How do you sleep at night? Here’s how your sleep position affects your health

Most people begin to show a preferred sleep position as they age

DETROIT – We spend about a third of our lives sleeping, often in the same position for hours at a time. So, it should come as no surprise that the position you are in can have an impact on your health.

When we’re young we move much more in our sleep. As we get older we move less and often begin to show a preferred position while sleeping. In some cases that preferred position may be related to something obvious.

If you have a shoulder problem, for example, you might position yourself unconsciously to relieve any discomfort. Sometimes your choice of sleep position may be less obvious.

The benefits of sleeping on your side

According to Dr. Luisa Bazan, the division head of sleep medicine at Henry Ford Health, the most common position for adults to sleep in is on their side, with only about 10 percent sleeping on their back and even less on their stomach.

“Sleeping on our side is the best position for sleep,” Bazan said.

With that in mind, there are a number of medical conditions where side sleeping is even more specifically recommended. If you suffer from gastroesophageal reflux (GERD), where food and stomach acid gurgle up when you lie down, Dr. Bazan has some advice.

“Sleep on the left side. There has been a study recently that shows when the patient sleeps on the left side they have less acid going into the upper part of the esophagus,” Bazan said.

Another piece of advice is to raise the head of your bed, so you sleep at more of a slope. Sleeping on your left side is also recommended during pregnancy. A left-sided position will help shift the growing uterus off important blood vessels that run behind it.

Side sleeping can also benefit people with heart disease. Studies have found heart failure patients prefer right-sided sleeping. It’s believed sleeping on your right side improves heart function and relieves congestion, according to Dr. Bazan.

There have also been studies showing sleeping on your right side causes less of a change to the heart’s electrical activity than left-sided sleeping. It is important to point out that there is no evidence that the side you sleep on changes any cardiac risk. It’s more about which side is most likely to be comfortable.

For people who suffer from sleep apnea, side sleeping may be a solution. It doesn’t matter which side you’re on, it’s about keeping your tongue from falling backward. Sleeping on your back is much worse for snorers and people with sleep apnea because when you relax in your sleep, your upper airway can narrow when your tongue shifts backward.

Reasons to consider sleeping on your back

All the above helps explain why side sleeping is the most common position, but there are a couple of reasons some people may want to avoid side sleeping.

When we sleep on our side our faces get compressed producing wrinkles parallel to the surface we’re sleeping on. As we age, sleeping in the same position night after night can make some of those creases permanent.

Also, when we sleep on our side our faces come in contact with our pillows and accumulated debris and oils can increase the risk of acne. In both of those cases, sleeping on your back might be beneficial.

The last thing I want to specifically talk about is back pain.

Unfortunately, there is no perfect sleep position for people with back problems and the most comfortable position is going to vary from person to person. If you sleep on your back placing a pillow or two behind your knees to keep them slightly bent can help better align your spine.

If you sleep on your side putting a pillow between your legs can also help maintain alignment.

By the way, for the small percentage of people who sleep face down on their stomachs, there is no specific medical condition where this is preferred.

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About the Author:

Dr. McGeorge can be seen on Local 4 News helping Metro Detroiters with health concerns when he isn't helping save lives in the emergency room at Henry Ford Hospital.