— Dan Nainan, 29, an actor and comedian in New York City sleeps on his back not because he finds it comfortable — but because he worries about wrinkles.
"People who sleep on their side do not understand that their faces are getting all mushed up for seven or eight hours a day,” he says.
Your habit of sleeping on your back, your belly, or even your left or right side can have profound repercussions on your health, experts say. People who favor their backs tend to snore more and may develop sleep apnea, while those who sleep on their right sides could end up with more heartburn than left side sleepers.
“Everyone’s body is very different so to say that one position is better than another, you really can’t,” says Amy Korn-Reavis, a registered polysomnography technician and manager of Emery Sleep Solutions in Apopka, Fla. What’s more, “we change positions every time we go into REM, which is where we dream, and we do that every 90 minutes to two hours,” says Korn-Reavis.
But if you are worried about obstructive sleep apnea, neck or back pain, snoring — even wrinkles — here’s what you should know about your sleep sweet spot:
Health consequence: “Snoring and sleep apnea patients snore more, and the apnea is worse when you’re on your back because of the tongue,” says Dr. David Volpi, director of the Manhattan Snoring and Sleep Center.
Why: On your back, it’s all about gravity. The tongue falls back and obstructs your airway causing vibration (snoring), or a blockage that causes you to slow or stop breathing (sleep apnea). Men are more likely to snore and develop apnea, but women can, too. Being overweight, having large tonsils, the tongue and soft palate’s size and position, as well as a deviated septum can all play a role. For the record, skinny folks snore and get apnea, too.
Try this instead: Raising the head of the bed may help, since it changes the tongue’s gravity factor. Others stop snoring when they roll on their stomachs. “That’s why a lot of guys have bruised ribs and a lot of women have sore elbows,” says Korn-Reavis. If you’re worried about apnea, ask your doctor for a home sleep study or an overnight stint in a sleep lab. Treatments for apnea include a nighttime breathing machine, an in-office palate implant procedure, dental devices or surgery.
Health consequence: Acid reflux, heartburn, indigestion
Why: Researchers don't exactly know why sleeping on your right side — but not your left — can lead to heartburn. Here's one theory: Lying on your right side relaxes the passageway between your stomach and esophagus. Eating within three hours of sleep can also cause symptoms, as can lying supine since gravity makes it more likely that stomach acid splashes back up the esophagus and causes irritation.
Try this instead: Elevate the head of your bed. “Put pillows not only under your head and shoulders but all the way up to your hips,” says Dr. Patricia Raymond, a gastroenterologist and associate professor of clinical internal medicine at Eastern Virginia Medical School. If you only raise the head and the shoulders, you crimp the center of your body at the stomach and increase inter-abdominal pressure, theoretically causing more heartburn woes. Or, simply flip over and sleep on your left.
Health consequence: Wrinkles from squishing the side of your face into the pillow.
Why: It’s not been scientifically proven, but Dr. Leslie Baumann, a Miami dermatologist and author of “Cosmetic Dermatology: Principles and Practices,” believes squashing your face in your pillow contributes to wrinkles.
Try this instead: Some patients swear by a silk eye mask. “A softer pillowcase may help because rough ones fissure the skin more.” says Baumann. Try satin or silk. There is some research that shows increased water content in the skin might help prevent wrinkles, so moisturize and drink water if you’re a stomach sleeper. Otherwise, try to switch to your back.
Health consequence: Neck or back pain
Why: “Back pain is very personal,” says Korn-Reavis. People think laying in bed helps, but it often aggravates the pain since strengthening core muscles is what’s needed. A lot of times neck pain is about the pillow. People tend to either not change pillows frequently enough or use the wrong pillow.
Try this instead: For back pain, lie down on your side with a pillow between your legs or lie on your back with a pillow under your knees, which puts hips in alignment and takes pressure off the back. For neck pain, you don't need to buy the most expensive pillow, but one with the right kind of support depending on your preferred sleep position. On your back and belly: a flatter pillow. On your side: fluffier. Whether firm, medium or soft, filled with buckwheat hulls, foam or feathers — it’s all personal preference. Just replace it yearly.