If you struggle with sleep, you’re probably less concerned with whether your body is in an optimal position than you are with doing whatever you can to stop staring at the ceiling all night. That said, some sleep positions may be better for your health than others.
Once you’ve got your sleep schedule and bedtime routine in a good place (and incorporated sleep-supporting supplements as needed), taking a look at the position you sleep in is a solid next step in optimizing your nightly slumber. Here are the best and worst sleeping positions, according to experts.
The Best Sleeping Positions
In general, experts seem to agree that your back and side are the most optimal positions to sleep in—and there are a few reasons for this.
The Winner: Back Sleeping
“Back sleeping is considered the healthiest sleep position because it creates optimal conditions for proper spinal alignment,” explains certified sleep science coach Alex Savy, C.S.S.C., founder of SleepingOcean. That might not sound like a big deal, but it’s critical for keeping the spine fit and reducing back pain over time. “Back sleeping is also believed to help with tension headaches,” Savy continues. Why? Tension headaches are often triggered by neck pain, and research shows that back sleeping can minimize muscle straining that contributes to a stiff neck.
Plus, since proper spinal alignment usually means you’re more comfortable, back sleeping can make for better quality sleep overall, which is a boon for chronic health in the long run, notes Savy. After all, poor sleep is linked with high blood pressure, heart disease, and other health concerns.
Since it limits face contact with sheets and pillows, back sleeping can also be helpful for healthy aging and supporting skin’s appearance by helping to ward off the onset of fine lines and wrinkles.
The Runner-Up: Side Sleeping
If you can’t sleep mummy-style, side sleeping is also a solid choice health-wise. “It’s good for lower back pain, snoring, and sleep apnea,” Savy explains. The side position relieves pressure on the lumbar (a.k.a. lower) spine, which can feel intense when you’re on your back. And as for the snoring and sleep apnea? Lying on your side supports open airways, while lying flat on your back can exacerbate the collapsing of the airways that occurs in these sleep issues. Research backs this up, showing that people who sleep on their side experience less severe snoring and sleep apnea symptoms.
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Snoozing on your left side seems to be especially beneficial for a couple of reasons. “Sleeping on the left side is the best position for digestion because it aligns with the body’s internal processes,” Savy says. In other words, it keeps your stomach in its natural position, as it resides more so on the left side of the body. “This often encourages smooth digestive processes, allowing any food to move more easily from the large intestine to the lower colon (thanks to the help of gravity),” he explains.
Because of the way gravity also impacts your sinuses when you’re positioned on your side, sleeping this way can actually help them drain, potentially easing congestion, notes naturopath Dr. Olivia Rose, N.D., Clinic Director at Rose Health Clinic.
Another gravitational win: “Sleeping on the left side is also believed to assist lymphatic drainage,” Savy adds. Since lymph fluid naturally flows toward the left side of the body, sleeping on the left may help gravity move it along better.
The Worst Sleeping Positions for Your Health
Tough news for stomach sleepers: Your stomach is often considered the worst position for sleeping.
“It can put too much pressure on your back and neck, as they are typically curved backward in this position,” Savy explains. Over time, this excess strain can add up, potentially resulting in chronic pain throughout the back, neck, and shoulders.
Sleeping on your stomach may not do your skin any favors, either. That’s because the increased contact between your skin and the pillow can exacerbate signs of aging, like wrinkles, Rose notes.
Exceptions to Take Note Of
While back sleeping is excellent for most people, that’s not the case for those with sleep apnea because it can restrict the respiratory tract. In this case, it’s best to roll over onto your side. “Sleeping in a more upright position can also help,” notes Rose. Bonus: Both of these positions may also help with snoring.
If you’re dealing with pain, you’ll also want to adjust your sleep position accordingly to find greater comfort. How you do so depends on where the pain is located.
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“People dealing with hip pain may find it challenging to sleep on one side,” Savvy notes. “Instead, back sleeping with a pillow or a rolled towel under the knees may reduce pressure from the hips and thus alleviate pain.
This approach can also be helpful for those with back pain, as placing a small pillow or rolled towel beneath the knees can also take pressure off the back if that’s your preferred sleeping position, Savy suggests. Those with back pain might also try sleeping on their side with a pillow between their knees.
Tips For Optimizing Your Sleeping Position
Depending on which healthy sleep position works best for you, make sure your bedroom setup supports it! Unsurprisingly, that starts with having the right mattress. Select a supportive, comfortable mattress that’s suitable for your sleeping position, suggests Savy. (This information should be easily accessible on company websites.) And though springing for a new mattress is a big—and often costly—move, don’t wait too long to invest in a refresh. (The current recommendation is to replace you mattress every 6-8 years.) Remember, you spend about a third of your life in bed!
And then there’s your pillow. “Back sleepers should pick medium-firm pillows with a medium height to support their head and fill in the natural curve of the neck,” Savvy says. “Meanwhile, side sleepers should choose tall pillows, which can fill in all that space between your head and the mattress, while keeping your neck supported and aligned with your back.”
Obviously, things get a little more complicated if you’re sharing your bed with a partner. “What’s important is each partner’s comfort, so I would suggest ignoring articles about ‘what your cuddling position says about your relationship’ and choosing what feels right for both sleepers,” Savy suggests. (That may mean some compromise when it comes to selecting a mattress!) Fun fact: As long as you and your partner are touching in some way, you’ll benefit from an increase in oxytocin production, which may help bring you closer and boost feelings of relaxation and intimacy, Savy says. So stick with whatever sleeping position works for you and don’t stress about the spooning. Whatever form of touch—if any at all—feels good for you is plenty.
Finally, if you have any medical conditions, have a conversation with your healthcare provider about how they might inform the best sleeping position for you. It’s clearly not one-size-fits-all.