7 Sleeping Positions and Their Effects On Your Health

Until recently, sleep positions have not garnered as much attention and intrigue as the divine Kama Sutra sitting on many bedside tables. Gone were the days when sleeping meant turning whichever way your REM-ing body felt like and it never mattered much where you turned or how you contorted your body so long as you get to touch John Abraham’s ripped abs. But research says that sleep posture can affect your health and quality of life. Fatigue, heartburn, headaches, back pain and sleep apnea are among the complaints aggravated improper sleep posture. And if you want to maintain perky breasts and wrinkle-free skin, you better keep to your back. Here are seven of the most common sleep positions:

1. The Back Position

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The Boon: Sleeping on the back with arms resting at the side is considered to be the best sleeping position, many doctors agree, especially for spine health and preventing neck pain and acid reflux. Improper posture during the night compromises pain sensitive structures of the spine and may be responsible for stiffness, back, neck and shoulder pain. Sleeping is the most natural position for the spine. This position makes it easy for your head, neck, spine and provides support for the entire musculoskeletal system.

It is also ideal for individuals who suffer from heartburn and acid reflux. With one puffy pillow to support and elevate the head and neck, the stomach will settle below the esophagus as it should so acid, food and fluids don’t come back up. The pillow should touch the shoulders, otherwise you run the risk of not supporting the cervical spine and neck muscles.

The Drawback: Sleeping in the supine position causes the tongue to fall backwards and block the airway, which creates those oh-so-adorable snoring noises, obstructs breathing and can possibly cause sleep apnea, a disorder that causes episodes of breathlessness. Sleep apnea can cause daytime fatigue, heart rhythm diseases, pulmonary hypertension and death at the worse. Side-sleeping is best in this situation. Back sleeping may also cause lower back pain especially if your legs are straight, with not enough support for the lower back, allowing it to arch too high. The Fix: To avoid lower back pain, place a rolled towel or a small pillow under the knees and lower back to follow the natural curvature of the spine. People with heart failure, obstructive respiratory diseases and glaucoma can use as many pillows as they feel most comfortable with to ease their symptoms and facilitate sleeping.

2. On Back Arms Up

Sleeping with your arms above your head is something you should never do, according to Dr. John Gillick, author of Sleep Smart. There are at least two problems with this posture. First, arms extended over the head raises the shoulders into the neck and causes cramps, poor circulation and pain. It also compresses the brachial nerve that travels from the neck down to the arms and hands. Second, when the nerves are irritated, they are either inhibited or excited. It’s a neurological and vascular response that produces either tingling and/or numbness in the arms or hands. That, good friends, is what you call pins and needles sensation and “dead” arm. One of the earliest reference on this very subject appeared in the book The Modern Bethesda or The Gift of Healing Restored” written by Dr. James Rogers Newton in 1879. In the book, he claims that the arteries leading from the heart to the head close in this posture, which produces congestion by forcing the blood back to the head and lungs. sleep-ad

3. The Side-Lying Position

The Boon: It was in 1946 that the side-lying position was suggested as the best position in a study by McDonnell published in the British Journal of Physical Medicine. He suggested that people should lie on their side on a semi-fetal position with a pillow so the head was equidistant between the two shoulders. A 2007 study by Susan Gordon, Phd, reflects McDonnell’s proposal. Whether they’re curling up in a semi-fetal position or snoozing as straight as a log on their side, a vast majority of people, including 66 percent of Americans, sleep on their side. Sleep specialists highly recommend side-sleeping to improve sleep quality, reduce snoring and prevent sleep apnea. If you suffer from acid reflux, side-sleeping is the next best thing to back-sleeping. Doctors encourage pregnant women to sleep on their left side to reduce pressure on the aorta and increase circulation, which benefits both mom and baby. The Drawback: It was previously believed that side-lying puts pressure on the liver, stomach and lungs, but recent studies found no evidence of these claims. The only downside to this position is the dreaded “dead arm”. This position is not suitable for those with shoulder girdle problems. The Fix: Use a pillow of moderate height to support your head and neck in their natural alignment to prevent stiffness and cramps. Add a pillow between your knees to ease the strain on the hips and another small pillow under your waist to support the natural curvature of your body. Try sleeping on your left side if you have hypertension. If you are prone to kidney stones on one side, sleep on the other side.

4. The Stomach Position 

The Boon: 16% of Americans on their stomach. Sleeping on your stomach improves digestion. It also eases snoring and sleep apnea because facedown opens the airways. So if you snore and aren’t suffering from spinal cord injuries, neck and back pain, you can try sleeping on your belly. But that’s pretty much the good thing about it. The Drawback: Sleep professionals agree that belly-sleeping is the worst position anyone can sleep on. In this position, the spine falls flat, the neck is hyper-flexed and pressure is exerted on the nerves along your arms. You cannot take a deep breath because your body’s weight will compress the lungs and prevent full expansion. What’s more is this posture exerts unnecessary pressure on the breasts, joints and muscles which can lead to numbness and pain. And unless you have mastered breathing through a pillow, you are most likely to face in one direction for hours and end up with a stiff neck the next day. The Fix: If belly-sleeping is a preferred position, use an extremely thin pillow or none at all to prevent hyper-flexing the neck. Try propping up one side of your body with a log pillow or sticking a pillow under your hips.

5. The Fetal Position

The Boon: This position is advantage to snorers and pregnant women. The Drawback: Snoozing in a tight fetal pose outside your mother’s uterus isn’t such a brilliant idea, no matter how comfortable it is. With knees pulled up high and chin dropped to your chest, this position can do a number on your back and neck. The extreme curl also restricts breathing. This position is not for persons with an arthritic back. The Fix: Straighten out a bit. Try not to tuck your body into a tight curl. Use a plump pillow to support your head and neck.

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6. The Log

This is a variation of the side-lying position and as such, offers the same benefits. On your side with arms straight down, this position maintains neutral body alignment, allowing the spine to lengthen. This position will not compromise breathing and can definitely reduce back and neck pain and sleep apnea. 

7. The Yearner

Another variation of the side-lying position, the yearner involves sleeping on one side with arms reaching out. Lying on the side helps achieve optimal position of the spine, muscles and ligaments. Having arms in front will not restrict blood flow and will help prevent numbness and/or tingling. So what is the best position to sleep in? Dr. Steven Park, author of Sleep Interrupted recommends going with what you are naturally inclined to. You may experiment with different positions, but switching from your natural inclination, unless a health condition calls for it, will affect the quality of your sleep. RELATED: Skimping on sleep comes with serious consequences, including accelerated aging. There’s a lasting price to pay for sleep loss.

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