How well you sleep impacts so much of your day—your mood, your appetite, even your complexion can all be affected by how many hours of zzzs you got the night before. Another daytime factor that can be affected by sleep: your posture.
When I first heard that there was a link between your sleeping position and your posture, I immediately thought that it’d be just one more case for sleeping on your back (which, boo). But the answer isn’t as clear as, say, sleep this one way and you’ll stand up straighter when you’re awake.
“If you have a healthy spine, you can sleep on the floor and be okay,” says Bradford Butler, DC, chiropractor, clinic director of Oakland Spine and Physical Therapy, and author of The Blueprint for Back Pain Relief. However…most of us aren’t in that camp. Because everyone’s predominantly sedentary or hunched over technology all day, Dr. Butler says stretching out in bed is tough on your very tight muscles. “Those tight muscles from a bad posture state are trying to stretch out, and we get into weird positions in order to get comfortable.” Well, that explains why my sleeping positions often look like they belong in a Picasso painting.
The reality is that there’s actually not one specific position you can sleep in that’s best for your posture. The main thing the pros have to say? Sleep in the position that gets you the most zzzs, first and foremost. “The best position is whatever position lets you sleep—because sleep is the most important goal,” says Dr. Butler. Nancy H. Rothstein, MBA, the “Sleep Ambassador” and director of sleep health at RESONEA, agrees. “If you’re not sleeping in a good, comfortable position, you’re probably not going to get good sleep,” she tells me.
That said, there are certain factors to consider with your go-to position: namely, spinal alignment and circulation. “If you’re hunching all day, in bed you want to be conscious of how you’re lying,” says Rothstein. “Are you hunched on your stomach into your pillow? You want to honor your posture—are you in bed mimicking what you do during the day?” If so, that’s not going to be good on your spine.
To get into what each sleeping position can do to your posture—and how to make each a healthier option—keep scrolling.
If you actually sleep on your back, you might assume you’re doing the best for your bod—but it really depends. “It’s not necessarily the best,” says Dr. Butler. “If you go to sleep on your back, it’s the most neutral for your spine—but if you’re looking for a neutral spine we’d never use a pillow. So if you’re sleeping on your back and your head’s elevated, you’re basically putting your neck in a state of flexion.” That means that the normal curve of your neck and spine are altered—which if done for long periods of time (say, for eight hours a night), can strain your neck, he says.
That said, Rothstein note that this position gives you the best blood flow. “It’s especially great if you’re in savasana position with your arms out,” she says. To make the position work for your spine and neck in a healthier way, she recommends sticking a pillow under your knees to take pressure off of your hips and lower back.
Dr. Butler admits that he’s mostly a side sleeper (so if a chiropractor does it, it’s fine). But it’s not so good if you’re totally crunched up in a full-on fetal position (whoops). “If you’re on your side in the fetal position and your knees are rotated over, and you twist your hips, and you don’t have enough pillow support or you have too much, it can absolutely cause chronic types of spine issues over time,” he says.
There are two main things you can do. First, look for a pillow that supports your head in a more neutral position. “Make sure your head isn’t raised too much or lowered down too much, because it can create stress on your neck and upper back muscles,” says Dr. Butler. So play Goldilocks, essentially. Second, Rothstein says you should have another pillow placed under your top knee. Dr. Butler agrees. “If you rotate your pelvis over, you’re torquing the muscles in your lower back and hips, and over time that can lead to muscle imbalances,” he explains.
When I told my coworkers that I sometimes sleep on my stomach, one asked: “But how do you breathe?!” Fair point—it may seem odd to some to lie in bed face-down onto the pillow. While it can be comfortable, it’s not the best for your back or your neck. “It’s a strain on your spine,” says Rothstein. “It doesn’t allow for proper alignment and puts a lot of pressure on your joints on the back and your neck. It’s not a natural position and it’s not the best way to sleep.”
Dr. Butler adds that, with a relatively thin pillow, it can be soothing—but it’s not great for your head. “Your head’s jammed into one side all night and you’re lying chest down, and it straightens your spine into an unnatural alignment position,” he says. Turning your head to one side also can make your neck unbalanced—one side gets tight while one side stretches from the position. Plus, if you’re the type that raises your arms over your head in this position, he points out that it can lead to nerve irritation that affects the lower neck and upper back.
If you can’t fall asleep any other way, Dr. Butler says to get smart with your pillows: “Use a really, really thin pillow, and put one under your pelvis to add a curvature back to your spine,” he says.
Whichever way you get your zzzs in, both pros say it’s key to take your time getting out of bed in the a.m. “Don’t just sit up and run around in your day,” says Dr. Butler. “Take a few seconds to stretch—bring your knees to your chest and drop one leg over the side to get a rotation in the hips. Getting a little mobility before you get up can do a lot, because you’re going from a non-weight-bearing position to an active weight-bearing position.” Perhaps it’s time to incorporate a little morning yoga into your routine for the sake of your spine.
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