You know that better zzzs are critical to good health. But beyond the actual timing and quality of your sleep , the way you position your body while you snooze can actually impact a wide range of conditions, from digestive-related issues to pain. And since we spend a third of our lives asleep, it’s worth considering if your preferred pose could be helping or hurting your health, says Christina Kang , a certified health coach at Parsley Health. Here’s how to choose the right PM pose, and make the most out of your mattress time.
Side, back, and tummy sleeping each put pressure on different parts of the body, affecting everything from your spinal alignment to your brain’s natural detox process. For example, “when the heart pumps out blood, it gets circulated and then flows back to the heart on the right side of your body,” explains Kang. So when you sleep on your right side, it puts pressure against these blood vessels, putting a crimp on circulation.
Right or left side-sleeping can cause tightness in your jaw on that side due to pressure being exerted during sleep, explains Kang. (The extra pressure can also exacerbate wrinkles.) And sleeping on either side can pull your spine out of alignment, while sleeping on your back allows for a more natural alignment, alleviating pressure.
Even your brain may be affected by your sleeping position. An animal study published in The Journal of Neuroscience found that the glymphatic system, which clears toxins out of the brain while we sleep, may work more effectively when you snooze on your side. All of this is to say, there’s no one right sleeping position for everyone.
The best way to lay will depend on your health concerns and goals. Parsley Health’s coaches work with members to optimize all areas of their lifestyle for better health, and sleep is one key factor that impacts how you feel. Below, Kang breaks down her recommendations for the best sleeping positions.
Pregnant women are usually advised to avoid sleeping on their backs once they’re about 20 weeks. Once your uterus gets bigger, it can compress the inferior vena cava, explains Kang. This major vein returns blood from your lower body to your heart, and putting pressure on it may reduce blood flow to both you and the fetus, and could leave you feeling lightheaded. Stick to the left side, advises Kang, as it is associated with increased circulation, which means more blood flow to your baby.
GERD, or gastroesophageal reflux, tends to be worse at night, possibly because you don’t have gravity helping you keep stomach acid down, and the production of saliva (which neutralizes acid) slows down. Research shows that sleeping on your left side can help. While the reason isn’t totally clear, the position of your stomach in your body means that when you sleep on your right side, your stomach contents have a direct route to your esophagus, while left-side sleeping “may keep the intersection between the stomach and esophagus above the level of gastric acid,” says Kang.
Sticking to your left side may also be a good sleeping position for digestion, says Kang. “Right-side sleeping causes food to work against gravity, and hinders digestion,” she says. During the night, your food has to move through the various stages of your digestive system . Due to the position of these organs in your body, gravity can better help move things along while you’re horizontal.
This one isn’t the same for everyone. Depending on the particulars of your pain, different sleeping positions may work better or worse for different people. But in general, sleeping on your back may be helpful. “This position evenly distributes weight across the body, minimizes pressure points, and helps ensure proper alignment of the head, neck, and spine,” says Kang, who advises putting a small pillow under your knees for extra support. While side-sleeping may come more naturally to many people, it can pull your spine out of alignment and strain your back. If you can’t get comfy with back sleeping, try putting a firm pillow between your knees, which can help realign your hips, pelvis, and spine, suggests Kang. Finding the best sleeping position for back pain is worth it: In a study of physically active older adults, those who followed sleep position advice tailored to their pain issues saw improvements in pain four weeks later.
Feeling comfortable will help you achieve quality sleep, says Kang. Her rule of thumb: Make sure your ear, shoulder, and hips are all aligned.
Manipulating your sleep positions to alleviate symptoms of a condition may help you sleep better. Using extra pillows can help support your body and make it easier to transition to a new position. But if forcing yourself to sleep in a certain position just isn’t comfortable, it’ll just be counterproductive, says Kang. “Sleep position is very individualized, so whatever position is most comfortable will probably result in the best quality sleep.”
If you are dealing with a chronic health concern, like pain or digestive issues, while sleep position can help, you’ll also want to work towards getting to the root cause. Consider working with a holistic medicine provider, like those at Parsley Health, to get to the bottom of what’s bothering you and resolve your symptoms.
Marnie is a freelance writer with experience covering health, food, nutrition, fitness, and personal finance for publications including Shape, Good Housekeeping, Men's Journal, Women's Health, and more. She is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.