Not only is side sleeping preferred by 60% of adults, but it is also considered to be one of the healthiest sleep positions. Side sleeping offers many benefits, from improved spinal alignment to a reduced risk of snoring, heartburn, and back pain.
To unlock the full potential of these benefits, however, you need to get into just the right position. Learn more about how to sleep on your side, which side you should choose, and what else to consider.
Benefits of Sleeping On Your Side
Research demonstrates many benefits to sleeping on your side, including:
Back pain relief
Reduced risk of snoring and sleep apnea
Improved gut health
Improved brain health
Back Pain Relief
Many people live with chronic pain, especially in their lower back. Sleeping in the wrong position, such as on your stomach, can increase the amount of pressure on your spine and lead to pain upon waking. When people switch to side sleeping, however, they report back pain relief.
Reduced Risk of Snoring and Sleep Apnea
People may snore up to 50% more often when sleeping on their sides instead of their backs. When you sleep on your back, it is easier for your tongue to fall back into your throat, creating an obstruction that can result in snoring.
When you sleep on your side, your airway stays open, so you can breathe easier. For this reason, physicians recommend people with sleep apnea, a serious sleep-related breathing disorder, sleep on their side to help relieve symptoms.
Improved Gut Health
Your body position influences how well your digestive system6 functions, and gas does not clear your system as quickly when you lie on your back. People who are experiencing heartburn, constipation, bloating, or other gastrointestinal issues may feel relief if they sleep on their side.
Improved Brain Health
Your brain gets rid of waste7 throughout the day and night, but it does the majority of this important work at night while you sleep. Researchers analyzed whether your sleep position affects your brain’s efficiency in waste removal, and the side sleeping position allows for faster waste removal than either the stomach or back sleeping positions.
Side sleeping is recommended for pregnant people8, because it is easier for the heart to pump blood through the body in this position. Side sleeping also prevents the baby from putting too much pressure on the vein that carries blood back from the mother’s legs to their heart. Side sleeping is considered safer during pregnancy, since back sleeping is associated with an increased risk of late stillbirth in some studies.
Which Side Is Best to Sleep On?
Whether you should sleep on your right or left side depends on which health issues you face. The left side may provide more benefits, particularly for those who are pregnant, or experience gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). People with these conditions might want to take special care to sleep on their left side. People with heart failure9, however, might experience discomfort on their left sides and instead prefer to sleep on their right sides.
Sleeping on the left side is recommended for pregnant people. Sleeping on this side improves blood flow between the heart, fetus, uterus, and kidneys, while keeping pressure off the liver.
If you get uncomfortable, physicians recommend switching to the right side for a short while rather than sleeping on your back.
If You Experience Heartburn
When people with GERD sleep on their left side, they experience fewer instances of heartburn than when they sleep on the right side or on their back. Not only are heartburn episodes more frequent on the right side, but they also last longer10.
Pregnant people can also experience heartburn, since pregnancy causes the digestive system to move more slowly. Sleeping on the left side can relieve their heartburn, while also making it easier for their heart to pump blood to the fetus.
If You Have Heart Failure
Studies show that many people with heart failure naturally choose to sleep on their right side and avoid sleeping on the left side. Echocardiograms of people with heart failure show that left side sleeping impacts the way the heart functions, potentially causing discomfort11.
People with heart failure should also avoid sleeping on their backs, since it puts pressure on the lungs12 and can contribute to sleep apnea symptoms. More than half of people experiencing heart failure also have a type of sleep apnea.
Tips for Side Sleeping
When side sleeping, it may help to follow these tips to optimize this position for better sleep.
Pick a Mattress That Supports Side Sleeping
If your mattress allows you to sleep well and wake up feeling refreshed, then it is a good mattress for you. People’s mattress preferences can range from extremely soft to very firm, but medium firm mattresses13 have been demonstrated to reduce pain in side sleepers.
Mattresses that are too soft can allow heavier parts of your body, like your hips or your shoulders, to sink too deeply into the mattress. During the night, your spine might stretch out of alignment, and you may wake up with aches and pains in the morning.
Mattresses that are too firm, on the other hand, don’t provide enough cushioning for these pressure points when you are sleeping on your side. As a result, a gap can form between your waist and the mattress surface. Your abdomen might sink in to fill this space, leading to discomfort and spinal misalignment.
Medium firm mattresses typically balance contouring and support for side sleepers. They allow enough cushioning for the heavier parts of your body to sink deeper into the mattress, while being firm enough to prevent them from sinkly too deeply and causing spinal misalignment.
Most mattress companies offer trial periods ranging from 30 to 100 nights. This allows you to try the mattress out, sleep on it for a few weeks, and determine if it is the right fit.
Get a Pillow Designed for Side Sleepers
The best pillow for side sleepers is one that supports proper alignment between your neck and the rest of your spine14. Your neck should stay aligned with your upper back to avoid creating any pressure or neck pain upon waking up. If you sleep on your side and are prone to neck pain, you might want to avoid a feather pillow15 and opt for a supportive latex pillow16 instead.
Measure the space between your neck and the edge of your shoulder. When you go shopping for pillows, that measurement should be close to the pillow’s loft, which describes the height of a pillow.
You can use additional pillows to make side sleeping more comfortable. Place a pillow between your knees to keep your hips aligned, reduce pressure on your knee joints, and prevent straining your lower back.
Get Into a Symmetrical Side Sleeping Position
Symmetrical side sleeping is preferable to asymmetrical side sleeping. Supporting the natural curvature of your spine, from your head to your hips, helps prevent any aches and pains in the morning.
1. Lie on your side with your head on the pillow. 2. Ensure your chin and neck are aligned in the center of your shoulders, and your shoulders are in line with your hips. 3. Keep your head looking forward, so your chin does not tilt down to your neck or twist to the side. 4. Keep your arms and hands aligned with each other, either by your sides or slightly in front of you. 5. Consider placing a small pillow between your knees to relieve pressure on the hips and prevent your knees from collapsing onto each other.
Many side sleepers opt for a fetal position, with their legs bent and curled in toward their chest. This position can relieve pressure in the back. Curling up too tight in this position, however, can make it more difficult to breathe.
Pregnant people may find placing pillows under the abdomen and between the legs relieves additional pressure. Placing another firm pillow or rolled up blanket at the small of the back can help prevent additional discomfort.
When to Consider a Different Sleeping Position
If you find you cannot get comfortable sleeping on your side, you may want to switch to sleeping on your back instead. The back sleeping position offers many potential benefits, including back pain relief, especially when used in combination with side sleeping.
If you switch from side to back sleeping, a thinner pillow may help support your new sleep position. While side sleepers often sleep best with a higher loft pillow, back sleepers do better with a medium loft — a pillow that is high enough to provide cushioning for the neck, but not too high that it causes their chin to tilt forward into the chest.
Additionally, while side sleeping offers a range of benefits, there are two key concerns that may be better served by another sleep position: wrinkles and shoulder pain.
If you are worried about wrinkles, be aware that sleeping on your side with your face pressed into the pillow can compress and stress your skin, leading to wrinkles17. Sleeping on your back allows you to reduce this wrinkle-causing pressure.
Side sleeping can also lead to or exacerbate existing shoulder pain18, since you are placing more pressure on the shoulder facing the mattress. To minimize your risk of shoulder pain, try alternating between sides. It may also help to focus on keeping your head and neck aligned evenly with both shoulders, and use a supportive mattress and pillow combination that does not let you sink too deeply into the mattress.
Side sleeping can help you sleep more deeply, but it is not for everyone. If you experience discomfort or pain after sleeping in this position, talk to your doctor.