Life Wellbeing Front, back and sides: The good and bad of different sleeping positions
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Front, back and sides: The good and bad of different sleeping positions

sleeping
Tossing and turning is probably the healthy way to go. Photo: Getty
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When you’re young, you can get away with sleeping in a tree or on a pile of gravel or hanging upside down off a party-stained couch.

Our bodies are more flexible and our organs bounce back from being crammed together by an awkward positioning of the body.

As you get older, our bodies aren’t as resilient and it’s helpful to know that sleeping in different positions have their advantages and disadvantages.

The main issues are supporting the spine, ease of breathing, gastro reflux and some quirky impacts on your organs.

With age, too, we tend to move around less. Which means the negative aspects of our habitual sleeping position can become more pronounced.

Sleeping on your back

One of the main complaints about finding a comfortable sleeping position is alleviating back pain.

The problem is, a lot of back pain comes not from arthritis or injury, but from poor posture in and out of bed.

In other words, when you wake up sore, the way your body positions itself in bed is likely to blame.

Sleeping on your back can help because it helps maintain the spine’s curves, and your weight is evenly distributed – which, overall, places less strain on the body, and allows for better alignment of your spine and internal organs.

But you’ll probably need to experiment with pillows to get it right.

According to an explainer from Johns Hopkins Medicine, sleeping on your back is “a mixed bag” for alleviating (or aggravating) pain.

For people with neck pain, sleeping face up can sometimes make the pain worse.

But many people find sleeping on the back is helpful for alleviating low-back pain. But the small of the back needs to be supported.

It’s also an option for controlling shoulder pain.

Healthengine.com.au advises: Ensure your head and neck are supported with the right number of pillows, in order to prevent your head and neck from tilting too far backwards or forwards.

Support your lower back by positioning pillows under your knees.

Back sleeping is the worst sleeping position for people with snoring and sleep apnoea because it leaves you susceptible to airway collapse.

This means breathing is paused for a number of seconds, until the body triggers coughing and spluttering to set you right again. Needless to say, it is not conducive to resting.

People who suffer with sleep apnoea are tired during the day, and are prone to developing type 2 diabetes and heart issues.

Obesity and having a thicker neck increases the risk of sleep apnoea, as does the use of alcohol, sedatives and smoking.

Sleeping on your front

Sleeping on your front is universally described as the worst position for most people.

It puts pressure on muscles and joints, causing aches, numbness and irritated nerves.

Back and neck pain are the main worry, because your spine isn’t in a neutral position, and your chin is set at an awkward angle to allow breathing.

Healthengine.com.au advises: To get your neck in the right position, try sleeping with a pillow under your chest or with one shoulder back slightly.

Beds that are too soft or saggy “can place an asymmetrical strain on your spine when lying on your front”.

A 2015 study found that stomach sleepers with epilepsy may be at higher risk of sudden unexpected death, drawing parallels to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) in babies.

Sleeping on your side

Studies report that most people sleep on the side. We tend to grow into it during our teens.

One study found that children “sleep equally much on the side, back and front, with a progressive preference for the side position when approaching adulthood”.

There are good reasons for this. Sleeping on your side reduces snoring and the number of apnoea episodes per night.

And people with lower back pain report they sleep more comfortably on their side – and better still, if they sleep with a pillow between their knees.

A 2015 study found that sleeping in the side position may be an important practice to help reduce the chances of developing Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other neurological diseases.

Sleeping on your left side is reported to have the most benefits to your overall health, because “your organs are freer to get rid of toxins while you sleep”, says Healthline.

The left side is better for people with gastric reflux (heartburn), for the simple reason it stops acid from spilling out of the stomach and into the oesophagus.

The left side overall is better for gut health, with less incidence of bloating and constipation.

However, sleeping on your left side can affect the heart’s electrical activity, and put pressure on the heart, but there’s no evidence that it increases your risk of developing a heart condition if you don’t already have one.

People with heart problems have reported breathing difficulties when sleeping on the left side.

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