Is your sleeping position all wrong?

If you snore like a bear every time your head hits the pillow or you wake up feeling stiff as a board, it might be time to switch things up at bedtime. Here's the scoop on the benefits and drawbacks of the most common sleeping positions.

For something so simple (even babies do it), sleep isn’t such an easy thing. Both too little and too much time dozing has been linked to a host of health problems, from obesity and heart disease to dementia and diabetes. And sleep position can play a role in snoring, heartburn, and even wrinkles!

Here's the scoop on the benefits and drawbacks of the 5 most common sleeping positions.

Side sleeping

Pros: Side sleeping is by far the most commonly reported sleep position, and for good reason: it can have a whole lot of health benefits. If you snore or have breathing problems, sleeping on your side is the best choice for opening your airways so you can breathe better at night.

Plus, it can be ideal for your spine and might help ease low back pain. The slightly curled-in fetal position recreates the natural curve your spine had in the womb, before holding your head up, sitting down or walking around changed the curvature of your spine and potentially put stress on your lower back.

Finally, curling up on the right or left could also be good for your brain. One animal study found that sleeping on your side might lower the risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and other neurological diseases.

Cons: At the same time, sleeping on the left side can put pressure on the stomach and lungs (alternating sides often can help prevent organ strain). And as almost all side-sleepers know well, this position can result in the dreaded squished-arm-numbness. Snuggling into bed with the arm behind the head is a common sleep position, but it may adversely affect muscles and nerves. Resting the head on a single arm can restrict blood flow and press down on the nerves, which results in “rubber arm” or painful pins and needles.

Back sleeping

Pros: Snoozing in savasana pose is a boon for spine and neck health, because the back is straight and not forced into any contortions. Plus back sleeping helps the mattress do its job of supporting the spine. In a perfect world, everyone would sleep on their backs without a pillow, as this position leaves the neck in a neutral position. Using too many pillows, however, can make breathing more difficult.

Back sleeping is also a winner for the more cosmetically inclined. Spending all night with the face out in the air—and not smooshed up against a pillow—leads to fewer facial wrinkles.

Cons: While back sleeping is the optimal for many people, it’s not for everyone. When you’re on your back, your upper airway is the least stable; meaning that gravity forces the base of the tongue to collapse into the airway, which obstructs breathing. The result? You might snore more or experience worse symptoms of sleep apnea, two conditions that can be annoying to bed partners and also potentially detrimental to your health.

It’s also worth noting that a supported spine doesn’t always necessarily mean a good night’s sleep. A study comparing the sleep habits of good sleepers and poor sleepers noted the people with worse-quality sleep spent more time on their backs than the good sleepers.

Stomach sleeping

Pros: stomach sleeping eases snoring and some cases of sleep apnea, but that’s pretty much the only good thing about going belly-down at night.

Cons: Resting on the tummy is widely regarded as the worst sleeping position. It flattens the natural curve of the spine, which can lead to lower back pain. Also, sleeping on your stomach could be a pain in the neck — literally. Experts consider this the worst position because you have to turn your neck to almost an entire 90-degree angle from your body while also raising your head and neck up to pillow height. These crazy contortions could lead to neck pain. If this is the preferred position, try using pillows to gradually train the body to sleep on one side. Lower back twinges? Try sticking a pillow under the hips and lower abdomen to give the bottom of the spine a boost.

Regardless of health benefits, people sleep in the position they find comfiest. Experimenting with different sleep positions won’t do any harm, so feel free to try each position for a few nights and see which is the best fit.

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