Why your sleeping position is shortening your life

Side sleeping is the most common position but there are health implications for certain people depending on whether they lie on their left or right side.

It is advised that pregnant women and anyone who suffers from acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or other gut problems sleep on their left side.

“This is because the stomach is lower than your oesophagus,” explains Margo.

People with heart conditions, on the other hand, are advised to try sleeping on their right side to alleviate pressure on the heart. Studies show that when people lie on their left side the position of their heart shifts due to gravity. This causes changes in the heart’s electrical activity. Tissues and structures between the lungs hold the heart in place when you sleep on your right side.

Sleep position may also have an impact on brain health. During sleep the brain’s glymphatic system “washes” waste toxins away from the brain. There is evidence that suggests this process works better when we sleep on our right side.

“That is potentially of interest to people at risk of dementia or Alzheimer’s or any kind of neurodegenerative disease,” says Lederle.

Postural problems can occur with side sleepers depending on body shape, as Margo explains. “Women with hourglass figures sleeping on a soft mattress will sink into a banana shape and that will cause a strain on the spine and hips. While men who side-sleep can tend to get more pain in their shoulders as they get older and their muscles weaken.”

Side sleeping can also cause wrinkles and breast sagging because the skin on the face can get pressed against bedding and gravity can pull breast tissue and stretch skin.

One 2022 study by Beijing Forestry University and Chenzhou Vocational Technical College looked at the relationship between sleeping position and sleep quality. It used flexible wearable sensors to monitor sleep position and turning frequency. It concluded that subjects without sleep disorders who prefer to sleep on their side will sleep better than those who like to sleep on their back and that a higher frequency of turning during sleep will reduce sleep quality. 

Another study published in 2021 looked at relationships between sleep posture, back pain and quality of sleep. It reported that positions in which the spine was twisted can cause tissue microdamage and muscle spasms. The study compared common positions such as supine (back sleeping), provocative side lying (where the sleeper twists at the hip with one leg over the other), protected side lying (where the sleeper places a hand between the thighs and crosses the other arm over the chest), and prone (front sleeping).

It concluded that while it is not known if sleep posture is a risk factor for acute onset or recurrent back pain, participants with symptoms and stiffness in the morning spent more of the night in provocative (i.e. twisted at the hip) sleep postures.

To mitigate some of the problems associated with side sleeping Margo recommends using a thick pillow to align the head and neck with your spine and placing a pillow between your knees to support your hips and reduce strain on your lower back.

Back sleeping

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