There’s one big problem with sleeping that most people never think about. This is an important issue, since we spend on average one third of our lives in bed. It has to do with gravity, and the pull it has on your body when it is lying flat in bed.
Let’s say you weight 150 pounds. When you are standing, gravity pulls your 150-pound body weight down towards your feet, which must support that weight. When standing, gravity also pulls your blood down towards your feet, and resisted the return of blood from your feet back to your heart. As a result, some people feel extra fluid pressure in their lower legs and feet by the end of the day from this pull of gravity. But the feet are designed to withstand this pressure and weight, especially since we take breaks from this pressure and weight when we lie down to rest.
What happens then? Does the effect of gravity disappear when we lie down? Of course, not. Instead, when you lie your 150-pound body down, the first thing that happens is that gravity pulls your body into the mattress. This means that the weight of your body presses on the lower edge of your body that is touching the mattress. Essentially, you are compressing your body into the bed.
This means that it is very important to consider your body position while sleeping. Depending on how you sleep, there will be compression of parts of your body from the weight of your body pressing you into the mattress. This can lead to compression injuries, which involve reduced blood and lymph circulation, nerve injuries, joint injuries, and problems with your brain, eyes, ears, face, and sinuses, depending on your sleep position.
This is one reason why people toss and turn while sleeping. Circulation is impaired from the pressure of sleeping on your body, so you unconsciously move to restore circulation. Leaning on anything for 8-hours straight, day after day, can cause compression injuries. But there are certain sleep positions which are worse than others when it comes to these injuries.
The Worst Sleep Position
Sleeping on your belly is the worst sleep position.
- When lying flat on your belly, there is pressure on the stomach and abdomen, and this can force stomach contents up into your esophagus and throat, essentially causing acid reflux and Gastro-Esophageal Reflux Disease, or GERD.
- Lying on your chest inhibits breathing by preventing the ribs from properly expanding. It also prevents the abdomen from expanding during breathing.
- The face is also compressed into the pillow, requiring that you turn your head to the side to breathe. However, one nostril is still leaning into the pillow, reducing air intake. And you are leaning on one ear and one eye, causing pressure injuries to these organs, which can result in ear infections, vertigo, and hearing loss in the “down” ear, and eye shape changes, or astigmatism, and poor vision in the “down” eye. The nose will also be pushing into the pillow, and over time this changes the shape of your nose and its symmetry, leading the nose to point away from the pillow.
- Turning the head to the side, which is essential to breathe when on your belly, increases brain pressure, as muscles in the neck compress on veins which drain blood from the head. Many health problems are caused by excessive brain pressure and low brain circulation.
- For men, belly sleeping will also cause compression of the penis and testicles. This can cause the penis to turn to the side, and essentially cause a crimp in the “hose”. See my report, Why You Shouldn’t Sleep on Your Penis and Other Important Points.
- The breasts are also smashed into the mattress, causing lymphatic and blood circulation impairment, pressure on the nipples, and distortion of the breast tissue. This is a reason why many women have asymmetric breasts, with one breast larger than the other. Pressure of the body onto the breasts stretches the tissue and distorts the breast. Depending on how you are leaning, one breast will be stretched and compressed more than the other, leading to the asymmetry.
Side sleeping is the second worst position.
- If you are a side sleeper, then you will be leaning the weight of your body on your arm, including and shoulder, wrist and hand. This can impair circulation to the shoulder, arm, and hand. If you wake up in the middle of the night with a numb arm and hand, this is why. Of course, over time this compression will cause joint, nerve, and blood vessel injuries.
- As with belly sleeping, side sleeping results in facial compression on the nose, eye and ear.
- Side sleeping makes you lean on your hip and one leg, too, and this can cause compression injuries to your legs, knees, hip, and pelvis.
- Breathing is less efficient when on your side, since the chest cannot expand symmetrically.
- Men who side sleep are apt to compress their testicles between their legs, and put pressure on their prostate gland.
- Women who side sleep may be putting pressure on one breast more than the other, resulting in asymmetry and increased fluid congestion in the breast that is being leaned on.
- Internal organs are shifted when you side sleep, and for some people this can be a good thing. Some people with acid reflux and bloating, for example, may feel better sleeping on their left side, since this allows belching and reduces reflux. Right side sleeping increases reflux. But for people without these issues, there is no benefit to side sleeping.
Sleeping on your back is the best position.
- There are no organs or appendages to compress when you are on your back. Note that the breasts, penis, eyes, ears, and nose are all on the front of your body, not the back.
- The chest can open properly to breathe deeply.
- The abdomen does not have the pressure of the body leaning on it, so this reduces acid reflux and improves digestion. And you are not leaning on your bladder, improving comfort and reducing the need to get up to urinate as frequently.
So clearly, all other things being equal, back sleeping is the best position to prevent compression injuries from sleeping. However, many people feel uncomfortable on their backs, and for one reason: They are sleeping with their bed too flat.
To understand this, we need to return to the issue of gravity and how it affects circulation, especially circulation to the head and brain.
As mentioned above, when you are standing, gravity pulls blood down towards your feet. Well, it also pulls blood down from the head and brain. While gravity works with the heart to deliver blood to your feet while standing, gravity works against your heart when it comes to delivering blood to your brain. The heart is pumping the blood up from the heart to the head, while gravity is pulling blood down from the head and brain to the heart.
Now, when you lie down, gravity no longer resists blood flow to the head and brain, and no longer assists the drainage of blood from the head and brain. This means that pressure builds in the head and brain when you lie down, due to the lack of gravity.
In space, where astronauts are having to deal with zero-gravity, fluid shifts to the head and brain, causing increased pressure and lots of health problems. Space medicine researchers know this, and simulate zero-gravity on Earth by having people essentially lie flat, or with a slight downward slope.
Note that it is not only the brain that gets congested, but also other parts of the head, including the eyes (causing glaucoma), and the ears (causing disturbances to the inner ear which can cause vertigo and dizziness), and the nasal sinuses (causing stuffiness in the morning). It also causes puffy eyes, migraines, sleep apnea, strokes, Attention Deficit Disorder and Alzheimer’s Disease, as described in my book, Get It Up!, and my article, Rest In Peace: How the Way You Are Sleeping can be Killing You.
The secret to avoiding these problems is to raise the head-of-the-bed from 10-30 degrees, depending on your level of comfort. This incline of the top part of your body provides a gravity gradient that improves circulation to and from the brain and head.
This is the best way to sleep on your back, too. If you are uncomfortable sleeping on your back, it is usually because you are too flat. Elevating the head of your bed will make back sleeping more comfortable.
Back sleeping also reduces GERD and acid reflux symptoms, enabling gravity to keep stomach contents from entering your esophagus. Doctors prescribe head-of-bed elevation for this reason.
If you would like to try sleeping more elevated, you can:
- Put blocks beneath the legs at the head of the bed, creating a slight incline plane. To minimize sliding down the incline, place a pillow beneath your knees, slightly bending your legs. This will also improve lower back issues.
- Get a foam wedge that elevates the top-half of your body.
- Get an adjustable bed.
- Sleep in a hammock.
Most people who try this experience immediate results. They feel less groggy in the morning since their brains are not as congested with fluid. They have less sinus congestion. And they may also feel they need less sleep, as their brains are more alert upon waking.
There is also another wonderful benefit from sleeping elevated. It can eliminate migraines.
We conducted a Migraine Relief Project, described in our book, Get It Up!, where we had lifetime migraine-suffers sleep with their heads elevated, and over 70% stopped having migraines within a few nights of this new sleep position. We believe the reason this works is because a congested brain from flat sleeping is lacking oxygen and sugar necessary for brain function. In order to get oxygen and sugar to the brain once it is too congested, the body responds with a defense mechanism whereby the blood vessels in the head and neck open and pressurize new fluid throughout the brain. This is a migraine. So in our opinion, migraines are a defense mechanism to restore the congested and stagnant brain with essential oxygen and nutrients. Once these migraine-sufferers raised their beds, they no longer needed a migraine “brain flush”, since their brains were not too congested. For more on this, see our book and article cited above.
Bottom Line: The ideal sleep position is on your back with the head of your bed elevated from 10-30 degrees. While it is normal to shift around throughout the night, try staying on or returning to your back when you can. Retraining your sleep position can be challenging, but you will feel the difference in your head and body very quickly, often after one night. Of course, if you feel worse sleeping this way, then sleep however makes you feel best. Let your body be your guide. But give this sleep position a chance. It may save you from a myriad of health issues associated with brain pressure and congestion and other compression issues.
It should be added that tight clothing is a further threat to circulation, adding to the harms caused by sleep-related compression of the body. The problem caused by compression is really a circulation problem. Compressed tissues become stagnant and toxic over time. This also happens from clothing-related compression of the body, as with tight bras, belts, and shapewear. So when you sleep, try to be in loose clothing, or ideally, try being naked.
Tight bras, for example, cause lymph fluid to collect in the breast, resulting in chronic breast lymphedema. See my article, How Tight Bras Cause Lymph Stasis and Breast Cancer, and my book, Dressed to Kill. When women add to this problem by sleeping on their chest or side, the breasts are not given the opportunity to decongest. Depending on her sleep position, a woman may exacerbate breast congestion by leaning on her breasts, and if one is leaned on more than the other this may cause breast cancer in one breast more than the other. This may explain why some women have unilateral breast disease.
Clearly, the cause of many of our health problems is linked to the way we spend a third of our lives in bed. It all has to do with the ways we interfere with healthy circulation, either with tight clothing or the way we sleep. Circulate or deteriorate. Fortunately, the choice is yours!