How Your Sleeping Position Affects Your Health

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  • You might not put much thought into the position you tend to fall asleep in, unless you find yourself tossing and turning at 4am or waking up becomes a literal pain in the neck, but did you know that your choice of sleeping position could affect everything from how well your liver functions to how likely you are to have nightmares? However soundly we seem to sleep, we all subtly switch position at least a couple of times an hour as we move through the various sleep stages, according to experts. In fact, during deep non-REM sleep, our brain becomes “aroused” every six to eight minutes, says sleep specialist Dr Chris Seton. These episodes are almost invariably associated with some kind of movement, whether rolling over or simply kicking out a leg. However, we tend to spend most of the night sleeping in the position in which we fall asleep.

    Find out how your sleeping position could be affecting your health and wellbeing, and why a few tweaks could make all the difference…

    On your side…

    The benefits

    Almost two-thirds of us sleep on our sides. Lucky then that, according to experts, it’s probably the best sleeping position for overall health. Side sleepers are less likely to suffer from snoring and sleep apnea than back sleepers, and have a reduced risk of back and neck pain compared with front sleepers. Preliminary evidence even suggests that sleeping on your side could reduce your risk of developing neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s – the brain’s waste clearance system appears to function more efficiently when rats sleep on their sides. 

    The risks

    Believe it or not, the side you tend to favour could make a real difference… If you want to ease the symptoms of heartburn and acid reflux, improve blood flow and get a more restful night’s sleep, the best side to sleep on is the left, say experts. Sleeping on your right constricts blood vessels and inhibits circulation, which can result in more frequent movements during the night. However, sleeping on your left side can place additional strain on the liver, lungs and stomach, and is even associated with more frequent nightmares! Experts also warn that side sleeping can encourage wrinkles and breast sagging.

    What does it mean?

    Curious about your sleeping position’s meaning? Side sleepers who favour the foetal position (the most popular sleeping position, adopted by 41% of us each night) are said to be tough on the outside but soft on the inside. Those who sleep with their arms stretched out in front of them as if reaching out or being chased are sometimes referred to as “yearners”. Yearners are thought to be optimistic dream chasers. However, some suggest that they may be cynical and suspicious. Meanwhile, a side sleeper who sleeps “like a log” is said to be sociable and easy going.

    Make it work for you…

    Experts recommend sleeping on a pillow thick enough to fill the space between your shoulder, head and neck. Place a thinner pillow under the small of your waist and a third between your knees to minimise the risk of back pain.

    Find out more about using pillows to alleviate pain.

    On your back…

    The benefits

    Concerned about wrinkles or sagging breasts? This is the best position to sleep in. It’s also the best way to sleep to minimise the risk of acid reflux, since gravity prevents food and acid rising up the oesophagus. Suffer from back or neck pain? Sleeping on your back will help keep your weight evenly distributed and allow your head, neck and spine to maintain a more neutral position than sleeping on your front or side.

    The risks

    Sleeping on your back tends to worsen snoring and increase your risk of sleep apnea.

    What does it mean?

    “Log” sleepers who sleep with their legs together and arms by their sides are said to be rigid and inflexible, whilst “starfish” sleepers are thought to be generous, good listeners and excellent friends.

    Make it work for you…

    Ensure the natural curves in your spine are maintained by sleeping on a thin pillow and slipping a second one under your knees.

    On your front…

    The benefits

    Stomach sleepers tend to snore less than back sleepers.

    The risks

    Sleeping on your stomach is not recommended by experts. Stomach sleeping provides no support for the natural curve of the spine and puts pressure on the joints and muscles, putting you at increased risk of neck and back pain. It’s also said to encourage wrinkles and breast sagging.

    What does it mean?

    Stomach sleepers are sometimes referred to as “freefallers”. Sleep psychologists believe they may feel they lack control in their waking lives.

    Make it work for you…

    Want to break the habit? Chiropractor Cynthia Vaughn suggests you take a tip from The Princess and the Pea – yes, really. She advises stomach sleepers to tape an uncooked pea to their stomachs before going to bed to dissuade them from rolling onto their stomachs during the night.

    Can’t kick it, or just don’t want to? Try sleeping with your forehead propped on a soft, thin pillow to minimise neck pain – avoid twisting your head to one side. Place a second pillow under the pelvic area to support the natural curve of the spine.

    With a partner…



    But what are the best sleeping positions for couples (aside from “in separate rooms“, of course)? 94% of couples who maintain some form of contact with each other whilst they sleep feel content in their relationships, but a tangle of limbs isn’t necessarily conducive to a good night’s sleep. Spooning is one of the best sleeping positions for couples with lower back pain, since it allows the spine to maintain its natural curves. Bend your knees and put a pillow between them for maximum benefit.

    Sleeping apart, together…

    Prefer not to cuddle up? 27% of couples sleep on their sides facing away from each other, with no contact between them. Psychologist Corrine Sweet, who calls this the “Liberty” position, believes that this position indicates “both closeness and independence”.

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