Sleeping Positions for Staying Healthy – Sleeping on the Side

Your sleep quality is affected by multiple factors – it isn’t just how dark and quiet your room is or what music you listen to before you hit the hay – it’s how you lay your body down, too.

So, is there such thing like the best sleep position? According to science, the answer is sleeping on your side. In many ways, side sleepers have it better than others with different sleep positions. However, the benefits of side sleep actually depend on which side you prefer. Watch this video and check out our infographic to find out how side sleeping benefits your health.

Side Sleeping Benefits

Benefits of sleeping on your side are directly related to your physiology.

Sleeping on the side allows your spine to remain in its natural and neutral position while particularly sleeping on the left is recommended if you are pregnant, snore or struggle with health conditions such as obstructive sleep apnea. This sleep position is beneficial for snoring and OSA because it helps to open up a crowded oropharynx. Side sleeping is recommended if you have carpal tunnel syndrome because it protects your wrists from pressure during sleep. It also elongates the spine which helps to alleviate neck and back pain.

A recent study shows that the benefits of side sleeping go beyond expected and may boost your brain health.

A study performed at Stony Brook University in New York and published in The Journal of Neuroscience investigated how body posture during sleep affects brain waste removal in mice. The results suggest that sleeping on your side help the brain’s glymphatic system clear waste more effectively than sleeping on the back or stomach.

In order to understand this, we have to explain what the brain’s glymphatic system is, and how our body posture affects it.

The glymphatic system consists of a brain wide pathway that facilitates the exchange of spinal fluid with interstitial fluid, and has the role of clearing interstitial waste from the brain parenchyma. When this waste isn’t cleared properly, we become more prone to neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and dementia. The interstitial waste from the brain parenchyma moves into the perivenous pathways and ultimately gets cleared out via cervical lymphatic vessels.

As you know by now, our brain is active the most during sleep and this is the time when the process of brain waste removal occurs. Side sleeping position elongates the spine and allows faster waste clearance. Other sleep positions may slow down this process or result in brain waste retention.

Therefore, by improving the functioning of the brain’s glymphatic system, we can reduce the risk of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and dementia.

It’s important to mention that side sleeping also comes with some downsides such as unwanted skin aging. Studies show that constantly placing one side of your face on the pillow can cause wrinkles, or even lead to saggy breasts. You’re also more likely to disrupt circulation in your arm, because of the pressure of your body, and wake up with an uncomfortable, tingling pins and needles feeling (also known as paresthesia). Side sleepers typically toss and turn in sleep more often than back sleepers, which may lead to less restful sleep.

Sleep on Which Side is Better, Left or Right?

As mentioned, sleeping on the left or right side has its advantages and disadvantages.

Left side sleeping

Left side sleeping is recommended for:

  • Acid refluxstudies show acid reflux is worse when people lie on their right side.
  • Pregnant women – are advised to sleep on their left side, to help circulation and blood flow to the placenta. Expecting mothers, especially those entering their 6 month of pregnancy, should avoid sleeping on their backs as this may cause the heavy uterus to press on major blood vessels (such as the inferior vena cava that has the role to return blood to the heart) which could lead to a drop in the blood pressure.
  • Digestion – studies confirm that left-side sleeping helps digestion. Your stomach’s and pancreas’ natural position is on your left side. This position allows both organs to make sure the body keeps creating stomach juices and pancreatic enzymes that help with the process of digestion.
  • Sleep-related breathing disorders – people who snore or have obstructive sleep apnea are encouraged to sleep on the left side in order to open up a crowded oropharynx.
  • Vagus nerve arrhythmias – the vagus nerve connects the heart, brain, and the gut, and due to this unique connection, it may be one of the essential causes of arrhythmia. When vagus nerve is stimulated, parasympathetic activity gets increased which is the opposite of sympathetic stimulation also known as the fight or flight response. So, to quiet your vagus nerve at night, studies suggest that you may want to try sleeping on your left side.
  • Bradycardia – If you have slow heart rate at night, sleeping on your left side could stimulate a sympathetic response and increase your heart rate.

However, left side sleeping may put a strain on your internal organs like the pancreas, kidney and spleen, along with the heart. When sleeping on the left, the internal organs in the thorax can shift, and the lungs may weigh heavily on the heart. This increased pressure may impact the heart’s function, potentially worsening heart strain in heart failure. The heart may respond to the increased pressure by activating the kidneys, increasing urination at night.

Right side sleeping

Right side sleeping is especially recommended for heart health. Some scientists think the age-related preference for right-side sleeping is an instinctive, protective response for the heart, and studies show that people with heart failure tend to avoid sleeping on their left sides.

Based on the science, there are four major reasons why you may want to consider sleeping on the right.

  • Shortness of breath – heart patients breathe better sleeping on their right side. Heart patients intuitively sleep on the right side. The reason for this isn’t entirely clear, but it’s probably connected with a better venous return and lower pressures within the heart and lungs.
  • Optimum cardiac output – cardiac output may be better with right side sleeping for the same reasons as number one above.  As gravity pulls the heart toward the center of the chest it may help optimize cardiac performance.
  • Alleviate palpitations – Palpitations can be described as the sensation of your heart not beating correctly.  When sleeping on the right side, the heart is in the center of your chest which may alleviate palpitations.  In contrast, when you are on your left side, the heart is pulled to the chest wall, and you may feel every irregular beat of your heart.

Patients with atrial fibrillation often report that they experience fewer arrhythmias when sleeping on the right side, however, there is still no research that could confirm this.

  • Lower heart rate and less sympathetic nervous activity – the sympathetic nervous system is the body’s fight or flight response, and it often makes our heart rate and blood pressure go up. Sympathetic nervous system stimulation makes patients’ heart failure, chest pain, or arrhythmias worse.  

Right side sleeping is not recommended for:

  • Heartburn –several studies have found that sleeping on the right side aggravates heartburn while sleeping on the left tends to calm it. The reason is not entirely clear. One hypothesis holds that right-side sleeping relaxes the lower esophageal sphincter, between the stomach and the esophagus.
  • Patients with pulmonary conditions – with gravity shifting the internal organs to the right, the heart will shift the mediastinum towards the right lung. This will reduce the volume of the lung, and this may be important in certain pulmonary conditions. Left side sleeping also constricts the ribcage, which causes the lungs to strain for oxygen.

If you are an overall healthy person, it’s healthier to sleep on your right side and avoid putting unnecessary strain on your major internal organs. Right side sleeping is also beneficial if you struggle with a heart condition. However, if you are sleeping for two, or struggle with OSA and GERD, left-side sleeping is more recommended.

Quick Tips for Sleeping on the Side

To minimize the disadvantages of side sleeping, it’s important to get a good pillow and a good mattress.

The ideal models are the ones that support the natural alignment of the body. When lying on your back, your body is properly aligned when an imaginary horizontal line that goes through your ear to the rest of your body is completely parallel. When you lie on your side, the horizontal line running through your nose should be in line with the rest of the body.

Once you have a good pillow and mattress, sleeping with some extra pillows may enhance the health benefits of sleeping on the side.

How to sleep with 3 pillows:

  •    The first pillow goes under your head to ensure it doesn’t tilt down
  •    The second pillow goes under your waist, so your stomach doesn’t curve down
  •    The third pillow goes between your legs to ensure your spine stays in a neutral position during the entire night

So, why is this important? As a side sleeper, apart from keeping your spine properly aligned, you must also keep the right and left side of your body as symmetrical as possible.

For example, crossing the left upper leg over the right lower one is not recommended as it would cause the left upper knee to drop and the left hip to be rolled forward, causing your lower spine to twist which may result in lower back pain.

Instead, keep the legs bent at the knee, one on top of the other so that the lower leg can support the upper one. Putting a pillow between bent knees will re-center your body, and hugging a pillow will help to support the upper arm and leg. If you have large hips, and there is space between the waist and the bed when you lie on the side, put a rolled towel underneath to prevent your body from sagging downward.

Wrapping up

Side sleeping is one of the most popular sleep positions worldwide; however, if you prefer to snooze differently, you shouldn’t force yourself to sleep on the side. The same goes if you prefer right side over left and vice versa. Sleeping is a personal experience, and you will benefit the most from it if you snooze in a position you find most comfortable.

Now it’s your turn.

What do you notice about your health when you sleep in different positions? Comment below

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