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From heartburn to headaches and asthma:

Is the way you sleep making you ill?

By Anna Dunlop
Last updated at 12:22 PM on 10th May 2011

Comments (90)



We spend a third of our lives asleep, yet while its accepted that sleep is good for health,
many people dont realise its not just the quality and quantity of sleep that matters its
also the position you adopt.
With around 95 per cent of the population sleeping in the same position every night, here
the experts reveal the health pros and cons of your favourite posture.

With around 95 per cent of the population sleeping in the same position every night, it can have a surprising effect
on your health

The recovery position can help reduce acid reflux and aid indigestion

GOOD FOR: Acid reflux
BAD FOR: Wrinkles
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY: Known as the recovery position because its similar to the posture used in medical
emergencies, this can help reduce acid reflux and aid indigestion, says Professor Jim Horne of the Sleep Research
Centre at Loughborough University.
These conditions are collectively referred to as gastro-oesophageal reflux disease and occur when stomach acid
splashes up the oesophagus (the tube that carries food from the mouth down to the stomach).
This leaking acid is caused by a weakness at the junction between the stomach and the oesophagus, and triggers the
burning pain. The key is to sleep on your left side.

In a study of heartburn patients at the Graduate Hospital, Philadelphia, doctors found that sleeping on the right side
meant that leaked stomach acid took longer to drain out of the oesophagus compared to sleeping on the left, so
those who slept on their right side suffered more discomfort.
The medics were unsure about the reason behind this effect.
But though it could relieve a painful stomach, sleeping on your side could worsen wrinkles. Dr Dennis Wolf, a
member of the British Association of Cosmetic Dermatologists, explains that it puts increased pressure on the
nasolabial folds that run from the corners of the nose to the sides of the mouth known as laughter lines.
Depending on the side you usually sleep on, the laughter line on this side of the face may well be deeper and more
pronounced, a result of the face being squashed against the pillow.
ACTION: If sleeping on your left side doesnt help, and heartburn and indigestion are still proving a problem, prop up
the head of your bed slightly, so that the upper body is higher than the stomach. This can help reduce acid reflux
when sleeping, as gravity keeps the acid in the stomach.
According to Dr Wolf, there has been some discussion that a silk pillow can help to reduce wrinkles caused by
pressure when sleeping, as silk is softer than other materials. However, this has not been proven.


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The corpse is well known to aggravate snoring

GOOD FOR: Arthritis
BAD FOR: Asthma, snoring, sleep apnoea, heart health
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY: Sleeping on your back is a good option for those who suffer from arthritis and joint pain,
says Sammy Margo, chartered physiotherapist and author of the Good Sleep Guide. This is because sleeping on
your back distributes weight evenly throughout the body, without putting strain on any specific area.

However, the same sleep position is well known to aggravate snoring. In this position, the muscles in the jaw and
tongue are relaxed, and the jaw and throat sag under the influence of gravity. This causes the throat to become
narrower, producing air turbulence which leads to vibration and snoring, says Dr John Shneerson, director of the
Sleep Centre at Papworth Hospital in Cambridge.
This is particularly true of overweight adults, where the weight of extra fat in the front of the neck will exaggerate the
sagging of the throat.
Sleep apnoea is a more serious condition where the throat closes off completely, leading to intermittent pauses in
breathing which last for ten seconds or more. Again, this is exacerbated by sleeping on the back, due to the action of
gravity on the throat.
Research has shown that those who sleep on their backs are more likely to have decreased oxygen levels in their
bloodstream, which is a particular concern in patients with heart and lung problems, says Dr David Eccleston, a
Birmingham GP specialising in sleep problems.
People who sleep on their backs breathe faster than in any other sleeping position, and so the bodys tissues become
deoxygenated. This can exacerbate a number of respiratory and circulatory problems, including asthma and heart
ACTION: If this is your favourite sleeping position, then make sure you invest in a firm pillow, says Dominic
Cheetham, a chiropractor from London. A lack of support for the neck and upper spine can cause tension in the
muscles of the neck and shoulders, resulting in pain.
For those who snore only when sleeping on their back, placing a pillow under their upper back may encourage them
to change sleeping position and shift onto their side or front, says Dr Shneerson.

The foetal position can help repair wear and tear in the back

GOOD FOR: Lower back pain
BAD FOR: Neck pain, headaches
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY: This is the most common sleeping position in the UK, with three in four of us sleeping on
our side with our legs drawn up towards our chest. Sleeping like this can help repair wear and tear in the back.
Throughout the day, the spine is subjected to gravitational forces which put a lot of pressure on the discs the pads
of cushioning between the bones of the back, says Sammy Margo.
During sleep, when there is no compression on the back, water in the body is attracted to the discs, which helps
repair wear and tear.
She advises that sleeping in the foetal position is ideal, as curling the body inwards opens up the back, reducing
pressure on the discs and boosting repair.
However, she also stresses that it is important to make sure the neck is kept in alignment with the rest of the body. In
other words, ensure that your pillow is not too high or too low, as this can strain the muscles and nerves in the neck,
leading to head and neck pain in the morning.

If you experience lower back pain, its especially important to make sure the neck and spine are in a straight line and
there is no twisting at the hips and pelvis, she says, as this twist can aggravate the condition.
This neck strain can also lead to tension headaches. According to Dr Farhad Afshar, consultant neurosurgeon at the
London Clinic, tension in the cervical vertebrae, which are located at the base of the skull, can cause pain to radiate
to the back and top of the head, giving a feeling of constant pressure.
ACTION: Finding a pillow that properly fills the gap between the shoulders and the neck will help to prevent any neck
strain or headaches. Get your partner to lie in this position and look at their spine and neck they should be in a
straight line. A pillow propped between the knees can help to keep the spine in alignment and prevent unwanted
twisting of the hips and pelvis, says Sammy Margo.

Physical touch even while asleep can reduce feelings of stress

GOOD FOR: Reducing stress
BAD FOR: Causing aches and pains
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY: Lying in each others arms can certainly boost the strength of a relationship, and a study
conducted by American neuroscientist and psychologist Dr James Coan found that physical touch, even while
sleeping, can reduce feelings of stress in both men and women.
However, this position can mean you are forcing your body into a position that can exacerbate existing aches and
strains in the joints and muscles.

It is important to remember that your body changes over the years, advises Sammy Margo, and what was once a
comfortable position may no longer be the case.
Lying on your side, with your partner sleeping close to your body, either in front or behind you often referred to as
spooning can cause back and shoulder pain, while sleeping on a partners arm or chest may lead to your neck
being out of alignment with your spine, so triggering neck pain.
ACTION: When sharing a bed with a partner, it is important to be selfish about your sleeping arrangements. Find a
good starting position that is comfortable for you, even if this means putting distance between the two of you, says
Sammy Margo.
Couples may also differ in their mattress preferences and needs, as people of varying weights and builds require
different types, says Dominic Cheetham.
This can be solved by purchasing two different mattresses (firm and soft, for example) that can then be zipped

Sleeping on the front will help to prevent snoring

GOOD FOR: Snoring
BAD FOR: Teeth grinding, pain and numbness in hands
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY: Sleeping on the front will help to prevent snoring, as the muscles of the throat will not
sag backwards under gravity, says Dr Shneerson.
However, if youre a teeth grinder it can make the condition even worse. According to Dr Mani Bhardwaj, dentist at
The Smile Studios in London, when people sleep on their front, their lower jaw is positioned further forward than

normal. This means that if people do grind their teeth, there is extra pressure on the lower teeth, leading to significant
And this position can also lead to nerve problems in the upper body.
When lying on the front, too many or too few pillows will affect the neck position and put it out of alignment with the
spine. This will increase the likelihood of nerve compression, especially in older people, says Dr Eccleston.
Also, you have to rotate your neck to either the left or right, causing strain on one side.
Nerve compression occurs when the bones of the spine press on the nerves in the neck.
The risk of the condition increases as the vertebrae become arthritic with age, as this narrows the channel the nerves
have to pass through.
People suffering from this condition often complain of numbness and tingling in the fingers.
ACTION: Dr Eccleston recommends a latex foam or pocket-sprung mattress, as these will mould to the shape of your
body and provide better support and protection for your spine than a normal, sprung mattress will.
Sammy Margo says: You could also try sleeping on a pillow placed lengthwise under your stomach to your
shoulders, as this can help to reduce the arching of the back.