There are few things better than a good night’s sleep. You awake feeling refreshed, energized, and ready to tackle your day. On the other hand, a bad night’s sleep leaves you feeling like a truck hit you and can effectively ruin your day.
Did you know that your sleep position can influence both the quality of your sleep and your overall health? Some positions promote health and sleep while others can take a serious toll on your body.
In this post, we’re going to evaluate and rank the 4 primary sleep positions, starting with the best position and ending with the worst.
By the end, you’ll have a firm grasp on what’s at stake with each position.
Position #1 - On Your Back
Back sleepers look somewhat strange, right? Lying perfectly still, eyes pointed directly at the ceiling, almost as if they’re a corpse. Perhaps this is why only 16% of Americans sleep on their back. And the fact that back sleepers tend to snore at jet engine levels.
But this is actually the healthiest sleeping position, at least most of the time. It allows your spine, head, and neck to stay in a neutral position, as opposed to being tilted at an odd angle. When you sleep a neutral position, you don’t put pressure on various parts of your body and you don’t wake up feeling like your neck was in a vice all night.
If you put a pillow under your knees, it can improve the position of your spine even more. As Kristen Domonell notes:
The rounding in your lower back mimics the natural curvature of your spine that occurs when you’re sleeping on your side, in the fetal position. Think of it this way: When you’re lying flat on your back with your legs extended on the floor, you can probably fit your hand in the space between the floor and your lower back. But when your knees are up and your feet placed flat on the floor, you are easing some tension from the lower back all night long.
Sleeping on your back also prevents volcanic acid reflux from climbing up your esophagus and burning it. Just make sure that your head is elevated properly.
Additionally, sleeping on your back can keep your face out of your pillow, which can cause wrinkles in the long run. Have you ever woken up with lines from your pillow pressed into your face? If that happens repeatedly, wrinkles may form.
However, there are a some people who shouldn’t sleep on their backs. If you have sleep apnea, sleeping on your back is a bad idea. First of all, your snoring will reach astonishing decibel levels. But more importantly (and dangerously), your tongue may block your breathing tube, causing you to temporarily stop breathing.
For more info on sleep apnea, watch this short video:
One other note: if you sleep in the “starfish” position, with your arms above your head, you can put pressure on your shoulders, which can lead to pain.
Position #2 - On Your Side
If you absolutely can’t sleep on your back, sleeping on your side is your next best option. Ideally, your torso and legs will be relatively straight.
There are several benefits to being a side-sleeper. First, the chance of acid reflux is significantly lower, as long as your head is elevated above your stomach.
Second, it’s the best position for chronic snorers since it keeps the airway open and air moving freely. If you are afflicted with sleep apnea, you should consider becoming a side sleeper.
Third, sleeping on your left side can be healthy for you heart. When you sleep on that side, the blood flows out of your heart, is circulated through your body, and then returns on the right side. When you sleep on your right side, your body presses up against the vessels that return blood to the heart, increasing the strain on them.
Oddly enough, sleeping on your side may also be healthy for your brain. An animal study noted that mice who slept on their sides had better glymphatic systems, which are essential for flushing harmful toxins from the brain. The authors of the study state:
The major finding of our study was that waste, including Aβ, removal was most efficient in the lateral position (compared with the prone position), which mimics the natural resting/sleeping position of rodents. Although our finding awaits testing in humans, we speculate that the lateral position during sleep has advantage with regard to the removal of waste products including Aβ, because clinical studies have shown that sleep drives Aβ clearance from the brain.
Finally, it’s a relatively healthy position for your spine. As one doctor notes, “[S]leeping on one’s side is helpful by mechanically opening up a crowded oropharynx. It also elongates the spine, which helps back pain.”
However, there are a few downsides. Sleeping on your side keeps your face smashed against your pillow all night, which can cause face wrinkles. If you’re trying to preserve the beauty of your youth, consider sleeping on your back.
Additionally, sleeping on your side can result in one of your arms falling asleep. This happens because of something called “capillary crush”, which is when the weight of your body puts significant pressure on blood vessels, causing blood circulation to stop. If you’ve ever woken up feeling like a dead appendage is attached to your body, you know exactly what this feels like.
Position #3 - The Fetal Position
This position involves sleeping on your side with your torso hunched forward and knees drawn up toward your head. In addition to being the position adopted by emotionally unstable men when they break up with their girlfriends, it is the preferred position for most sleepers.
There are several groups for whom this position is ideal. First, if you are pregnant, this is a healthy choice both for you and the fetus. If you sleep on your left side, it increases blood circulation both to you and the fetus. It also prevents the uterus from sitting atop and pressing down on the liver, which is on the right side of your body.
Additionally, this is a great position if you snore since it keeps your airway open.
However, there are a few downsides. If you curl up too tight, you can prevent proper breathing in your diaphragm. And, of course, if you have arthritis or any sort of joint pain, this position may worsen it. To avoid these things, straighten out as much as possible and even put a pillow between your knees.
Position #4 - On Your Stomach
This is the absolute worst position for your body. You have to contort your body into all types of weird positions, turning your neck at a 90 degree angle and raising your head to rest it on the pillow. You’re becoming like a circus contortionist on a lesser scale.
It’s also really bad for your lower back. Have you ever done the “Superman” position while exercising? There’s a reason you can’t hold that position for long periods of time: your back isn’t really designed to bend that way. When you sleep on your stomach, you’re putting pressure on your lower back for the entire night, which can lead to back pain over time.
The only advantage to sleeping on your stomach is that it can help with snoring. If you snore at absolutely epic levels and nothing else helps, you could try sleeping on your stomach, but in most cases you should avoid the position.
Should You Change Your Sleeping Position?
It depends. If you’re already sleeping on your back or side and you feel okay in the mornings, there’s not really any need to change things up. If you’re having ongoing back pain, you may want to consider switching positions.
Also, if you’re having issues sleeping, you should consider:
- The quality of your mattress
- Whether you have good sleep hygiene
- If there are any medical conditions you need to address
If you have, or suspect you have sleep apnea, you should get treated by a doctor. If left untreated, it can cause serious sleep deficiencies and significant health risks.
When it comes to sleep positions, the primary issues at stake are overall comfort levels, health issues, and the quality of your sleep. To state the obvious, the quality of your sleep is essential. If you feel exhausted all day, that’s clearly not good for your health.
However, your sleep position does affect things like spine health, blood circulation, and perhaps even brain health.
Ideally, you’ll be able to find some middle ground where you’re sleeping in a healthy position and waking up feeling refreshed.