WebMD Health - Sleep Disorders

Sep 7, 2011 6:19 PM

How Your Sleep Position Affects Your Sleep Quality

Stacey Sanner, 51, a PR consultant in Seattle and avid runner, is partial to sleeping on her right side. In her 20s, following a knee injury, she switched her primary sleep position from her stomach to her side and added a pillow between her legs.

"I have never been able to sleep on my back," she says. "When I started having lower back trouble, my doctor told me, ''One of the best things to do is sleep on your side with a pillow between your knees.'"

Can sleep posture affect the quality of your sleep and health? Absolutely, says Steven Park, MD, author of Sleep, Interrupted and clinical assistant professor of otolaryngology at New York Medical College in Valhalla, N.Y. Fatigue, sleep apnea, headaches, heartburn, and back pain are some of the complaints that can be aggravated by improper sleep posture and a bad night's sleep, Park says.

Finding the Right Sleep Position

Is side, stomach, or back best? And can you switch to another position if the one you favor may not be best for your health? "You're naturally going to gravitate toward a position that you feel best sleeping in," Park says. You'll also tend to choose one based on how well you're able to breathe. "The smaller the airway in your throat becomes at night, the more likely it is you're going to sleep on your stomach," he says.

Back sleeping is a no-no for snorers and those with sleep apnea; side sleeping is best because it helps keep your airways open. Research suggests sleeping on the left side can relieve heartburn symptoms, while right-side sleeping makes them worse. Sleeping on the left side is also recommended during pregnancy to improve circulation to the heart -- good for mom and baby.

You may want to experiment with different positions, but Park advises against switching from your natural inclination unless there's a health condition that calls for it.

Sanner knows something's off if she's shifted out of her favored position during the night. "I can tell as soon as I wake up if I've had a good night's sleep," she says. "I feel rested, full of energy, and happy."

The Best Sleep Position

Sixty-three percent of Americans sleep on their side. Only 14% sleep on their back and 16% on their stomach. Which way is best? Shut-eye expert Park offers these tips.

Go with the flow. You may have heard that sleeping on your back prevents facial wrinkles because nothing is pushing against your face, but that doesn't mean you should change your snooze. Trying to change your natural sleep position can harm the quality of your sleep, says Park.

Mattress matters. The condition of your mattress will often dictate your sleep position. If you have an old, worn-out mattress that sags in the middle, sleeping on your side or stomach is more difficult.

Taking sides. The majority of Americans are side sleepers, but the jury is still out on which side -- left or right -- is more popular. Most people stick with one position, but that can shift as you age, usually due to health issues, says Park. Also, no one stays in one position all night, and doing so is not good for circulation.

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