Sleep. Everybody needs it to survive. From moody teenagers to old fogies, we all need to catch those all-important z’s to wake up feeling refreshed and ready to face the day. But now experts have weighed in on the topic, and there is, in fact, a recommended way to hit the pillow. And what the boffins have revealed about sleeping on your right side is enough to prompt a little lie-down. As it turns out, resting on this side could be having some seriously surprising impacts on your body. And as for the left, well, given what they disclosed let’s just hope this is your preferred side!
Though we all must get some sleep in one fashion or another, for some reason, human beings get their shuteye in a variety of different positions. This can range from sleeping in a fetal position like a baby to sprawling out like a starfish. And each one can have some pretty staggering outcomes for our health and body.
It has even been suggested by some researchers – including Professor Chris Idzikowski – that the position you sleep in is intimately linked to your personality. The prof surveyed a thousand volunteers to try to discover the most frequently adopted poses we humans take when dozing off. Furthermore, other research has suggested our sleeping poses influence our dreams!
Idzikowski’s fascinating investigation came to the conclusion that our body language continues to be in effect after we doze off. In actual fact, it becomes even more illuminating. Yep, our personalities are there on display for anyone to see while we sleep. But we hope no one is watching us sleep, as that’s… more than a little creepy. Hey, Chandler Bing?
But what if you were to be told that you’ve been doing this sleeping lark wrong your entire life? How would that make you feel? We’d deem it to be somewhat alarming, if we’re honest. Maybe even a bit offensive at first! But if there is a wrong way, then, of course, it naturally follows that there’s a right one. Which is not actually a right, but a left one – if you follow!
More on that bombshell shortly. But we mentioned earlier how we need sleep to thrive, and even to just stay alive. But why exactly do we need it? What is the science behind the need for all of us to nod off for numerous hours? Well, let’s take a detailed look at those important questions now.
Put simply, sleep is as important to a human’s survival as eating enough food and drinking sufficient water is. Not getting enough of any of these three things over a period will almost certainly result in a premature death. And a place in a graveyard like that shown above.
The average human being is thought to spend about one-third of their life in a state of slumber. There are a few notable people – sometimes labeled the “sleepless elite” – who get or got by on much less than the average without too much problem. We’re mostly talking high achievers, from inventor Thomas Edison to President Obama and former U.S. General Stanley McChrystal.
But these folk are approximately 1-3 percent of us, and very much the exception rather than the rule. The rest of us mere mortals need around eight hours of shuteye every 24 hours or so to feel half decent and able to attack the day. Sleep is important in numerous ways, which we will now turn to.
During the period that we are asleep there are numerous biological processes that are happening that you won’t be remotely aware of. For instance, being in a restful state allows the body the time to get to work repairing cells and release vital molecules including hormones and proteins. Energy is restored too.
Furthermore, while we are deep in sleep, with little to no knowledge of our surroundings, our nerve cells get to work on cooperating with each other and reordering themselves. Meanwhile, scientists have discovered in recent times that the brain flushes out any toxic waste with cerebrospinal fluid when we’re in a slumber. It also takes the time to store any new pertinent information from the waking hours.
The processes that we’ve just touched on are vital, then, for our general vigor. In fact, they are so essential that if they didn’t happen our bodies would fail to function. Which would of course eventually result in death. Brainiacs and boffins have posited numerous theories of why we sleep.
Chief among these theories is the need to conserve energy, and lowering the metabolic rate basically means we don’t need to eat. Which implies that we sleep at night as it is both colder and harder for us to catch any prey for food purposes in the dark. Yes, it’s hard to remember sometimes, but we are evolved animals! Super-intelligent primates, to be exact.
We’ve already touched on how the body restores its cells while we’re asleep – as detailed in the restorative theory. Also, we have detailed the way in which the brain reorganizes memories and the nerve cells, plus flushes out toxins. This is known as the brain plasticity theory. Indeed, all the gray matter’s functioning abilities – from memory, learning, problem solving, concentration and decision making – are affected positively by sleep or negatively by a lack of it.
Last, sleep is known to be particularly important for mental health, with several areas of the brain being affected by a lack of sleep. For instance, the amygdala in the temporal lobe often overreacts after sleepless nights. Our emotional wellbeing and sleep seem to go hand in hand too, with each contributing to one another negatively or positively. In a nutshell, poor sleep quality can lead to mental health issues, and those problems can in turn lead to a lack of refreshing slumber.
So with these hugely important tasks that take place in our bodies while we are asleep in mind, there is an obvious conclusion to draw. That being, despite life’s many challenges and opportunities, we really should try to ensure we get enough z’s. Like this adorable fox. And preferably as many hours as are recommended by experts to be healthy.
But more than that, it illustrates how it is important to get it right. Specifically, we are referring to the sleeping position. You see, going to bed is not as simple as just throwing yourself on the bed and dozing off. There is real science and stuff behind what is best for a human’s health in terms of our posture when we hit the sack.
Let’s delve a little further then into the variety of positions that people – and indeed many animals – sleep in. In essence, there are numerous variants of three main categories. Those being stomach, back and side. So let’s start with the one that has been found to be more popular than any other.
And the winner of the most popular sleeping posture is… drum roll please… the fetal position! Yes, according to research, this pose is comfortably the most commonplace with approximately 47 percent of people in the U.S. dozing off in this manner. It’s a variation of the side-sleeping category, with folk bending their knees up towards their chest like a baby in the womb. Fetal sleepers are reportedly slow to reveal their emotions.
Another popular pose to fall asleep in is the so-called freefall position. This accounts for approximately 17 percent of Americans. It is a stomach-lying position in which people turn their heads to one side and wrap their arms around a pillow – or alternatively underneath it. Free fallers supposedly have friendly personalities. We suspect the late rocker Tom Petty slept this way.
In third place, and just making it onto the podium, is the yearner. Approximately 13 percent of Americans sleep in this manner. It involves sleeping on one’s side while stretching out the arms in front of the body. For some reason, these sleepers are deemed suspicious. Baby Boomers are most commonly found to sleep this way.
Just missing out a medal in our imaginary sleeping position Olympics is the soldier. This pose is a back position that involves lying down facing upwards with your arms by your side. Presumably it is named so because it is used by soldiers who sleep in constricted sleeping bags. Of surveyed Americans, 11 percent slept this way, and the personality trait it is alleged to match most closely is reserved.
Next up in the list of America’s favorite positions – sleeping ones, those of you with a dirty mind – is the starfish. Which is exactly as it sounds, really. A back-based position in which the person spreads their arms and legs out like the ocean-dwelling invertebrate. Interestingly, the peeps who sleep this way are more inclined to get up and sleepwalk.
Then there is the log, used by approximately 6 percent of Americans. This is a side position, in which sleepers place their arms by their side to effectively resemble a human log. People who get their shuteye this way – let’s call them loggers – are said to be sociable people, who are more prone to sleepwalking than most other positions.
So those are all the main six sleeping positions. There are probably a few obscure others – such as the chair or book positions that are illustrated by the dozing fellas above – but that is pretty much your lot. But what are the benefits and downsides of slumbering in these specific positions? Let’s take a look and also see what the experts say.
One such expert is psychologist and author Michael Breus, who penned the book Good Night: The Sleep Doctor’s 4-Week Program to Better Sleep and Better Health. On the pros of back sleeping, he told CNN in 2016 that it is the “best position for getting high quality sleep.” Why? Well, those who sleep on their back tend not to move to different positions in the night, meaning they often wake up feeling refreshed. It also balances the weight across your body and skeletal frame evenly and nicely, so it is a good way to combat back pain.
Furthermore, those with bad backs who doze off facing the ceiling can relieve that pain by propping their knees up by pillows, as noted to CNN by W. Christopher Winter, MD – a neurologist who nowadays primarily focuses on elite athletes’ sleep. The downside of back sleeping though? It is not great for the upper airway and can lead to the worrying and potentially dangerous sleep apnea, plus snoring. The latter, of course, is not merely bad for your sleep if you have a partner in your bed.
What about stomach sleeping, then? Well, we hate to break it to you, but it’s not particularly good news if you need to plant your face on the pillow to doze off. The pros? It can help with sleep apnea by opening your airways a bit. But the cons are numerous, as Winter and Breus noted. You’re looking at neck and lower back pain, for starters. Best to ditch the pillow to have a more natural body shape if you sleep this way, or change altogether.
All that’s left then to discuss is side sleeping. And broadly, this position has seen some of the most interesting outcomes and findings. Yes, nodding off on your side can provide a whole host of health benefits, as this smiling buddha seems to know. First, sleep apnea sufferers and snorers will likely get some relief from switching to this stance when they hit the sack. That’s because it helps open your airways, so you can breathe more easily.
Furthermore, side sleeping can also contribute to easing lower back pain and protecting your spine and its natural curve. Particularly if you curl your legs up towards your chest in the aforementioned fetal position. Snoozing on your side could benefit your brain and lower the chances of developing Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s or other neurological diseases. Yes, really.
A study of side-sleeping mice discovered that their glymphatic systems were more efficient than those of their brethren who slept on their backs or stomachs. Which means their bodies can flush toxic waste out of the brain more efficiently, helping prevent the onset of dementia or other neurological problems. Whether this is the same in humans is not quite so clear yet. But the findings are promising.
Nevertheless, when sleeping on the side, it is very important to ensure that it is on your left that you are leaning. Why? What difference does it make? You ask. Perhaps adopting Morrissey’s melodramatic croon as you do. The answer is a really significant amount. In actual fact, the seemingly trivial choice could be the difference between good and bad health.
First, dozing off on your left is believed to aid blood flow to your heart. Yes, as Winter explained to CNN, after your heart pumps blood out, it circulates the body before flowing back to the right side. So if you kip while leaning on your right, it is likely that the pressure of your body’s weight will to some degree crush the blood vessels that return to your heart.
But, as Winter explained to CNN, “Sleeping on your left side with your right side not squished is supposed to potentially increase blood flow back to your heart.” And clearly, given the importance of having a healthy heart, it can only be a good thing to protect it and enable it to work efficiently. A big win for the left, if you ask us.
Winter also suggested that it was important for pregnant women, if not sleeping on their backs, to ensure that they dozed off on their left side. The reason being that a baby in the womb will thrust the knocked-up mommy’s organs upwards, and potentially affect the blood flow to their heart. The ticker is by this time toiling overtime to sustain the baby, and right-side sleeping could make its job even harder.
But it’s not just your heart that benefits from you sleeping on your left side rather than your right. No, far from it. In actual fact, falling asleep while in this position can amazingly have a positive impact on your gut health and have you jumping out of bed full of vitality. Yes, really. But how exactly? You are understandably asking.
Well, sleeping on the left side influences the movement of waste through the colon, from the ascending section down to the transverse and finally the descending part. So you should be ready to, ahem, remove the waste when you wake up, first thing in the morning. A little trip to the bathroom.
Sleeping on the left side could potentially provide some much-needed relief for those living with debilitating conditions such as irritable bowel or lazy bowel syndrome, constipation and inflammatory bowel disease. It’s all to do with how our body is asymmetrical on the inside in terms of organ placement, and the way the small intestine moves waste to the large via the ileocecal valve in our lower right abdomen.
Left sleeping can also help foil heartburn that may arise from snoozing on the right. The belief of many experts is that slumbering on the left side will mean the stomach and its gastric juices will remain lower than the esophagus while we catch our much-needed z’s. Add to that the brain waste clear-out we’ve mentioned, which might help avert horrible neurological conditions, and combating sleep apnea, and you have a pretty convincing argument for leaning left.
So there you have it. The facts are in, and sleeping on the left has a remarkable list of benefits for your health and wellbeing. Out of the four main sleeping positions, it has won the gold medal. Don’t know about you, but all this researching and writing has made us a bit – yawn – tired. Think it is about time to go for a nap, and try out that left-side slumbering. Adios!