Even when we make quality sleep a priority, we may find hidden causes of our aches, pains, and chronic conditions that are linked to our sleep habits. For instance, here are some common reasons that patients have undiagnosed pain or tight muscles that can be traced back to sloppy sleeping positions:
I’m guilty of this one! I had to consciously train myself to not roll over in the middle of the night. Humans have an innate instinct to protect our underbelly during periods of vulnerability like sleep. However, sleeping this way can cause your shoulders to collapse inward, rounding towards the heart. This pulls the neck forward and causes tight cervical and upper back muscles. This can lead to cervical and thoracic problems. This may be the reason I developed closed shoulders over time. If you have this poor sleeping habit too, look into a body pillow that can rest between your legs and still gives the feeling that your abdominal area is protected.
However, patients with sleep apnea may experience a choking or gasping sensation when sleeping on their backs unless they are completely compliant with their CPAP usage. If this your situation, you can opt for an orthopedic pillow and an inclined sleeping position.
This position has been associated with increased heartburn in addition to poorer circulation and digestion. A study published in the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology showed that patients who slept on their right side suffered from significantly worse heartburn after a fatty meal.
So what’s the best position to sleep in?
This has been verified by science and taught by Ayurveda, the ancient eastern medicine that originated in India over 6000 years ago. Ayurveda believes that each side of the body is distinctly different and carries energies and issues all on their own.
In the body, the lymphatic system is the sewer system. It transports waste products to the thoracic duct. In medical school, I remember finding it so odd that the thoracic duct was only on the left side and NOT on the right! The remaining lymph fluid is filtered and purified and then dumped into the left side via the heart. In Ayurveda, edema caused by chronic lymphatic congestion or heart failure will more than likely occur on the left side in the early stages. Alternatively, early-stage edema caused by liver failure will usually occur on the right side as this is where the liver is found.
This all makes so much sense when you understand the anatomy of our digestive system. During digestion, food moves past the ileocecal valve where it enters the colon. Food is then propelled across the right side of the abdomen and down the left side of the body into the descending colon before it hits the rectum. Sleeping on the left side throughout the night encourages easy transit of waste products due to gravity. One of the first questions I ask my patients about their bowel movements! They are so important for the proper elimination of toxins and overall health. Try incorporating more fiber, water, my Colon Master, and sleeping on your left side!
Sleeping on the left side encourages blood flow through the aorta down to the descending aorta on the left. It is actually medically advised to sleep on the left if pregnant as this encourages return blood flow to the heart. This allows the intestines to hang away from the inferior vena cava which brings blood back to the heart. When there is no pressure from the intestines, the vena cava can fully fill with blood. The intestines are free to hang without any pressure from other organs so that they can fully appreciate adequate blood supply as well.
The Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology found that after lying on either side for four hours after indulging in a fatty meal, participants experienced more heartburn when lying on the right, rather than left sides. This is not fully understood but is thought to be due to the gastric secretions lying below the level of the esophageal sphincter when sleeping on the left. This means it is more difficult for them to reflux back up into the esophagus where we feel it! Since the pancreas is on the left, it is also hypothesized that digestive enzymes are more effectively produced when lying on the left and this helps to digest and breakdown nutrients better, leading to less GERD symptoms.
The spleen is an almond-shaped organ on the left side of our bodies right above the kidney. It loves high blood flow as its job is to filter the blood and remove debris or signal immune cells if there is a problem. When sleeping on the left, we are again increasing blood flow to this organ passively through gravity. This can improve lymph flow and immunity, or our ability to fight infections.