Should I Be Sleeping Upright?

By Loren Bullock

Apr 8th, 2022

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Whether on a long road trip, in a boring class, or on a cross-continental flight, sleeping upright has crossed all of our minds at one point. The position you sleep in affects your health and quality of sleep whether you know it or not, and sleeping while sitting upright is no exception. Aside from the question of convenience, is sleeping upright something you should actively pursue?

Health Effects of Upright Sleeping

Just like with any other sleep position, spending nights sleeping upright has pros and cons when it comes to your health.

Neck Pain and REM Sleep

According to the National Sleep Foundation, once we move into rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, it is harder to keep upright. In this stage of sleep, we lose muscle tone. So, if you sleep in a chair, your neck will lull either to the side or back because your neck muscles cannot hold your head up in this stage.

If your head stays in this position for too long or for too many nights in a row, it can cause chronic neck pain or more neck problems than were present before. To avoid this, invest in a nice, supportive neck pillow.

Deep Vein Thrombosis

Deep-vein thrombosis or DVT is a blood clot that can happen in your limbs from sitting still for too long. People who frequently fly or sit still for long periods of time are at the most risk of contracting DVT.

To prevent DVT make sure you shift positions periodically and avoid taking sleeping pills that will immobilize you as you rest.

Sleeping While Sick

For most of us, sleeping with a cold is miserable and we frequently wake up throughout the night. Congestion makes it hard to sleep lying down as the mucus pools in your chest or throat, blocking your airways. I bet you can guess the easiest solution: sleeping upright!

When you sleep upright with a cold, all of the congestion drains from your nose and throat, clearing out those blocked airways. The best way to do this is by using a wedge pillow behind your back and neck or stacking a few thick pillows atop one another.

How to Sleep While Sitting Upright

Whether you are sick or want to get some rest while traveling, here are some tips that make falling asleep while sitting up easier.

1. Pick Your Sleep Space

Already knowing where you are planning to sleep will help you gather the proper supplies. For example, if you know you’re going to be on a long road trip, you’re going to have to bring your travel pillow or blanket. But, you also know that you’re going to have the door or the window to lean your head on if you prefer.

2. Choose Your Support

When you spend the night sitting up, neck and back support is crucial. Make sure you have a neck pillow that suits your needs to catch your head as it lulls (such as a U-shaped pillow). You might need an extra pillow to put behind your back if you are prone to back pain. This will reinforce the natural curve of your spine.

3. Sit At An Angle

When sleeping upright it is recommended that you sit at a 40 degree angle, reclining back slightly. This keeps your blood flowing and helps prevent DVT. Shift until you feel comfortable. Maybe stretch your legs out in front of you if you have the room. Maybe shift to sleeping on your side.

4. Begin Your Sleep Routine

Wind down the way you naturally do before getting to sleep. Put on a sleep mask. Read you favorite book. Put on some relaxing music. Close your eyes and relax.


There is a reason humans naturally sleep lying down, as opposed to horses who sleep standing and birds who sleep sitting up. Sleeping positions that require us to be horizontal, such as sleeping on your stomach or back, allow for a more restful and restorative sleep. If you need to sleep sitting up for travel, sickness, or convenience, it won’t do too much harm. Just make sure that your neck is supported and that you stretch periodically, and you’ll have a good night’s sleep while vertical.