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Side Sleepers: How to Sleep on Your Side the Right Way

It isn’t just how dark your room is or how much smooth jazz you play before heading into dreamland that affects your sleep quality—it’s how you lay your body down, too.

Is there a best side to sleep on? The answer is definitely yes! In many ways, side sleepers have it better than others with different sleep positions. But the benefits of side sleep actually depend on which side you prefer.

animation showing pressure points for side sleepers

Pros and Cons of Sleeping On Your Side

Most people are side sleepers—74 percent of us, according to one study. Although sleeping on one’s back is ideal for spinal support, side sleeping is the next best thing. Side sleeping can also help alleviate snoring and symptoms of sleep apnea. Doctors also recommend side sleeping over back sleeping for any ladies with a bun in the oven.

While the lateral position has many advantages, it isn’t perfect for everyone. The bad part of side sleeping is paresthesia. You know it as the “pins and needles”. Every side sleeper has awakened to the gift of a completely numb arm, either from a lack of blood flow or too much pressure placed onto a nerve. Paresthesia is usually so disruptive it brings you out of deep sleep. It’s a scientific fact that you and your arm can’t be asleep at the same time.

Those with ill-fitting pillows and mattresses also suffer from frequent shoulder, neck, and back pain. Side sleeping can cause more facial wrinkles and even sagging breasts. But before you commit to wearing a Victorian corset to bed every night, consider some of these tips for side sleeping.

How to Sleep on Your Side

If your spine is bending, then it’s straining. When your spine is locked in an unnatural position for hours at a time (like when you sit at work or sleep), you can experience frequent pain. To combat spine curvature and misalignment while snoozing, start with the two pillars of spine support: your mattress and your pillow.

Best Mattress for Side Sleeping

When you sleep on your side, you need a mattress that supports your curved areas: your neck and your waist. The muscles and ligaments of your back heal themselves during sleep. Good sleep posture and spine alignment promotes the nightly healing and regenerative process. A supportive mattress helps keep your spine aligned during that restorative period and will have the biggest impact on your quality of sleep.

comparison of alignment on various mattress types

The best mattress for side sleepers is gentle on shoulders and hips. Both get the brunt of the pressure when you’re a side sleeper. Find a mattress that’s supportive but also gentle under your pressure points — those places on your body that press down into the mattress when you sleep. If you wake up with pain in your shoulders and hips or numbness in your legs or arms, you may need a different mattress.

If you can’t replace your mattress for one that better supports your body, use a small rolled towel to fill the space below your rounded areas: under your neck and waist. With less strain on your spine, you’ll probably feel less pain.

Best Pillows for Side Sleepers

Pillows aren’t just for your head and neck, they help keep your entire spine in the proper position while you sleep. Your pillow should support the natural curve of your neck—your head shouldn’t curve down nor be propped up too high. A good rule of thumb is that your ear, shoulder, and hips should be aligned.

Test out different pillows until you find the perfect fit. If you have large shoulders, you need a larger pillow. A pillow that’s too high or too flat can cause muscle strain on your back, neck, and shoulders. The ideal side sleeper pillow will be adjustable so you can sleep in different positions comfortably.

Side sleepers actually need two pillows for good alignment and maximum comfort—one for their head and another for their knees. But beware the fetal position—too close and you can over-round your lower back.

For those recovering stomach sleepers, you can add a pillow under your armpit to mimic the feeling of sleeping on your stomach. Stomach sleeping is the worst position to sleep in, so consider adopting a side or back position instead.

Which Side is Best to Sleep On?

Does it matter if you sleep on your right or left side? Indeed! As it turns out, the side you pick can affect your health. Left-side sleepers experience a lower risk of heartburn and acid reflux. And doctors advise pregnant women to sleep on their left side for better blood flow.

If you’re a right-side sleeper, all is not lost. Try sleeping on a couch for a few nights and turning to the left to train your body to stick to that side. You can also place a full body pillow behind you to help you stick to the left.

Sleeping on the Left Side Helps You Poop

It may seem strange, but there is a #1 position for #2, and it’s your left side. Not only do slumbering southpaws benefit from less acid reflux, they also enjoy better digestion.

showing how food sits better when you sleep on your left side.

Your stomach’s natural position is on your left side. When you sleep on that side, gravity consolidates your late night snack into a nice, solid clump. This gastric position allows your stomach to more effectively digest your food and move it along in an organized fashion.

However, a right-side sleeper’s milk and cookies work against gravity, distribute unevenly in the stomach, and hinder digestion. This position is also why heartburn is so common. All in all, after waking from an all-night session of left-side sleeping, you’re more likely to begin your day with a refreshing BM.

Those who experience acid reflux may be tempted to elevate their heads with an extra pillow or two. While raising your upper body and head higher than your stomach may alleviate heartburn symptoms, it will also leave you with a serious crick in your neck the next morning. A better solution is to use bed risers at the head of your bed to angle it enough so that gravity can work against your rising gastric juices (great name for a punk band). That way, you can elevate your head, while keeping your spine aligned with your regular pillow setup.

Is Side Sleeping Bad for Your Shoulder?

Some doctors discourage side sleeping because it can cause damage to the rotator cuff of your shoulder. Side sleepers place a lot of pressure on this group of tendons, so they need a pillow with good support.

Minimize left or right shoulder pain by making sure you’ve got your three pillows in check. You’ll need one to provide proper neck support, one thin pillow between your knees, and one more in front of your stomach.

If you have shoulder pain from sleeping on your side, you can minimize the discomfort by wearing an arm sling to bed. The sling will keep you from sleeping with your arm in a strange and uncomfortable position throughout the night. Of course, you can always sleep on your good side to alleviate shoulder pain, but old habits are hard to break. To help, place a pillow at your back or sleep with your back to the wall to keep from returning to the bad shoulder side.

Make sure you have a mattress that hugs your curves in all the right places, and your pressure points will find sweet relief. A mattress with a little give will provide just the right type of comfort to reduce shoulder pain.

Can Side Sleeping Help Clear Toxins From Your Body?

When you’re asleep, your brain does much more than just conjure up that recurring dream of you parachuting nude into the Super Bowl stadium—it also flushes out toxins that can lead to cognitive decline. Researchers studying the glymphatic system—the system that clears wastes and harmful chemicals from the brain—found that side sleepers were about 25% better at clearing brain toxins than back or stomach sleepers. Those nasty brain toxins and plaques include proteins and chemicals that can lead to Alzheimer’s disease.

Side sleeping is a popular position of repose that benefits many people, especially those with obstructive sleep apnea, neck pain, or those sleeping for two. All can feel the sleep benefits of side slumber if you make sure your spine gets the gentle care and good lovin’ it deserves. It’s kind of a big deal.

Learn all about the best sleep positions with our ultimate guide to the best sleeping positions!

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