41 percent report sleeping in a fetal side position, with their torso and hunched and knees bent.

Dima Sidelnikov/Shutterstock

Pros

  • Less likely to snore. Sleeping on your side is often used a tip or trick to lessen soring, according to the National Sleep Foundation.  “If you snore or have breathing problems, sleeping on your side is the best choice for opening your airways so you can breathe better at night,” said sleep specialist W. Christopher Winter, MD, to CNN earlier this year.
  • Ease lower back pain. If you suffer from back pain, like the kind from a herniated disk, experts recommend sleeping on your side in a curled fetal position. When you have a herniation, your disks, which act as cushioning between your vertebrate, come out of place and may cause pain. When you curl your torso into a fetal position, you open the space between the vertebrae, according to a report from Healthline.com
  • A good option during pregnancy. Sleeping on your side – in particular, your left side- may be the best option for pregnant women. The American Pregnancy Association says, “sleeping on your left side will increase the amount of blood and nutrients that reach the placenta and your baby.”

See our top mattress picks for side sleepers here

Cons

  • It can strain your organs. Sleeping on one side all night long can put pressure on your organs, like your stomach and lungs, said Sophia Breene in her post for Greatist. Alternating sides overnight may be able to help, but you’ll have to be awake enough to flip yourself over, which could be tricky.
  • It can aggravate your heartburn or acid reflux. A study from the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology found that people experienced worse symptoms of heartburn when they slept on their right side. The reasoning remains unclear. “One hypothesis holds that right-side sleeping relaxes the lower esophageal sphincter, between the stomach and the esophagus, wrote Anhadad O’Connor for the New York Times.”Another holds that left-side sleeping keeps the junction between stomach and esophagus above the level of gastric acid.”
  • Your arm can go numb. Most side sleepers know that all too familiar arm tingling and numbness that can come from sleeping on one side too long. “This position places stress on the downward-facing shoulder. The body weight placed on this shoulder in many cases will cause a compression of the nerve bundle as it passes into the arm. The symptoms of this include waking up with numbness in the arm and hand, ” said Daniel Baumstark, CHT, a Daniel is a licensed physical therapist and the owner of PhysioDC in an article for Everyday Health.

Related: See our picks for best pillows for side sleepers, here.

Stomach

Only seven percent of people sleep on their stomachs, and according to experts that may be a good thing.

lenetstan/Shutterstock

Pros

  • It eases snoring. “If you’re a back sleeper who snores and you can’t switch to sleeping on your side, laying on your stomach could be a good compromise that can open your airways a bit, says Winter.

Cons

  • It’s hard on your back. “Stomach-sleeping makes it difficult to maintain a neutral position with your spine,” said Ken Shannon, a physical therapist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston to Health.com. “It puts pressure on joints and muscles, which can irritate nerves and lead to pain, numbness, and tingling.”
  • And it’s also rough on your neck. It’s pretty impossible to sleep on your stomach without twisting your head and neck so you can breathe. “Imagine standing and looking one way for two or three hours at a time. Stretching your neck muscle for that long creates soreness,” said Dr. Andrew Bang, DC, at the Center for Integrative Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic in a post on the clinic’s website.

What’s The Best Sleep Position If…

I have a back problem.

Experts from the Mayo Clinic say that it’s possible to sleep in all positions with a back problem – you just need a strategically placed pillow. Here’s what they recommend:

  • Back: Placing a pillow under your knees will help to maintain the normal curve of your lower back. You might try a small, rolled towel under the small of your back for additional support.
  • Side: Place a small or full-length pillow in between your legs and draw your legs up slightly towards your chest.
  • Stomach: Place the pillow under your pelvis or lower abdomen. If you are comfortable with a pillow under your head you can try one there (otherwise removing a neck or head pillow altogether may feel the best).  Experts from Healthline also suggest putting a pillow under your knees to relieve back pain.

I snore.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, snoring occurs while you sleep when your throat muscles relax and your tongue falls backward into your throat, narrowing the passageway.  “As you breathe, the walls of the throat begin to vibrate – generally when you breathe in, but also, to a lesser extent, when you breathe out. These vibrations lead to the characteristic sound of snoring.”

To help reduce snoring, experts encourage people to focus on positions that allow your airways to stay open. More likely than not, this will be a side position or even the stomach.

I am pregnant.

Syda Productions/Shutterstock

When you’re pregnant, your best position is “SOS” – sleeping on your side, according to the American Pregnancy Association. One side may be preferable to the other, according to experts. “Sleeping on your left side will increase the amount of blood and nutrients that reach the placenta and your baby,” the association said.

The American Pregnancy Association also recommends keeping your legs and knees bent and putting a pillow between your legs. A full-length pillow is also recommended.

I have acid reflux.

“Sleeping facing the ceiling also ideal for warding off acid reflux. Just be sure to use a pillow that elevates and supports your head enough—you want your stomach to be below your esophagus to prevent food or acid from coming up your digestive tract,” says the team at the National Sleep Foundation.

Related: Best mattresses for lower back pain

[Editor’s Note: The information provided should not be considered a substitute for professional advice. Please consult a sleep doctor or other medical expert if you have questions related to your own health.]

Featured image: ZoneCreative/Shutterstock

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Katie Golde

Katie manages the day to day operations of the Mattress Clarity news site and reviews sleep products in addition to writing and editing sleep news. She hails from Austin, where she lives with her growing family. She has a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University and has a background in health and science content. Her work can be found in print and online publications like Discover Magazine, USA Today and The Huffington Post.

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