How your sleep position can have an impact on your health and how you look

When you lie down to sleep, the position you take can affect your health and even how you look.

“Side sleeping will actually increase the number of wrinkles you have because side sleeping, you push your face against the pillow and that can actually increase the wrinkles, especially if you lay on one side all the time,” said Dr. Ravi Johar, chief medical officer for United Healthcare in the Missouri-Illinois area.

Being well rested supports good health in myriad ways. How your body is positioned can help promote the best beneficial sleep.

Johar is an OB-GYN by training. He said dealing with so many sleep issues and questions during pregnancy led him on a personal quest to learn more about it.

Dr. Ravi Johar is Chief Medical Officer for United Healthcare in the Missouri-Illinois area. (Courtesy United Healthcare)

Whichever way you sleep — on your back, belly or side — Johar said try not to bend your neck or spine too much.

“Whatever you can do to help keep your body and your spine aligned into a straight line is really beneficial,” he said.

Sleeping on your stomach puts pressure on breathing and bends the spine and neck in somewhat abnormal positions that can cause pain in the joints and muscles.

“If you sleep best on your stomach, you want to put a pillow under your pelvis to keep the lumbar neutral position to help with low back pain and things of that sort,” he said.

Sleeping on your side can cause neck and shoulder pain.

“Because the pillow [can] elevate your neck up into not the most normal positions and through the night that can cause issues. Switching from side to side throughout the night can help prevent putting too much pressure on one side of the body,” Johar said.

The fetal position is good for circulation, helps prevent snoring and is good when pregnant, but Johar warns against bringing legs up too close to the chest, which can cause difficulty with breathing and soreness and stiffness. It’s not recommended for people with arthritis.

Back sleeping is easy on the musculoskeletal system because the body settles into a fairly neutral position. But, it might increase snoring and aggravate sleep apnea symptoms.

“It does let your tongue drop back to the back of the throat and that obstructs your breathing,” he said. “When that happens, you start to snore. And you start to have difficulty getting breathing in and actually can stop breathing sometimes, which is what sleep apnea is, and that can cause all kinds of problems through your life.”

Sleep apnea should be taken seriously, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, which states that “people with sleep apnea characteristically make periodic gasping or ‘snorting’ noises, during which their sleep is momentarily interrupted.”

Properly placed pillows can help people get and stay in proper alignment while sleeping.

Belly sleepers can put a pillow under their hips to lift the lumbar area of the back. Back sleepers with lower back issues might want a pillow under their knees to help align the spine. Side sleepers might benefit from having a pillow between the knees.

The Mayo Clinic details and demonstrates pillow practices on its website.

“There are actually pillows designed for side sleepers and back sleepers to help keep everything aligned better to help prevent some of those neck and spine pain that we talked about,” Johar said. “There’s a lot of new technology out there.”

You can find more tips on optimal sleep positions on the website.

Kristi King

Kristi King is a veteran reporter who has been working in the WTOP newsroom since 1990. She covers everything from breaking news to consumer concerns and the latest medical developments.

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