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Right, left or back – what’s best for good sleep (position matters)? (5/6/11)

May 6, 2011

Position Matters 

Position is the thing in life – or so my grandmother would tell me.  Position certainly changes how well you sleep.

Writing in the NY Times Science section April 19th, Anahad O’Connor looked at some studies, old and new, about where one should sleep in order to rest well.  Sleep quality is of course, only part of the issue.  Who you sleep with matters a great deal, whether it’s your partner, kids, pets, or all three.  And position changes throughout the night, generally with the sleeper completely oblivious to all the shifts.  Some argue that back sleeping may be best for skin tone and appearance.

Yet people get into an amazing variety of places when they sleep.  One Austrian researcher quit after he found close to 800 different human sleep positions.  We can get ourselves tangled up like  and have no idea what we did – though sometimes we’ll have arm or shoulder pain the next morning without any obvious explanation.

So what positions make the most sense?  Depends – particularly if you have sleep apnea.  For many people with even fair degrees of sleep apnea have far less apneas sleeping on their sides.

Who Has Apneas?

Most of us – a few an hour, at any rate.  Clinically significant apneas happen to people who snore, though many snorers are unaware they swore, and central types of sleep apnea present with the brain appearing to not give the signal to breath – making for very, very quiet sleep.  Perhaps a third of people over 65 have significant degrees of sleep apnea. Fortunately, unless sleep apnea makes them quite sleepy throughout the day, it does not appear to decrease lifespan.

Sadly sleep apnea is still quite common in younger people  – even among kids, many of whom become diagnosed with ADD.  Sleep apnea’s main symptoms – snoring, daytime sleepiness, memory problems, dry mouth on wakening, slowed mentation, are never fun.  And in younger people moderate to severe levels of sleep apnea increase one’s chance of death, especially through different forms of cardiovascular disease.

Why is Snoring Bad For You?

Snoring is really a rather complicated behavior., involving many brain areas and muscle groups. It’s thought that long term snoring eventually progresses to serious sleep apneas.  The mechanism may be that snoring over and over through the years causes basic physiologic sensors to go out of  whack – making breathing and circulation become desynchronized.  You really don’t want your airflow and your blood flow to decouple.  Many unfortunate systemic effects ensue, including a change in body inflammatory factors, and more work for your heart and blood vessels.

Is It Alright To Sleep on Your Back?

Not if you have sleep apnea.   Sleeping on your back causes your tongue to fall back into your throat, decreasing the size of the airway.  Perhaps half of apneics sleep far better, with far less apneas, on their sides – which along  weight loss and increased fitness becomes a first line of treatment for sleep apnea.

Does It Matter What Side You Sleep On?

Yes.  Sleeping on the right side, by having the heart fall in that direction rather than where it sits on the left, may slightly improve heart dynamics.  Unfortunately sleeping on your right side is associated with more gastroesophageal reflux, which can also wake people throughout the night, though most are unaware.  GERD, as it’s caused, is bad news for your esophagus, whose more muscular end region next to the stomach may eventually become precancerous.

Should I Try To Sleep on My Left Side?

Ask yourself – and your partner – this question.  Many people find it difficult to change what side they sleep on as they become used to a particular position over decades.  But in terms of breathing it does appear better to sleep on your side.

What if You Sleep on Your Stomach?

Many do.  Some studies show no major problems with breathing that way, while others are negative.  For purely mechanical reasons, however, it may not work.  Some who sleep in the “prone” position dream of shortness of breath,  and find their face sandwiched between mattress and pillow.

Bottom Line

People sleep in all kinds of positions.  The positions in which you start or finish the night may have little to do with how you spent it.

In general, sleeping on your side may have some physiological benefits in terms of breathing and the heart.

Right or left?  As a physiologic, and in some people political preference, you may want to sleep on the left side.  Sleeping on your back should not be a problem if there is no concern of sleep apnea or GERD.
Rest, sleep, Sarasota Sleep Doctor, well-being, regeneration, longevity, body clocks, insomnia, sleep disorders, the rest doctor, matthew edlund, the power of rest, the body clock, psychology today, huffington post, redbook, longboat key news

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