How do you sleep?

Your sleeping posture affects your health and your life. Here’s how you can improve it to minimise stiffness and body aches while maximising restfulness

The way you sleep has a profound impact on your health. The best position to sleep in is one that is comfortable and maintains the natural curvature of the spine. Your sleeping posture should relax your muscles and nerves while ensuring that the discs of your spine stay free and decompressed. When you sleep, muscles that may have tightened during the day should normalise. Sleeping in the correct posture improves circulation and an environment for healing is created.

The way we sleep often becomes a cause for aches and pains during the day. Sometimes it can lead to morning sleepiness. If you want to cure the problems that arise from bad sleeping posture, you need to change your habits.

You can first adopt the changes when going to bed. Slowly, start telling yourself this is how you need to sleep through the whole night. It also helps to alternate between various sleeping positions. That way, the body does not get used to any one posture and does not bear the pressure on the same points day after day.

Let us look at the various ways in which people sleep, what goes wrong and how we can adjust the position to take us towards the ideal way of lying down for our nightly rest.

Sleeping on your belly

In the long run, people who sleep on their stomach experience discomfort. Long hours of sleeping with a curved pelvis lead to stiffness in the lower back. The discomfort doubles if you have a protruded belly because it causes the lower back to sink in further.

Solution: Use support

People who suffer from chronic headaches or neck-aches find relief when they correct this position and take the pressure off the neck and the pelvis. For those who find it difficult to change their ‘tummy sleeping’ posture, it can be made safer by following these simple suggestions.

  • Place a rolled towel or a small pillow under the abdomen to prevent a sag in the lower back.
  • One knee can be bent towards the chest.
  • The pillow placed below the head should be as flat as possible so that the neck does not get arched or twisted to one side.

While these tips may aid you, the best way to rid yourself of aches is to slowly change your habit of sleeping on your belly.

Sleeping on your back

Sleeping on your back significantly reduces the pressure on your back as compared to sleeping on the stomach, as your weight is evenly distributed across the widest surface of the body. However, people suffer from aches and pains even when they sleep in this position. The reason they feel stiff is that the muscles in their back are taut and not relaxed during sleep.

Since the lower back is overarched, the lower spinal muscles are tightened. The curvature puts pressure on the joints and the nerves of the back. This leads to a stiff and sore back in the morning.

Solution: Sleep stretched

This involves elongating the spine when you lie down.

  • Lie down on your bed with your head resting on a pillow.
  • Fold your knees with the feet flat on the bed.
  • Hold your hips lightly with your palms, fingers facing down.
  • Push the hips away from your lower back, towards your feet. This is the same way we align the pelvis when we stand.
  • Roll your shoulders down so they are rested on the bed and away from the ears.
  • To stretch your neck, lift it off the pillow and stretch it away from the body. Maintain the extra length created as you gently place the head back on the pillow.
  • Ease out. Straighten your legs. Keep your arms by your side, palms face the ceiling.
  • Check your lower back again. It should not be arched up too high. You should be able to slide the fingers of one hand into the natural gap between the back and the bed. If the gap is too much, do all these steps with a pillow placed below your knees.
  • If you have tight lower back muscles or suffer from backaches, place a medium-sized, firm pillow under your knees and lower legs. This support stretches the back and reduces the arch. The padding also reduces the pressure on the spine and the discs.

Sleeping stretched has many advantages. Not only does it improve the quality of the sleep, it is also conducive to the spine. It decompresses the discs and the spinal nerves, improves blood circulation and resets the resting length of the tight back muscles. There is also an improvement in breathing when you sleep in this specific position.

Sleeping on your side

People who sleep on their side tend to lean forward from the top, so the top shoulder and the top hip fall ahead. This misaligns the said joints and twists the spine.

Solution: Stack the joints neatly

If you are habituated to sleeping on one side, these guidelines will come in handy.

  • While sleeping on any side, the major joints of the body should stack on top of each other—knee on knee, hip on hip and foot on foot.
  • When seen from the top, the head, the back, the hips and the feet should be in one line.
  • The lower arm can be folded and placed comfortably on the bed or under the pillow.
  • The top palm should rest on the top thigh.
  • With the top shoulder rolled back, the nerves going from the neck to the arms do not get compressed. The upper shoulder should not get rounded or roll forward as this only reinforces the unhealthy habit of slumping.
  • Alternate on each side to prevent muscular imbalance between the two sides of the body.

The pillow debate

It is commonly assumed that using a pillow aggravates the pain of cervical spondylosis. This is a generalisation as each person has different body proportions. Pillow selection may be compared to tailor-made clothes. It is important to choose a pillow according to the alignment of the neck and the spine. You should aim to keep the neck at a neutral position so that the muscles in the back of the neck are comfortable and do not get strained during the night. These muscles’ should get a gentle traction-like stretch with the help of a good pillow.

A good pillow should help neutralise the tightness and the altered curvature of the neck and the upper back. It should encourage the neck to stretch gently. A good pillow is firm enough to hold the baseline shape, yet soft enough to nurture a good sleep.

Cervical rolls [neck pillows] are made to support the natural curvature of the neck or to create one. If the neck muscles are too tight and it is difficult to stretch them due to muscle spasms, cervical rolls can be used temporarily. It is better to support the neck rather than leave it unsupported.

Yet, anything that exaggerates the cervical curvature should not be used. Over time, stretching the neck with the help of an appropriate pillow helps the most.

The thumb rule when choosing a pillow is that the forehead and the chin should be at the same level, when you lay down.

Choosing the mattress

The mattress we choose to sleep on plays an important role too. A person’s specific body type dictates the type of support he needs.

  • The mattress should be firm and comfortable and not too soft as it makes the body sag.
  • If the mattress has become lumpy and the coils can be felt, or if it sags in the middle, it is time to change it.
  • If your hips are wider than your waist, opt for a softer mattress to accommodate the width of the pelvis and allow the spine to remain neutral.
  • If the hips and the waist are in a relatively straight line, a more rigid surface offers better support.

So settle in for a good night’s sleep with these tips in mind.

Adapted with permission from The Power of Posture by Renu Mahtani
published by Jaico Publishing House.

This was first published in the February 2015 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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