How sleeping on your back can ruin your ability to breathe, get oxygen to your brain, and shorten your lifespan.
See the image above: what do you think is the best position to sleep in?
I show this image at workshops and conferences, and it always has a mind-boggling effect when I share the science.
For starters, the best sleeping position is “D,” in other words, on your stomach AND without a pillow.
yes no pillow
And yes… in your stomach.
I’d like to share the science behind these two claims, and more importantly, how any other position can negatively affect your sleep (and worse, affect your health).
Most of the proposed sleep strategies have the opposite effect of helping you get a good night’s sleep.
Whether it’s “ergonomic” pillows, the back-sleeping fallacy, or tools to help you stay “aligned” at night, there’s always a new “thing” to help you sleep better.
These products are typically designed without someone understanding neurodevelopment, spinal mechanics, or basic physiology.
More often than not, these products are developed and driven by profit rather than pioneering healthcare solutions.
They often have the cumulative effect of depleting oxygen at night, contributing to chronic oxygen depletion in the brain, destroying the natural curves of the neck, and aiding in muscle degeneration.
That is why I wrote this article.
Sleeping On Your Back Causes Hypoxia (Low Oxygen)
“Laugh and the world laughs with you, snore and you sleep alone.” —Anthony Burgess
Often touted as the preferred way to sleep, sleeping on your back can do more harm than good.
If we step back for a moment and look at the neurodevelopment of children, the way they develop curves in the spine is primarily through their tummy time.
Parents always hear the importance of tummy time.
As they should.
Being prone as a child is crucial for motor and structural development.
Initially, tummy time works primarily to build axial muscle strength so that the baby can hold their head up.
Sleeping on your stomach is the equivalent of tummy time for an adult.
When you think about the time you spend on the midline, you’ll begin to realize how much you need it.
If sleeping on your stomach is uncomfortable, you need to find a way to restore the curve of your neck.
Easy ways to do this are chiropractic care along with muscle rehabilitation to restore proper rotation, lateral flexion, and extension.
Another unpleasant side effect of sleeping on your back is mouth breathing.
Do you like waking up as if you slept with a sock in your mouth and chapped lips?
Yes. Neither do I.
While it might seem like fun to read the urban dictionary definition of a mouth breather, it’s not that far off given that a sleeper is someone who cumulatively doesn’t get enough oxygen into their body.
Over time, this will lead to decreased oxygenation of the brain and body.
It would be a reasonable assumption that this could affect brain function over time.
The Pillow Fallacy
“That nice soft pillow and a warm blanket and everything are comfortable, and nobody wants to leave that comfort, but if you can get up early in the morning, have a head start on everyone else who is still sleeping, have productive time doing things you need to do – this is a great piece to move your life forward. —Jocko Willink
I always laugh a little when I see products, particularly cervical pillow products, that promote “natural alignment” at night.
First, alignment can only be measured when someone is standing upright, against gravity.
NOT while lying on your side.
For my neuro nerds, the reason you need to be standing to assess alignment and not sideways is that we activate the vestibulo-ocular reflex, pelvo-ocular reflex, vestibular system, and neuromuscular compensatory patterns. We can also see left and/or right brain weakness with eye movements and pupil symmetry.
In Defense of Stomach Sleeping
“I sleep on my stomach with my head under a bunch of pillows, so if someone wants to come in and try to kill me, they can’t tell if I’m there or not, so they just walk away.” – Wiz Khalifa
Sleep, since it makes up about ⅓ of your day, can be a great way to undo text neck, excessive bending while at the table, and forward head posture.
Specifically, sleeping on your stomach puts your neck in extension (the opposite of what happens when you are in front of the computer and on the phone), thus restoring some order of balance in the system.
Sleeping the stomach undoes the creep.
While there is no ONE position that is best for the entire night, there are undeniable benefits of sleeping on your stomach.