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Sleep Positions

Side by Side:

Many people do not sleep in one position the entire night.  However, the most common position is on one’s side. But does it matter which side you sleep on?

In a study in The Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology, scientists recruited a group of healthy subjects and fed them high-fat meals on different days to induce heartburn. Immediately after the meals, the subjects spent four hours lying on one side or the other as devices measured their esophageal acidity.

Ultimately, the researchers found that there was a significant increase in acidity for those subjects that laid on their right side.

In contrast, several studies have found that sleeping on your left side will worsen the condition mentioned above, whereas if you are on your right it can help calm the condition. For people with stomach disorders, sleeping on your left makes esophageal sphincter (the channel between the stomach and esophagus), weaken, which makes the stomach acid go up into the esophagus, in turn creating burning in the stomach.

When lying on your right side, you may lower your blood pressure and heart rate, which is good for individuals suffering from heart conditions. Lying on the left side decreases your heart’s ability to function properly.

Doctors don’t fully understand why this happens, only that the heart is in a better position in the body when you lie on your right side rather than your left.  It could be because the majority of our internal organs, including your larger right lung, are not pressing against the heart.

In general, doctors will advise people sleep on an angle so the gravitational force can be maintained to keep the stomach contents from entering the esophagus.

During pregnancy your doctor may tell you to sleep on your left side, especially as the pregnancy lengthens. The reason for this is the position of your liver. When you sleep on your left side, you take the pressure from your uterus off the liver, since the liver is on the right side of your abdomen. This in turn can help blood flow – and therefore nutrients – to the placenta.

Despite the mixed data on this subject, one thing is clear.  When sleeping on your side, you need a higher loft pillow than if you slept on your back or stomach.  The pillow should fill in the gap between your shoulder and your head while keeping your neck in line with your spine.  Therefore, those with broader shoulders would require an even higher loft.

Back to basics:

While many people choose a different sleeping position, there are those that find sleeping on their back their preferred choice.  Practically speaking, there are some benefits, as well as some cons, especially if you don’t sleep alone.

Back sleeping is the best route to go because it gives your internal organs room to breathe and is beneficial if you have back pain.

Be sure to keep a pillow under your knees to take stress off your lower back and to help maintain the normal curve of your back.  This can help those with lower back pain.

Back sleeping is the best sleeping position if you raise your legs at the calves by nine inches. This causes your lower back to come in contact with the bed. Your back muscles can relax and the discs are able to re-expand. Lying in this position also enhances blood flow to the heart.

There are others that would say that sleeping on your back causes the weight of your abdomen, with the help of gravitational forces, to put pressure on your intestines and organs.

This is particularly the case in pregnant women.  According to Jodi Mindell, paediatric sleep expert, back sleeping is not recommended for women who are in the second and third trimesters of pregnancy.

She explains that this position puts the full weight of your uterus on your back muscles, intestines, and on the vein that transports blood from your lower back to your heart.  It can also cause hemorrhoids, digestion problems, backaches, and can interfere with circulation and breathing.

It’s also not the best position for snorers, since it will probably make the snoring worse on their sleeping partners. However, it is the recommended position for infants.

In 1992, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommended that infants should sleep on their backs, rather than on their bellies or side, to prevent Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). It has been reported that back sleeping can reduce the incidence of SIDS by nearly 50 percent.

If you do prefer this position, there are ways to minimize the negative effects, and reinforce the positives.  Your choice of pillows, for your neck and or your legs can help dramatically.

“The pillow needs to support your neck while on your back, without throwing your head forward or letting it fall too far back.” – Dr Craig Benson.

Face the music:

“The foundations of good health are good diet, good exercise and good sleep, but two out of three doesn’t get you there,” said Dr. Anne Calhoun, a neurology professor at the University of North Carolina.

There seems to be a consensus on this position compared to the others.  It is usually not recommended to sleep this way.

In general, sleeping on your stomach flattens the natural curve in the lower back and keeps your head turned to one side all night, which distorts the alignment of the spine in your neck.  It causes stress to your lower back, neck and shoulders.

According to the Mayo clinic, sleeping on your abdomen can be hard on your back.  However, this position may be helpful if you have degenerative disease or a herniated disk in the central portion of your spine.

Also, if you have lower back pain occasionally sleeping on your stomach can relieve the pressure on your discs. However, you need to place a pillow under your pelvis and lower abdomen to reduce the strain on your back by.

You can also place a pillow under your head if it doesn’t place too much strain on your back. If it does cause strain, try sleeping without a pillow under your head.

One expert notes; “avoid sleeping on your stomach, especially on a saggy mattress, since this can cause back strain and can be uncomfortable for your neck".

Needless to say, we all require sleep to allow our bodies to recharge for the ever more stresses of the day. Sleeping positions is one aspect of this. Another is a good quality clean mattress.