When you sleep, your brain recharges, your cells repair themselves and your body releases vital hormones necessary to prepare you for the day ahead. When you sleep is important, but how you sleep can have a substantial impact on you physically and if you are sleeping in the wrong position, this can have a detrimental effect on your body.
The science of sleep
Recently, we conducted a survey that yielded some interesting results. It found that adults between 18-50 years old will sleep an average of 6-8 hours. This is lower than the recommended period of 7-9 hours for that age range. The effects of lack of sleep are medically documented and can cause a massive array of problems if a proper sleep pattern isn’t regulated and maintained.
This includes initial problems such as memory loss and being less focused to long term issues such as quadrupling the risks of a stroke, heart disease and diabetes.
Every person has a unique sleeping pattern. However, it’s important to remember you’ll actually die from sleep deprivation before food starvation. You can go without food for two weeks. With no sleep whatsoever, you’ll likely be dead within ten days. A good sleep routine is crucial, but this must go hand in hand with the proper sleeping positions to ensure maximum comfort and rest.
Over half the people surveyed stated that they enjoyed good quality sleep, with almost 40% saying they had lower quality sleeping patterns. One cause of this could be due to sleep positioning.
Physical Effects of Sleep Positions
The Foetal Position:
This is actually one of the worst positions you could choose when sleeping. An estimated 40% of people sleep in this position which is certainly a worrying statistic. Having your knees curled into your chest and your head pointed downwards can cause back issues.
This position can also lead to an irregular sleep pattern. The foetal position can impair deep breathing, which is crucial for an optimised sleeping pattern.
However, if you are pregnant, this position can actually prove beneficial. Since the baby can kick during the night, it may hit the stomach. This can force gastric acid into the throat, causing shortness of breath, painful swallowing and potentially choking the mother. It is recommended for pregnant women to sleep on their side with a pillow under the abdomen and one between their legs.
Lay on back, arms up:
Whilst this may be thought of as a common position, only 50 in 1000 people tend to sleep like this. This is quite a comfortable one for the majority of the lower body, however, having arms tucked behind your head can put excess pressure on the nerves in your shoulders. This can lead to eventual nerve damage, with symptoms including a tingling sensation and numbness.
Snoring is also a common problem here. It is caused by the effects of gravity on the upper airway, Sleeping on the back creates a narrowing of the breathing passages, which leads to snoring and also a higher likelihood of airway obstruction.
The good thing is that sleeping on your back reduces the risk of facial wrinkles and outbursts of skin blemishes as your face is not in direct contact or under pressure against the pillow.
On back, arms lay at sides:
This is considered to be an all-round position for maintaining the health of your neck and your spine, provided certain precautions are made, such as not using too many pillows. Too many pillows will arch the neck, leading to soreness and stiffness overnight.
It also increases blood flow to the heart, which can lead to long term benefits such as reduced risk of heart attacks.
The spine isn’t meant to be naturally straight. It has several curves and bends. Placing a pillow under the knees will maintain this natural curve and reduce pressure on the sciatic nerves. This can lead to long term problems, such as sciatica. A symptom which produces constant pain from the compression or irritation of the sciatic nerves.
Snoring is especially prevalent in this position too, along with sleep apnoea. This is a disorder which causes pauses in breathing for intervals. This leads to a build-up of carbon dioxide in the bloodstream, causing you to inhale sharply and deeply on irregular intervals. This in turn, wakes you up, preventing a proper restful cycle of sleep.
Lay on front, arms by side:
This is not recommended sleeping posture. According to data from our survey, only 3% of people prefer to adopt this position.
Sleeping on the front can increase pressure on the base of the spine and also the neck, which has to be bent to one side for breathing. It is not the optimal angle for breathing effectively, so you may find yourself constantly turning the head. This can lead to disrupted sleep patterns.
A soft pillow (or no pillow at all) is recommended for this position to minimise the pressure on the neck. Otherwise, this position can lead to chronic back and neck ache. This culminates in disc degeneration within the spine over the long term.
Conversely, those with already-damaged spines (herniated disks for example) or degenerative issues are recommended to sleep on their front. This is to allow as little pressure as possible to be placed on the back during sleep.
Sleeping on front, arms up:
Again, this is not recommended, although 3% of people surveyed maintain this sleep position. Although the arms can support the head, it still puts strain on the neck and back regions. Again, this can lead to chronic aching of those areas, with problems such as sciatica and disc degeneration appearing after a long period of time.
Whilst snoring is abated, you can also put pressure on joints in your arms and shoulders. The shoulder is one of the most unstable joints in the body. Sleeping like this could lead to numbing/tingling sensation and symptoms including postural shoulder pain.
Sleeping on side, arms down:
Side-sleeping is the most popular position, with over a fifth of people surveyed selecting it. It reduces snoring immensely by keeping the airways more open and it also keeps your spine stretched in a natural position. This can help prevent or allievate back pain.
It’s also a good position for those who suffer from acid reflux. This is because your head is resting higher than the oseophagus, preventing food or acid from coming up.
However, the downside is that it can cause skin aging, as your skin sags due to gravity. It can also put pressure on vital organs such as your intestines, liver and lungs. Over a long period of time, this can lead to problems with those organs such as irritable bowel syndrome and reduced breathing capacity.
Sleeping on side, arms up:
16% of people surveyed preferred this position. Whilst you can still get certain benefits from sleeping on your side, having your arms up or in front of your body can have a detrimental effect over the long term.
Shoulder and arm pain is quite common, as blood flow is restricted in this position, along with excess pressure on key nerves. This can induce numbing and tingling sensations from time to time. Once blood flow is not restricted (when you move positions for example), you will find the tingling and numbness will subside.
If you find sleeping like this prolongs the tingling and numbness even after moving position, an underlying symptom may be the early stages of carpal tunnel syndrome. This position often exacerbates this particular injury.
Fixing the problems
There are several ways to alleviate the issues associated with bad sleeping posture. These include:
1. Placing support pillows under your knees, neck or under the back. Those with recurrent back problems are recommended to use pillows under the knees. This maintains the natural curvature of the spine and reduces pressure. Remember, a pillow is designed to keep the spine in a natural alignment. It should not be placed too high or too low, otherwise you risk putting more pressure on the neck or back.
2. Ensure you the right type of mattress to accommodate your positioning. If you are unsure if you have the right mattress for your positioning, you can follow the advice of sleep expert Michael Breus, PhD:
“If you wake up in the morning and have some low back pain and can stretch and get rid of it in 15 or 30 minutes, which means you’re on an inappropriate mattress for you. The right mattress, on the other hand, is one on which you feel no pressure, almost like you’re floating in air.”
If a mattress is too firm, it can put pressure on vulnerable points such as the spine. This can place the natural alignment of your spine out of position. If a mattress is too soft, the same points will not be properly supported. Breus recommends spending at least 15 minutes lying on a potential new mattress to check if it feels good for your body.
3. Taping a bottle to the front of your clothing to prevent front sleeping.
4. Use extra pillows as support to keep you in a new position during the night
Remember, poor sleep posture will have a negative effect on your physical health, both in the short and long term. By adopting the optimal position for your body, you ensure a better night’s sleep and reduce the risk of ill health.
Our survey revealed that only 11% of people rated their quality of sleep as ideal. For the country to adopt a better sleeping pattern, we need to understand just how our sleep is hurting us.
Let us know how you would rate the quality of your sleep.