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What Are Some of the Different Sleeping Positions?

Learning About the Different Sleeping Positions

Sleep is something that we do, whether or not we like it. Fortunately, most of us enjoy sleeping, except for certain rare instances such as finishing up a research paper due the next morning at 8 AM. An average individual sleeps about 6-8 hours a day which amounts to between 25% and 33% of a typical day. In fact, based on a recent study, Americans on average, get a whopping 9 hours of sleep each day. Say, for instance, someone who consistently sleeps 8 hours a day and lives to 80 years old spends approximately 2,920 hours sleeping every year, and 233,600 hours throughout his lifetime. While that is a whole lot of time, we often do not pay attention to the details of sleep. Things like different sleeping positions, habits we follow before going to sleep and things we can do to get the most out of our sleep are often neglected and not well thought of.

Sleeping positions, which describes the posture in which an individual sleeps in is a good start to better understand our sleeping habits and how they affect the quality of sleep we get. At a high level, there are three distinctly different sleeping positions.

Back Sleepers

Stomach Sleeper

Sleeping on your back is has been argued to be the best sleeping position as the back is straight and a quality mattress can provide some good support for your back. Sleeping on the back without a pillow is one of the best positions to sleep as it does not exert any pressure onto your neck in this neutral position. The goal of sleeping with a pillow is to ensure that the head and neck are supported with propping the head up too much.

Several studies including this one set out to study the influence of different sleeping positions on the formation of facial wrinkles. Not surprisingly, sleeping on your back contributes least to the formation of wrinkles on your face as your face is not up against a pillow.

Sleeping on the back though can increase the tendency that one experiences snoring and sleep apnea – a sleep disorder in which breathing stops and starts repetitively. In a study conducted on the effect of sleep position on sleep apnea severity, what researchers found what that individuals who slept on their backs were twice more likely to experience sleep apnea when compared to subjects who slept in other positions. Sleep apnea, which is caused by a restricted intake of air into your lungs can cause a noise disturbance to your partner.

Side Sleepers

Side sleepers – individuals who sleep on either their right or left side – account for a majority of individuals’ sleeping posture. Sleeping on the side, includes sub-positions such as the fetal position. I, for one, often find myself sleeping on the side; maybe because it is the sleeping position which I get the most rest out of.

Side Sleeper

Pregnant women are often advised by their doctors to sleep on their left side as it improves circulation to the heart. Obviously, women who are pregnant can’t possibly sleep on their stomach, in addition, sleeping on their back can cause low blood pressure. Other than these benefits that sleeping on the side can bring, reducing the symptoms and pain felt during heartburn and acid reflux is another benefit. When you are awake an in an upright position, gravity helps the esophagus clear the refluxed material back to the stomach. On the other hand, when you are laying down, there could be a delayed clearance of the refluxed material. The anatomy of the human body and where organs are situated mean that sleeping on the left side reduces the pressure exerted on the lower esophageal sphincter and therefore relieves the discomfort of acid reflux. You can think of the sphincter as a gateway that food passes when it is on its way to the gut.

One thing that I’ve encountered numerous times when I am sleeping on my side is waking up with a shoulder pain and numbness in my arm. I have noticed that this happens particularly often when I am sleeping on my side with my arm under the pillow and if the mattress is too firm. More specifically, if I am sleeping on the left side of my body, I’ll straighten out my left arm and place it under my pillow. I know this is a fairly common “variation” for those who sleep on their sides; which means many individuals too experience pain in their shoulders and/or numbness in their arm. The main reason for this side sleeping shoulder pain is that at this position, the shoulder and arm supports a majority of the body weight. In addition, because your arm is at the bottom most “layer”, below the pillow and your head, this can result in a restriction in blood flow and in extreme conditions, cause damage to nerves in your arm.

Doctors have advised that sleeping in the fetal position – knees pulled up high and chin tucked into the chest – is bad for your back, especially if you have arthritis. Another con for sleeping in the fetal position is that it can restrict diaphragmatic breathing.

Stomach Sleepers

Back sleeper

Sleeping on one’s stomach has often been recommended for those who snore a lot. Studies conducted suggest that sleeping on your stomach can help ease snoring and sleep apnea. The reason for this is that sleeping facedown keeps the upper airways more open, allowing for easier breathing to take place. However, it is also one of the worst sleeping positions. On your stomach, you are straining your spine, displacing it from its natural “S” curve shape. Most individuals who adopt this sleeping posture also sleep with the head turned to one side, which strains the neck. While the strain on the neck might not be felt immediately after one wakes up, they can definitely feel the ache sooner or later.

What Does This All Mean?

As we went over in this article, there are undoubtedly pros and cons associated with each sleeping position. While defining a so called “best” sleeping position would be convenient, individuals do not have just one sleeping position throughout the night.

Tossing and turning during your sleep is a common thing and during such events, the sleeping position you went into bed with could change. What is sure though is the first sleeping position when you get into bed. This is usually the one you’d stick to until you’re deep into your sleep. Understanding how you feel when you get up in the morning will provide indicators as to how you can improve your sleeping quality. Maybe it involves experimenting to get into bed with different sleeping positions to see how you feel in the morning, or maybe it requires you to change out your mattress or pillow to suite your needs based on how you feel. Either way, you’d need to learn more about your sleeping habits before you can take steps to improve them, and determining your preferred and primary sleeping position is an excellent way to do so.


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