According to Public Health England , getting better sleep is the single most significant contributor to living better, but even if you’re clocking up the recommended seven to nine hours, the way that you’re sleeping could be impacting on your sleep quality. You know those mornings when you wake up a bit achy or foggy headed, despite technically putting the time in? That.
If you’re not feeling well rested after a night’s kip, the position that you sleep in might be playing a part, and it turns out that exactly how you sleep is more significant than you might realise. At least that’s the take of expert sports sleep coach Nick Littlehales . He’s worked with elite athletes including Team Sky cyclists as well as Olympic gold medallists and Premiership footballers to establish sleep routines that maximise physical and mental recovery and he has some pretty clear cut views on why your sleep position is so important and which one is best. He admits that we can contort ourselves into all sorts of weird and wonderful poses during sleep, but most of tend to at least start the night in one of three ‘standard’ sleeping positions…
Sleeping on your front
This is my personal sleep position of choice - unless I’m face planting the mattress it’s not happening. This is apparently a plus if you’re prone to snoring according to Littlehales - it makes nocturnal honking far less likely, but it’s not so hot from a posture and pain point of view apparently:
“Stomach sleepers twist their spine into an unnatural position and, unless they’re sleeping face-down into their pillow, which can become an aggravating factor in itself, their neck is being twisted too. Lower-back pain, neck ache and all sorts of postural problems can stem from sleeping on your front. Furthermore the postural problems caused by sitting in front of a computer all day and looking down at our smartphones can be exacerbated, which all adds up to neck and spine aggravation.”
That’s me told. Sleeping on your front also gets a bad rap in the skincare community, as the friction between face and pillow can trigger acne mechanica, when acne lesions become further inflamed or aggravated by rubbing, pressure and friction against pillowcases. There’s also the fact that some deem bedsheets to carry more bacteria and germs than toilet seats (*puts a wash on*), which is clearly bad news from a skin infection and acne point of view. In further bad skin bulletins for stomach sleepers, nodding off in this particular position can make morning after puffiness worse and cause accelerated collagen breakdown according to facialist Su-Man Hsu , as the pressure of your pillow makes those linen wrinkles and creases more likely to stick around. Finally, on a value for money note, if you sleep with your face submerged in your pillow it’s also more likely that your pillowcase will absorb your precious nighttime serums and skincare products, which isn’t really on.
You can avoid a number of these skin related stomach sleeping grimes by splashing out on a non-absorbent, soft and crease-resistant silk pillow such as Slip Silk Pillowcase , £85, which also come in handy if you have sensitive skin and find traditional bedding fabrics irritating. It remains a firm bestseller on Net a Porter and also helps to leave your hair softer come morning, but personally I find it a bit to slip-slidey to get to grips with. My head tends to slide over to my boyfriend’s side of the bed when I use it, which he clearly loves, but I can confirm that it leaves no one stubborn pillow groove and it won’t absorb your lotions and potions. It’s a luxe solution for negating the dermatological downsides of sleeping facing forwards, but whatever works.
As for the more serious long-term health implications of front sleeping the British Chiropractic Association* has some advice to take the load off:
“If you find that you can't sleep in any position other than on your front, reduce the strain by placing a pillow under your pelvis and lower abdomen. Whatever your sleeping position, those who have a bad back should try placing a pillow under their knees when they sleep. This can help flatten the back and relieve pain.”
Sleeping on your back
Given that this is the opposite position to sleeping on your front you’d assume that this would be good news from a skincare perspective, and you’d be right, because gravity. Su-Man explains why back sleeping is preferable in skincare circles:
“Sleeping on your back is the best way to prevent any wrinkles in the face and neck as it stops the skin from getting’ folded’ by pillows and patterned linen. This is particularly the case when you get older as the skin has reduced collagen. Collagen allows your skin to spring back into shape, so think of it as a bit like your mattress that becomes less resilient and firm as you sleep on it more.”
While Nick advocates sleeping this way for “keeping the back and neck aligned”, the ‘supine’ position (lying on your back) can cause the airways to narrow and our throat to become too relaxed, making snoring and sleep apnoea all the more likely. This then has a knock-on impact in terms of sleep quality, both for ourselves and our bed fellows:
“These factors can take us out of a sleep cycle altogether or doom us to a night of light sleep. And they can do the same to our partners if we have them, not to mention cause resentment and put strains on a relationship. Lying on our back also leaves us feeling exposed and keeps our brain in a high state of alert.”
If you’re a non-snorer and not keen to bend in the sleeping position stakes, ensure that you’re sleeping on a firm pillow that supports your head and neck and doesn’t interfere with postural alignment.
Sleeping on your side
You’re in pole position according to Nick:
“Sleeping on your side is the only sleeping position I recommend. When the athletes I coach go to bed at night, they get into the foetal position on their non-dominant side, because this is the less used and thus less sensitive side. In other words, if you’re right handed you sleep on your left side, and vice versa. If you’re genuinely ambidextrous think about which side you would instinctively use to protect yourself.
“The foetal position should involve a gentle bend at the knees and your arms out in front of you, gently folded. You should have a smooth, straight postural line through the neck, spine and bottom. This is a natural position that won’t cause any postural problems and your chances of snoring and sleep apnoea are reduced. Your brain likes this position because your body is secure - your dominant arm and leg are protecting your heart and other organs, and your genitals.”
It turns out that the most superior sleeping position is pretty primal, which would make sense. I guess you’re not prepped and ready to run after tigers if you’re pancaked on the mattress à la me. This is also the recommended sleeping position if you’re pregnant , when let’s be honest you’ll probably need more rest than ever. Spinal surgeon Dr Ken Hansraj states why side sleeping wins if you’re expecting:
“Pregnant women should always try to sleep on their sides, as this is the least pressure-inducing position for the spine. Additionally, women should look into special pregnancy pillows to place between the knees to eliminate additional pressure on the spine while sleeping.”
There’s no reason that sleeping on your side won’t have a negative effect on your skin either, as Su-Man affirms:
“If you’re sleeping on your side make sure that your pillow is a little higher and that there is no gap between your neck and shoulders. This way you are resisting downward-pulling forces.”
This is already the most popular sleeping position among UK women (51 per cent of us sleep foetal according to health expert Sarah Davenport ) so most of us are onto a good thing, but if you can’t get on board with sleeping sideways, a few strategically placed pillows or postural tweaks could help you to sleep more soundly and prevent any potential health issues down the line. Surely as long as you’re actually getting the sleep you need, sleeping backwards, forwards or upside down shouldn’t really matter. See also: bats.
*in conjunction with Sealy UK