Advice on sleep hygiene—habits we can adopt to help us get higher quality, more restful sleep—abounds. We’ve heard about the benefits of turning off our phones an hour before bed, avoiding caffeine in the evening, and keeping our bedroom dark and cool, but how do the positions in which we sleep affect our overall health?
As Nancy H. Rothstein, a sleep wellness consultant for The Sleep Ambassador explains, “the most appropriate sleep position varies from person to person and is dependent on comfort, health issues, and recommendations by health professionals.” Everything from snoring to acid reflux to pregnancy to back pain impacts which sleep position is best for your individual health. So when should you sleep on your back, stomach, left side, or right side? Here are some helpful tips for choosing the best sleeping position, based on your needs.
1. IF YOU HAVE BACK OR NECK PAIN, DON’T SLEEP IN THE FETAL POSITION.
The fetal position (scrunching your knees up to your chest and pulling your arms into a tiny ball) may feel safe, but it’s not the best position for your body. Tucking your chin and curling your body up into itself can strain your neck and head. According to Rothstein, sleeping in the fetal position can also compromise your circulation and restrict healthy, diaphragmatic breathing. To avoid overstretching your back and neck, try to straighten your legs and arms so you’re lying flat on your back instead.
2. IF ACID REFLUX KEEPS YOU AWAKE, SLEEP ON YOUR BACK.
To get a more restful night when you suffer from acid reflux, sleep on your back with your head elevated. Dr. Eric Olson, the co-director of the Mayo Clinic Center for Sleep Medicine, told Health that acid or food is less likely to come back up if your stomach is positioned below your esophagus. Besides helping to minimize acid reflux, sleeping on your back also puts less strain on your back and neck than other positions.
3. TRY TO AVOID SLEEPING ON YOUR STOMACH.
When you lie on your stomach with your head turned to one side, you could be straining your neck, spine, and lower back. If you're only able to doze off while positioned belly-down, consider using a thin pillow to minimize the angle that your neck is placed, and put a pillow under your pelvis to encourage your spine to stay in neutral alignment.
4. IF YOU SNORE, SLEEPING ON YOUR SIDE MAY HELP.
Because the position of your tongue can obstruct your airway, making it harder to breathe, sleeping on your back usually increases snoring. Rothstein warns, “If you snore regularly, it is critical to seek diagnosis for possible sleep apnea, a serious condition which when undiagnosed can lead to multiple health issues.” If your physician diagnoses you with sleep apnea, ask him or her what the best sleeping position is for you.
If you snore but don’t have sleep apnea, try sleeping on your side to keep your airway open. “And consider placing a pillow between your knees to alleviate pressure on your lower back,” says Rothstein.
5. SLEEPING ON YOUR BACK IS BEST FOR PREVENTING WRINKLES.
If you’re worried about premature facial wrinkles, try to sleep on your back rather than on your stomach or side. When you sleep on your back, your pillow doesn't rub against your face all night. “Sleep wrinkles are the lines that are formed when the face is compressed against a pillow night after night," Dr. Goesel Anson, a plastic surgeon, told Harper’s Bazaar. "[They] will eventually become permanent from constant compression and decreased skin elasticity with age.”
6. PREGNANT WOMEN SHOULD SLEEP ON THEIR LEFT SIDE.
There are pros and cons to sleeping on your left side versus your right side. If you’re on your left side all night, you can put strain on your liver and lungs, but being on your right side can make heartburn worse. Most experts agree that a pregnant woman should sleep on her left side rather than her stomach or back in order to take pressure off her uterus, stomach, and breasts, and to optimize blood flow.
7. AVOID THE STARFISH POSITION IF YOU WAKE UP WITH SHOULDER PAIN.
Although sleeping on your back with your arms above your head can feel good on your back, you could be hurting yourself by putting too much pressure on the nerves in your shoulders.
8. SLEEPING ON YOUR SIDE MAY PREVENT BACK PAIN, BUT IT CAN MAKE YOUR BREASTS SAG.
If you sleep on your side with your knees bent up slightly towards your chest (not a full fetal position), you minimize straining your back, neck, and spine. But, gravity causes your breasts to hang downward, which can stretch the ligaments over time. To combat sleep-related breast sag, either sleep on your back or, if you’re loyal to sleeping on your side, put a pillow under your breasts to support their weight.