The back vs. side debate is divisive. Here's how the sleep positions stack up health-wise.
Sleep on It
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A study by the Institute of Medicine found that a whopping 50–70 million U.S. adults suffer from sleep or wakefulness disorders. That's a lot of folks nodding off at their desks or standing in a Starbucks line for their third cup of java. But let's face it: We're creatures of habit, and our sleeping positions aren't likely to change (after all, we are sleeping). Here's what your snooze-spots are doing for your health—and what little tweaks you can make to improve them.
The Best: Back (Supine)
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If back-sleeping is your position of preference, you're scoring more benefits during shut-eye than you'd think. "Your head is facing straight up and weight is evenly distributed on your spine," making it the most orthopedically sound position, says Dr. Michael Breus, clinical psychologist and author of The Sleep Doctor's Diet Plan: Lose Weight Through Better Sleep. And unlike when your face is buried in a pillow, sleeping on your back allows gravity to pull down on your face and chest, which is beneficial for those suffering from acid reflux. With your head slightly elevated, your stomach sits below your esophagus so acid and food are far less likely to come back up.
But snorers, beware: Supine is the worst of all the sleeping positions if you suffer from sleep apnea. "Your throat and belly are being pulled down by gravity, making it harder for you to breathe," explains Dr. Andrew Westwood, assistant professor of clinical neurology at Columbia University Medical Center. "If you [lie on your side or] get pushed by your bed partner, that snoring goes away."
Score Better Sleep: Congrats, you're rocking that bed! (We'll skip the dirty pun...this time.) Unless you're a habitual snorer, back-sleeping is your best bet for optimal health and day-to-day physical comfort. Oh, and it helps prevent wrinkles—a beauty bonus we're definitely in favor of.
Next Best: Left Side
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If snuggling up on your side is the most comfortable, experts recommend lying on your left side. "Sleeping on your right pushes on blood vessels, preventing maximum circulation," says Breus. Because of this added pressure on your veins, your body moves more frequently through the night to accommodate the lack of circulation, resulting in all that fitful sleep your Fitbit is tracking. The left side, however, allows for cardiovascular return, says Dr. Christopher Winter, medical director at Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine. "Meaning your heart can easily pump blood throughout your body when there's less pressure on that region."
Score Better Sleep: No matter which side you're sticking to, Jen Robart, physical therapist at Northeast Rehabilitation Hospital, recommends placing a firm pillow between the knees to support good alignment between the hips and joints. According to the American Chiropractic Association, it'll help evenly distribute your weight throughout the night, easing that creaky feeling of discomfort some wake up with in the morning.
Less Ideal: Right Side
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If sleeping tight means nodding off on your right, you could be exposed to a health risk. Your right side houses your entire cardiovascular system, so added pressure on this part of the body actually constricts your rib cage and strains your lungs. "You're most likely to experience acid reflux and even heart failure," says Winter. But don't freak out quite yet: If you're in good overall health, there's no reason to worry that sleeping on your right side could cause harm. However, if you have certain medical conditions like heartburn, or if you're pregnant, you may want to move to the left (not to mention, you'll score the health benefits on slide 2).
Score Better Sleep: If you need to stick to the right, Robart suggests rolling up a small towel and "placing it in the small of your waist to avoid sinking into the mattress," which can alleviate pressure on your organs and help you snooze soundly.
Not Ideal: Sleeping with One Leg Up
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Hiking one limb higher while you snooze isn't giving you a leg up on your health. Sleeping in the "horizontal tree" position, where one leg is bent higher than the other (usually coming in toward your chest), may do more harm than good. "Having both legs up during sleep would pull weight off the pelvis, and could potentially help someone with low back pain, but one leg up may do the opposite," says Breus. The uneven displacement of pressure on one limb versus the other may cause back damage down the road.
Score Better Sleep: If you do find yourself waking in the middle of the night with your right or left leg curled up toward your stomach, try placing a pillow between your legs, suggests Robart. "Not only does it take pressure off your pelvis, but it can also help stabilize the leg that keeps moving upward during sleep."
The Worst: Stomach (Prone)
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Sorry, stomach sleepers. We know you love to flop face down with arms out, but experts say this is the easiest way to wake up with pain and discomfort the next morning. "Sleeping on the stomach pulls the belly down and hurts the curvature of the spine...and forces your head to turn on a 90-degree angle, which winds up placing strain on your neck," says Breus. Cue a crick in your neck the next morning—ouch.
Score Better Sleep: Trade in those fat, fluffy pillows for a thin, firm one. It won't prop your neck up too high, allowing for a more even curvature of your spine, says Westwood. And for better circulation, Robart suggests placing a pillow or two under your pelvic region. "It'll decrease compression on the arch of your lower back, allowing for a more natural alignment of the spine," she says.