Train Yourself to Sleep in a Different Position?
he internet makes quite a fuss about the ways we arrange our bodies in repose.
Googling “best sleep position” turns up a cool 765 million results, and some of the top hits maintain that how you sleep — back, stomach, left or right side, fetal — has profound implications for your spine, heart, breathing, appearance, and much else. There’s even some Freudian pseudoscience linking certain sleep positions to personality traits, which seems to have about as much solid scientific backing as palmistry.
All of these claims are somewhat confounded by the fact that we all tend to sleep in a variety of positions. “You hear a lot of things about back- or side-sleeping being optimal, but the truth is we can control this a lot less than we think,” says Michael Grandner, PhD, an assistant professor and director of the Sleep and Health Research Program at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, Tucson. “You can train yourself to fall asleep in a certain position, but as soon as you fall asleep, you’re probably going to move.”
To his point, a 2017 study in the journal Nature and Science of Sleep found that, once we’re out, we tend to shift positions roughly twice every hour. Grandner also says that way we fall asleep doesn’t necessarily correlate with the position in which we spend the bulk of the night.
Moreover, he says that tinkering with how you fall asleep could present some risks. “For a lot of people, sleep position is a kind of conditioned stimulus that signals to the brain that it’s time to go to sleep,” he says. For example, after you spend the time before bed reading a book or looking at your phone, rolling onto your side or stomach may act as a kind of Pavlovian dinner bell — alerting your brain and body that it’s time to shut down for the night. Mess with that, and you may struggle to get to sleep, he says.
But setting aside those caveats, not all of the health claims are baseless. Some studies have suggested that side-sleeping may improve spine health or relieve back pain. Some peer-reviewed research has also found that back-sleeping may prevent facial wrinkles. Pregnant people are advised not to sleep on their backs because the position puts the weight of their uterus on the spine, which could reduce blood flow to the fetus.
On the other hand, back-sleeping may present some risks. “Sleeping on your back can make snoring worse or impede breathing because of the way gravity pulls your tongue back and constricts airways,” Grandner explains. For some, especially those who are heavy, this position can promote or exacerbate sleep apnea — a form of disrupted breathing that, if left untreated, can reduce blood oxygen levels and increase a person’s risk for stroke, heart trouble, or other health problems. “Snoring or apnea are usually the reasons people want to change their sleep position,” he says.
For these problem back-sleepers, there are a number of commercial products that basically mimic the old trick of sewing a tennis ball into the back of a T-shirt or nightgown, therefore alerting you if you shift onto your backside. “There’s one called the SlumberBump and another called Zzoma,” Grandner says. “If you wear something like this, I think you could eventually train yourself to spend less time on your back.”
For those who want to avoid stomach-sleeping, he says that you could also wear one of these on your front. You could even wear two — one in front, one in back — if you want to sleep on your side. There are also many specialty pillows or other devices that claim to help people sleep in specific positions.
But again, Grandner warns that if you use one of these pillows or gadgets, you run the risk of disrupting your sleep. Considering all the health benefits associated with a good night’s rest, that risk may far outweigh any potential rewards. He also points out that since we naturally shift positions as we sleep, artificially restricting that movement could be problematic.
“I think if sleeping in a certain position were really good or bad for us, evolution would have worked that out by now,” he adds.