The Health Benefits of Side Sleeping

The health benefits of side sleeping are far-reaching, from relieving aches and pains to enhancing brain health and longevity

By Nicole Gleichmann

May 12th, 2022

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Few of us put much thought into what position we’re in when we sleep at night. We tend to be more focused on falling asleep and clocking enough hours. But did you know that the position you sleep in can impact your health in a variety of ways?

How your body is positioned at night influences whether or not you experience back, neck, or shoulder pain. It can exacerbate or help relieve sleep apnea and snoring, and it might even be involved in the pathogenesis of certain neurological diseases.

For most people, the best sleep position is sleeping on your side at night for both overall health and well-being. Back and stomach sleeping come with a variety of undesirable effects that sleeping on your side might be able to relieve.

What’s Wrong with Sleeping on Your Back or Stomach?

Stomach sleeping and back sleeping each have their own, unique downfalls. As a general rule, sleeping on your stomach is the worst position for your health and sleeping on your back falls right in the middle.

With back sleeping, you make it harder for yourself to breathe. This can lead to snoring that wouldn’t happen otherwise or the exacerbation of nightly snoring. While most of us know that snoring hinders the quality of sleep for those around us, fewer realize that it can also interfere with the quality and quantity of sleep for the snorer. The noise and lack of oxygen can snap you out of slumber and reduce how long you spend each night in a restorative, slow-wave sleep.

As for people who prefer sleeping on their stomach, they’re the most likely to experience aches and pains upon waking. When you sleep on your front with your neck turned to the side, it puts extra stress on your neck and lower back. This poor positioning is exaggerated if you use a pillow, particularly a firm or thick one. Over time, stomach sleepers can have chronic pain that they feel throughout the day, and sometimes, pain severe enough to wake them up during the night.

Benefits of Sleeping on Your Side 

  • Improved digestion
  • Improved gut health
  • Reduced snoring and sleep apnea severity
  • Pain relief
  • Improved brain health
  • Healthier pregnancy

Now onto the fun part: the multitude of benefits offered by sleeping on your side. Whether you sleep on your left side, right side, or a bit of both, there is an array of positive effects.

Improved Digestion

On the outside, our bodies appear to be, for the most part, symmetrical. But if you look inside our core, you can see that there is a lot of asymmetry when it comes to our organ placement. This organ arrangement makes sleeping on your left side optimal for digestion. It can help to regulate bowel movements by encouraging waste to move through the colon. So, if you find that you don’t have a bowel movement as often as you’d like, sleeping on your left side might be just what the doctor ordered.

Improved Gut Health (Reduced Heartburn Symptoms)

Many of us struggle with heartburn, also known as GERD. Symptoms include burning in your throat or chest, regurgitated food when you burp, chest pain, the feeling of a lump in your throat, and trouble swallowing. And when we lie down, these symptoms can be exacerbated, making it hard to sleep and worsening the negative effects of acid reflux (such as damage to the esophagus).

When you lie on your left side with a pillow supporting your head and neck, you will tend to have fewer GERD symptoms than when you lie on your right side or on your stomach. Keep in mind, however, that if you have severe acid reflux, you may find that lying on your back or left side with a wedge pillow the most beneficial.

Reduced Snoring and Sleep Apnea Severity

Snoring and sleep apnea occur when you have trouble breathing; it is caused by airway constriction or closure. Sleeping on either side can help to keep your airways open, allowing you to breathe easier and sleep more peacefully the through the whole night. This can support sleep quality for you and your partner.

Pain Relief

When you sleep on your side with a supportive pillow between your knees, your spine is able to remain neutral and extended. Additionally, your neck can be in a supported, relaxed position. This optimal position leads to less neck and back pain. Plus, it relieves pressure on your wrists, making it the recommended sleep position if you have Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.

Related: Best mattress for side sleepers

Improved Brain Health

Probably the most surprising benefit of sleeping on your side has to do with your brain. According to the Journal of Neuroscience, when we sleep, our bodies work to clear out waste in our brains. When they do so effectively, it reduces our risk of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. Sleeping on your side has been shown to enhance this waste clearing and may support optimal brain health and function, possibly improving longevity.

Healthier Pregnancy

For those who are pregnant, sleeping on your left side is typically recommended. By sleeping in this position, you avoid putting pressure on your liver from the growing baby. Furthermore, sleeping on the left side, when compared to the right side, improves circulation and may help to prevent high blood pressure.

The Cons of Sleeping on Your Side

No sleeping position is universally without fault. Even sleeping on your side can cause problems or worsen existing ones. For example:

  • Fetal position side sleepers can experience shallow breathing. Avoid sleeping in a ball; try to stretch out some and encourage a long spine.
  • Sleeping on your right side can exacerbate acid reflux.
  • Sleeping on either side can cause shoulder pain (relieve this by keeping your arms below shoulder level while sleeping)
  • Sleeping on either side can worsen tight jaw symptoms

Tips for Side Sleeping

If you’re used to sleeping on your side or want to try it out there’re many things to keep in mind so you can get the most out of your experience. The following are some tips to help you sleep on your side successfully.

  • Choose a mattress specifically designed for side sleepers (See the best mattresses for side sleepers).
  • Place a supportive pillow in between your knees to allow a relaxed spine.
  • Use a medium-to-firm pillow with a thickness that keeps your neck in a neutral position.
  • Make sure there isn’t a gap between your side tummy and the mattress, which is common if you sleep on a firm mattress. If there is, fill it with a thin pillow.
  • Keep another pillow close by for you to hug if you don’t know where to put your arms.