How to Sleep on Your Side the Right Way
Stomach, back, right side, left side— there are plenty of sleep positions to go around, but which one do you use most often? The vast majority of people are combination sleepers, which means they switch to several positions throughout the night. However, we all have a preferred position.
Stomach, back, and side are the three main sleeping positions. All positions have their pros and cons. For example, back sleepers are more likely to have good spinal alignment but are more likely to snore excessively. Stomach sleeping, on the other hand, is not recommended because of the pressure it puts on the lower back.
As the most popular sleep position, side sleeping deserves extra attention. It can be great for your heart health and circulation, but sometimes it may take extra effort on your part to stay comfortable. However, if you’re a side sleeper, left or right, there are ways you can do it to improve your health and comfort.
Side Sleeping Variations
Human beings have a way of putting their own unique take or spin on everything they do. Sleeping positions are no different, and side sleeping can be broken down into three general styles.
- Log Sleeper: The log sleeper keeps their legs relatively straight with their arms at their sides. This position tends to be more common among men, though plenty of women sleep this way as well.
- The Yearner: The yearner sleeps with their legs straight or slightly bent with the arms extended forward as though reaching for another person.
- Fetal Position: The fetal position closely resembles the position of a fetus in the womb. The back is gently arched with the knees tucked towards the chest and the hands and arms bent close to the body. A gentle back arch can be healthy for the spine. However, a word of caution—curling in too tightly can over arch the back and cause discomfort.
Many people have their own take on these positions. You may pull your legs towards your chest like the fetal position but extend the arms like a yearner. Or you may sleep with your legs straight like a log sleeper with your arms tucked into your chest and wrists curled under your chin like the fetal position.
The Pros and Cons of Side Sleeping
Side sleeping may be the most popular position, but it does come with pros and cons. If you have any medical conditions or injuries, it could change how side sleeping affects you too. Additionally, you could be affected by your unique combination of sleep positions, weight, or mattress.
Pros of Side Sleeping
Improves Heart Health
Side sleeping has some serious heart benefits, particularly sleeping on the right side. Sleeping on your right side makes it easier for the heart to pump. A 2016 study compared the heart health and sleep position of those with congestive heart failure (CHF) with a control group without CHF. Those with CHF consistently chose their right side over the left and reported discomfort when sleeping on the left side. Sleeping on the right side also improved the results of their heart tests.
If you imagine the chest cavity like a box with the heart on the left side, sleeping on the left side presses the heart against the side of the box (chest cavity). Whereas sleeping on the right side allows the heart to beat without extra pressure.
Sleeping on the right side can also regulate the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system controls your fight or flight response. Your heart rate and blood pressure are part of those responses, and sleeping on your right side stabilizes them.
Reduces Heartburn and Acid Reflux
When stomach acids flow back into the esophagus, it can cause a burning sensation known as heartburn. Heartburn is a common symptom of acid reflux and the more serious condition gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Over time, exposure to stomach acid can damage the esophagus.
You’re particularly susceptible while you sleep because gravity doesn’t help keep the acid in your stomach, and you don’t swallow as often to keep it down. Side sleeping has been shown to keep stomach acid where it belongs.
Side sleeping can also reduce snoring, both mild and severe. Snoring can be disruptive to anyone with whom you share a bed. However, it can also be a symptom of a deeper problem.
Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder wherein breathing periodically stops during sleep and causes oxygen levels to drop. One of the most common symptoms is loud, disruptive snoring. People with this condition can sleep for a full seven to eight hours and still feel exhausted because the body is brought out of the deep sleep stages over and over again. Sleeping on your side can reduce snoring and the instances of nighttime waking due to snoring.
Cleansing the Brain
Side sleeping helps the brain cleanse and maintain itself. During the day, the brain creates waste. This waste can accumulate in the tiny interstitial spaces or folds of the brain. A special system called the glymphatic system flushes out these toxins. This system is always working but is 90 percent more active at night. When you’re asleep, it causes the brain cells to shrink, increasing the size of the interstitial spaces. That makes more room for spinal fluid to sweep through the brain and remove waste.
In 2015, researchers used MRI images to test the efficiency of the glymphatic system during different sleep positions. Their results showed that in comparison to stomach and back sleeping, side sleeping increased the activity and efficiency of the glymphatic system.
Mother and Fetus Health
For pregnant women, side sleeping is often the only choice left by the third trimester. Pregnancy is also one of the times when sleeping on the left is recommended over the right. In this position, more blood flows to the growing fetus.
Cons of Side Sleeping
Shoulder and Hip Pain
Side sleeping creates pressure points at the shoulders and hips. That pressure can build until the limbs become achy, sore, or stiff in the morning. These pressure points can also shift the spine out of alignment. Maintaining a neutral spinal position wherein the spine remains level from the top of the head to the tailbone is key to a healthy back and restorative sleep. A mattress with the right cushioning and support can alleviate hip and shoulder pain and keep the spine in the correct position.
If you’ve ever had your finger, arm, or leg fall asleep and felt a tingling, numb, or prickling sensation, you’ve experienced paresthesia. Usually, feeling returns when you change positions, and it’s not a problem. However, if it happens regularly over time, it can be an indication of nerve damage. Those pressure points at your shoulders and hips are more likely to get compressed when you lie on your side. That puts you at greater risk for developing paresthesia. You may be able to get around these issues with the right mattress or by shifting positions.
Wrinkles and Sagging
Gravity has more effect on your body when you lie on your side. Over time, your skin may sag, increasing facial wrinkles.
Which Side to Choose
You’ve got two options when you sleep on your side —left or right— and they’re not necessarily equal in their health benefits.
In general, the right side promotes heart and circulatory health. This is especially true if you have any kind of heart condition or blood pressure issues. Sleeping on the right side can regulate your heart rate and blood pressure as well as reduce pressure on your heart during the night. On the right side, your heart doesn’t have to work as hard. When you’re young, that may not matter, but as you age, you want to help your heart in any way you can.
That isn’t to say that the left side is detrimental to your health. However, if you have a heart condition like CHF, it makes your heart work harder. For pregnant women, on the other hand, sleeping on the left side improves circulation to the fetus and should be done during the last trimester of pregnancy.
How to Side Sleep the Right Way
Your goal should be to maintain the natural curve of the spine throughout the night. As we’ve just discussed, side sleeping has some unique challenges, the most common being pressure build-up at the shoulders and hips and spinal alignment. These issues can be addressed with the right mattress, pillows, and preparation.
Your mattress can make all the difference in your nighttime comfort. Side sleepers need varying support levels along the curves of their bodies. For example, the head, waist, and knees need firmer support to prevent them from sinking too far into the mattress. Too much sinkage and the spine becomes curved. At the same time, the shoulders and hips need pressure relief to prevent numbness and pain. The best mattress for side sleepers has zoned support that’s firmer at the head, waist, and knees and softer at the shoulders and hips works best for maintaining alignment.
Your weight and sleep position are major factors in how the mattress feels to you. Some people prefer firmer support while others like a soft mattress that sinks and “hugs” the body. Finding a mattress that feels good to you and relieves your pressure points is key to all-night comfort.
Pillows are another contributor to spinal alignment— too small and the head sinks towards the mattress, too big and the head tilts upwards. Both issues contribute to neck pain because the spine is not in a neutral position. You want your head, shoulders, and hips to be in a straight line. The size of the pillow you need will depend on the depth of your shoulders, neck length, and personal preference. The best pillow will be soft enough to adapt to your sleep positions as you shift during the night.
Your head isn’t the only place you may need pillow support. Side sleepers often need a pillow between their knees as well. This reduces the strain on the lower back and hip joints.
If you’re making the switch to a side sleeping position from your back or stomach, you may also want a body pillow. It can be used behind the back to prevent rolling backward or hugged in front of the body to prevent rolling onto the stomach. Devoted stomach sleepers should seriously consider a change as stomach sleeping can cause lower back pain. Stomach sleepers may also benefit from tucking a pillow under their armpit. It feels similar to stomach sleeping and provides another barrier to rolling over.
The side sleeping position gives your heart, circulation, and brain a major boost. It can provide relief from snoring and save your back from overarching. Whether you need a new mattress or extra pillow, there’s usually a way to make the side position your go-to sleep posture.
This article is for informational purposes and should not replace advice from your doctor or other medical professional.