Getting your body into the correct sleeping position is one of the best things you can do for your health. But most importantly, we're creatures of habit, and it's not easy to change the bedtime position you've held for most of your life. But if you can do it, it's likely to significantly improve not only your sleep quality, but your overall health as well.
Here are five good reasons to change your sleeping position — and three ways you can do it.
1. If you snore, consider sleeping on your side
If you have severe sleep apnea, sleeping on your side can actually save your life, says Dr.
When you lie on your stomach or back, gravity can compress your airways against you. It's one of the main causes of snoring, but it can also lead to a variety of other sleep problems. That's one reason why the best way to sleep is to float in mid-air. Astronauts consistently report a reduction in both interrupted breathing and snoring during stress-free, weightless sleep.
That's why Oksenberg strongly recommends that people with breathing problems, such as sleep apnea, learn to sleep on their side. According to a 2014 paper Oksenberg co-authored for the Journal of Sleep Research, patients who slept on their side reduced or even eliminated the number of impaired breathing during sleep. (The American Sleep Apnea Association reports that about 38,000 people die from heart disease in the United States each year, and sleep apnea is a complicating factor.)
2. If you have shoulder or back pain, consider lying on your back
If you have muscle or bone discomfort but no breathing problems, lying on your back may be your best option. Assuming you have a supportive mattress, lying on your back can promote better spinal alignment -- helpful for people with disc or vertebral problems -- and reduce stress on the injured limb. People with torn rotator cuffs often wake up in the middle of the night while sleeping on their side because your weight is focused on one pressure point, causing pain. (Read our full sleep guide.)
3. If you have acid reflux or heartburn, consider sleeping on your left side
If you have bowel problems, experts say the best way to sleep is usually on your left side. That's because the digestive system isn't in the center of your body, and sleeping on your left side reduces blocked pathways as the food you've eaten travels through your intestines. Stomach acid is less likely to bubble up your throat when you sleep on your left side. Sleeping on your back is also an option for acid reflux, but you'll need to arrange a pillow and gently lift your head above your stomach.
4. If you have high blood pressure, consider sleeping on your side
There is plenty of promising evidence that switching a person from sleeping on their stomach or their back to sleeping on their side can lower blood pressure. In a recent study, Oxenberg said, "We took 24 hours of blood pressure data and found that both normal and hypertensive people experienced a decline after sleep orientation therapy." (Oksenberg adds that the link between sleep and blood pressure is fairly clear, although the reasons for the link remain poorly understood.)
5. If you're young and totally fine, consider sleeping on your side
Given the benefits of proper sleeping position, if you're a tummy sleeper, it may be worthwhile to exercise your sleeping position while you're young. "It makes sense to learn to sleep on your side now so you can avoid the problems that come with age and weight gain," says Oxenberg.
Young people don't necessarily immediately benefit from sleeping on their side. But they will pay dividends later in life by training themselves early.
But how do you change your sleeping position?
"It's very difficult to do," said Aleksandar Videnovic, MD, chief of sleep medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. "It's a habit we develop from childhood."
So changing sleep positions may actually require a combination of training, the use of mechanical or electronic devices, and the right choice of bedding; most likely, you will have to mix and match these techniques (and you should discuss sleep positioning with your doctor, especially if you have or suspect you have sleep apnea).
You should also understand that no one sleeps in any single position throughout the night. Most people change positions 10 to 40 times a night. We tend to fall back to our "instinctive" postures -- for about 50 to 70 percent of us, lying on our backs most of the time, depending on the study you're consulting.
A note on sleeping on your back: Lots of advice suggests sleeping on your side is better. In many cases, it does. But if you're healthy and don't have breathing problems, sleeping on your back shouldn't be an immediate problem, Videnovic says. (However, as mentioned above, learning to sleep on your side may
It helps with age. )
If you want to change your sleeping position, the results may be gradual, but worth it. Here are three methods:
1. Use a physical object to force your body into a new sleep position. The primary method of converting your back or belly to sleep on your side is called the "tennis technique," and that's exactly what it sounds like. You sewed a tennis ball on the back (or front) of your pajama top so you don't roll around. Research shows the method works, but there is one caveat: the results may not be long-lasting, and you may need to repeat the treatment every once in a while. (One study showed that while most people gave up the technique after two years—probably because of discomfort, because who wants a tennis ball to pierce their spine while they sleep?—the method was helpful for those who persisted. It's effective for people.) Methods Use foam pads, backpacks, or fanny packs to suppress back sleep.
2. Get yourself into a new sleep position. Of course, tennis law also has a high-tech version. These devices, strapped to your body like heart rate monitors, learn about your sleeping habits, then use that data to vibrate when you roll into the wrong spot. A 2015 study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine showed that while both methods were equally effective at keeping people from sleeping on their backs, electronic devices encouraged long-term adherence. And because it provides earlier, gentler feedback, it can lead to better overall sleep. Considering the dangers of sleep apnea, this is a plus.
"[The electronic device] significantly improved disease remission, sleep quality, and quality of life compared to... TBT [tennis technology]," the study's authors wrote. Several other companies make similar devices, and while we haven't tested any of them, recent research suggests they can reduce sleep apnea by more than 50 percent in most users.
How do you get one of these devices? Some are classified as sleep aids, which means they do not require a prescription; others are specifically designed to address medically diagnosed insomnia or sleep apnea and require your doctor to recommend them for you. Currently available are Philips NightBalance and similar Night Shift devices. There is also some overlap between these gadgets and those that help reduce snoring (see our test of the latter).
3. Use the bedding to shape your body into the correct sleeping position. Pillow and mattress selection are critical to sleep positioning. For example, people who sleep on their backs generally prefer a firmer mattress, while people who sleep on their sides need more cushioning to relieve extra pressure on their shoulders and joints. If you want to switch from sleeping on your back to sleeping on your side, you may need a softer mattress (or mattress cover) for comfort. (Our guide to the best mattresses for side sleepers, back sleepers, stomach sleepers and those with back pain.)
People who sleep on their backs will want a pillow that is not too fluffy but conforms to their body so that their head, neck and back are aligned with each other. This might mean placing a memory foam pillow to create a gentle line of support from your head to your shoulder blades (some people prefer a butterfly-shaped pillow, and Arrontop's cervical pillow will suit most needs, whether it is back, side, or stomach). Memory foam mattresses can also help, as the dents you make in the mattress can limit your body movement. Extra pillows, as a sort of cordon against movement, are another option, but unfortunately, they're not great for cuddling if you have a bed partner.
Pillows on the legs can provide support. Videnovic recommends placing one under your knees for sleeping on your back -- it will improve spinal alignment -- or between your knees for sleeping on your side. (A body pillow is another option for side sleepers.)
Once you have found your ideal sleeping position, you must work to maintain it. While there is some evidence that electronic positioning devices "stay" longer, the reality is that you need to monitor your sleep patterns and retrain yourself when needed.
Scientists and doctors are just beginning to understand the importance of sleep. "We completely ignore a third of the 24-hour cycle in a day," Videnovic said. "But we're starting to understand that sleep cycles -- including body position, sleep quality and sleep duration -- are modifiable targets for the treatment of many diseases."
Being able to improve your health and well-being while you sleep seems like a dream. But if you're willing to change some of your long-held positions, it's entirely possible.