Is there a best way to sleep? How the position you choose affects both your sleep and your health

Woman sleeping on her side
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As we climb into bed every night we tend to adopt the same sleep position — but is your favorite sleep position harming your health? Some sleeping positions can be unhealthier than others, especially if you’ve got an existing health condition, such as heart disease or sleep apnea. 

However, whether you’re a consistent side sleeper, a snoring back sleeper or you can only get your eight hours’ slumber if you sleep on your front, it could be having an impact on your sleep quality — and, subsequently, your overall health. 

Of course, there are other external factors that can impact our sleep quality, such as our sleep hygiene and whether we’re sleeping on the best mattress for our sleep needs. Here, we quiz the experts on what is the best sleep position for your health, why some sleep positions can be unhealthier for certain people and what other factors could lead to a better night's rest.

What is the best sleeping position for our back health?  

Sleeping on our backs is a healthy choice for many of us, as this is one of the best sleep positions for keeping our backs in correct alignment. You can learn how to sleep on your back in a healthier way using pillows, to help maintain lumbar alignment overnight. However, this position isn’t healthy for everyone — for example, sleeping on your back should be avoided if you are pregnant or have sleep apnea. In this instance, sleeping on your side is the safest option. 

Woman asleep with sleep mask on

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“Sleeping on your back or your side allows for proper alignment of your spine, providing that the right pillows and mattresses are used, explains Dr. Ali H. Mesiwala, a neurosurgeon and sports specialist at DISC Sports & Spine Center in Newport Beach, California. “We are constantly moving throughout our sleep, so to a certain extent, you don’t have conscious control over the position in which you are sleeping.”

How healthy is sleeping on our sides? 

As well as also promoting great spine health, sleeping on your side promotes additional health benefits. “Sleeping on your side allows for proper alignment of the spine and allows the cardiovascular system to be in a neutral position,” explains Dr Mesiwala. “What that means is that the amount of work the heart has to do, as well as the blood vessels, to get blood flow from the heart to respective organs is minimized.”

What’s more, there is some evidence to suggest that sleeping on your side can have great implications for your brain. “This position helps your glymphatic system, which is like a cleanup crew for your brain. This could be a game-changer in lowering the risk of brain diseases like Alzheimer's”, says Louisa Nicola, a Neurophysiologist and Momentous performance coach. 

If snoring from a partner or even from yourself keeps you awake at night then the good news is that sleeping on your side can also help to reduce it with Dr Rami N. Khayat, medical director of UCI Health sleep medicine services at the University of California Irvine, explaining that when we lie on our backs the “abdominal contents push more into the chest and decrease the resting volume of the lungs resulting in a decrease in the space of the wind-pipe or the breathing passages.”

A man sleeps on his side

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When we sleep on our backs — also known as the supine position — our windpipes become slightly narrowed. While that’s fine for most of us, sleeping on our backs can decrease the opening enough to cause snoring or even blockage in the airway with sleep apnea, explains Dr Khayat.

Is one side better for us than the others?  

What sleep position is healthiest for us largely depends on whether you have any existing health conditions “Generally, sleeping on the left side is recommended, particularly for expectant mothers, because it improves blood flow and reduces heartburn,” explains Nicola. 

Sleeping on your side in the third trimester is also recommended as it can help to reduce the risk of stillbirth and pre-eclampsia, a condition that in pregnant women causes high blood pressure. However, studies indicate that sleeping on your left should be avoided if you have heart failure, as it can cause the organ to shift, which can lead to discomfort.

What is the unhealthiest sleep position?  

Sleeping on the stomach is thought to be one of the unhealthiest positions, as over time it can lead to both back and neck ailments, as your neck is twisted to the side for roughly 8 hours per night. Sleeping on your stomach can also make breathing and digestion more difficult. 

“If you lie on your stomach, there is no support for your spine,” explains James Leinhardt, a sleep position expert and the founder of mattress brand Levitex. “Even if we ignore the fact that you have to turn your head all the way left, or all the way right, for a very long period of time, it's like watching TV to your left for seven hours. 

Even if we ignore that bit, gravity will fight the natural curves of your spine. But also by lying on your stomach, you will hyperextend your neck, particularly if you're sleeping on a pillow, you will compress the seven tiny vertebrae in your neck, which is of course no good.”

A woman with long dark hair sleeps on a white pillow

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For the estimated 7% of adults who choose to sleep on their stomachs, your body weight could dictate how big an impact sleeping on your stomach could affect your spine health. Those with more weight at the front of their bodies could increase the curvature in their spine over time.

5 ways to sleep healthier tonight

1. Set a regular sleep schedule

“Sleep quality includes a regular sleep schedule and obtaining a normal percentage of all sleep stages," explains Dr Khayat. "We can help that by avoiding caffeine, alcohol and other substances close to bedtime and by maintaining a regular sleep-wake schedule with adequate light exposure in the morning."

2. Declutter your bedroom

Sleep hygiene is a big factor in having a healthy sleep - so making sure your sleeping environment is cool, clean and decluttered is essential. “It is important that we create an environment that tells our mind that it’s time to get ready for bed,” says Dr Mesiwala.

3. Set the scene for sleep

Candles on a tray

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Establishing a nighttime routine which might include dimming the lights and lighting a candle or essentials oils can help provide your body with the sleepy cue it needs to prepare for sleep.

4. Turn off your phone

"Setting your phone aside, limiting social media and other digital media, and keeping the hour before you go to bed free from this type of stimulation," says Dr Mesiwala.

5. Invest in the best mattress

Your comfort is key too - if your mattress is old, it could give you back ache as you sleep, so investing in a new mattress will support not just your back but joints too. If a new mattress is too expensive then investing in a mattress topper is the next best thing. A supportive pillow that suits your sleep style will help look after your neck, too.

Sarah Finley

Sarah is a freelance writer who has been published across titles including Woman & Home, The Independent, and the BBC. Sarah covers a variety of subjects, including health and wellness. For Tom's Guide Sarah often writes about sleep health and hygiene, and interviews leading sleep experts about common issues such as insomnia and sleep deprivation.