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The Back To Sleep Campaign: Coming to a Grown-Up Bed Near You! [Research tries to answer the age old question of sleep positions

Posted Nov 14 2013 2:01am


Sleeping is my jam. I don’t want to brag or anything but I’m a champion sleeper and always have been*. (Are there extreme sleeping contests like there are extreme eating contests? I’m not sure what that would look like – hanging in a climbing tent off the face of Half Dome? – but I’d be up for it.) No matter what other issues are going on in my life, I’ve never had insomnia or random night wakings and other than a few bad bouts of PTSD (leftover from being sexually assaulted), no major nightmares either. Although I do have lots of dreams and generally remember them after waking – which sounds cooler than it is since I usually dream really lame-o stuff. Take last night for instance, I dreamt I was talking to some old coworkers from several jobs ago who ended up being just as boring in my dreams as they were in real life. Freudian acolytes, make of that what you will.

But despite my ability to fall asleep nearly anytime anywhere, I do have my preferences. IDEALLY:

- I’m in my bedroom. (Other places have weird noises like ticking clocks or running toilets or creepy porcelain dolls with those wide unblinking-yet-unseeing eyes. And hotels always have that incessantly blaring air conditioning no matter what time of year it is causing me to crash around in the dark looking for the off switch which is usually conveniently located somewhere like under a panel stapled to the underside of the bed. You know how fans make my HSP spidey senses tingle!)

- All white sheets, tightly tucked in, with one white down comforter. I like stuff simple and in-line in my bedroom decor, what can I say?

- Windows open. I need to see sky, people!

- Laying on my side facing the door, on the side of the bed nearest the door. (I tell my husband it’s so I can get up easier with the kids since I’m the only one who usually hears them when they wake up but even when we didn’t have kids, I still had to face the door. The wall creeps me out. Irrational fear.)

But it’s that last one I’m trying to change. It turns out that according to new research, side sleeping may not be the ideal snoozing situation. So which position is best? When it comes to people in generally good health, apparently back sleeping is the winner. Yep, just like all those newborn posters in the hospital tell parents to always put their babies “back to sleep”, what’s good for the tiny human is also good for the big human. Not that adults need to worry about SIDS or rolling into their bedding and smothering but it turns out that back sleeping is better for your spine, getting rid of back pain, eliminating headaches, reducing wrinkles and even helping your boobs to be perkier. (Yeah, someone did research on how perky women’s boobs are in different sleep positions. I would have loved to see the creepy grant proposal for that one!)

Anyhow, I was first alerted to the error of my sleeping ways by a doctor I interviewed. One of the perks of my job covering health for different magazines is all the cool experts I get to talk to (in some cases that can also be a curse, more on that another time) and about 6 months ago, I interviewed a spine expert for a story about… I can’t even remember now. It wasn’t sleeping. But as we chatted we ended up at sleeping because that’s his secondary area of expertise. When I proudly told him I used one of those ergonomic foam pillows “designed to fit the natural curve of your neck and spine” (too many infomercials: see above), he burst out laughing. “Well thank you for keeping me in business, I guess!” he finally said.

“They’re not good for you?” I sighed, already regretting that pricey purchase.

“The worst!” he exclaimed. “They lock your neck into one position all night long and it’s usually not all that natural. Also, those really expensive pillow top mattresses. They’re the major source of back pain I see.”

“Well what IS the best way to sleep then?” I asked.

“You don’t want to know,” he answered.

“Yes I do! I really do!” I begged.

“You don’t,” he replied. “Nobody does. Because it’s not comfortable.”

He went on to explain that based on his sleep lab research and spinal studies, the human body reposes best in what yoga-ites know as Savasana, or more affectionately – Corpse Pose. Because dead is exactly the look you’re going for with sleeping. You lay flat on your back with your arms loosely by your sides, your face upwards and legs together but feet kind of flopping out to the sides. (Your welcome for that super technical definition). Here’s a picture:



Anyhow, the doc pointed out the reason the pose has been so popular for centuries. It keeps everything in alignment without putting undue pressure on joints or facial skin. He even agreed with the yoga method saying that ideally everyone should sleep flat on their backs on a thin mat – he recommended a tatami mat, the traditional sleeping pads used by the Japanese – in a cool room with a single blanket and either no pillow or a very thin pillow. (He added that if at first it strains your back to lay that straight you can place a pillow or rolled blanket under your knees.)

And he’s not the only proponent of this way of sleeping – people who do the Paleo/Primal diet as a whole lifestyle encompassing more than the food, often advocate ground or mat sleeping. There are lots of great testimonials about ground sleeping curing everything from back pain to heartburn.

Ay yi yi. I’ve fallen asleep on many floors but I can’t say I find them comfy and usually I’ll stumble into an actual bed at some point. Even when we go camping I bring a cushy foam pad if not a full-on cot. “That sounds miserable!” I said.

“Oh it is!” he answered cheerily. “At least until you get used to it. And you will… eventually.”

When I asked him about the common adage to turn a snorer over, he said that was true and if snoring or sleep apnea is a major problem for you then he would recommend side sleeping. “But you’ll get lots of premature wrinkling on that side of your face!” he warned ominously. Plus, your boobs will sag. So I suppose if you are in that situation you’ll have to decide which is more important to you: breathing or looking younger. Priorities!

So of course I had to try it! Immediately! That very night!

I think I lasted 5 minutes on our floor before slinking back into bed with my husband (who had wisely declined not to participate in my little experiment saying that spooning on the floor made his arm go numb). And that might have been where things ended except that lately things have been getting kinky in my bedroom – and by kinky I mean “neck kink”. Since I’ve been sleeping more (depression makes me practically narcoleptic), I’ve been waking up lots of mornings with a really sore neck. Like can’t-check-your-blindspot sore. I’ve tried everything I can think of with my bedding arrangement. But it still hurts. I don’t think I’m ready for full-on floor sleeping but if I can just train myself to sleep on my back I think that would help. (Plus my boobs need all the help they can get in the anti-gravity department!)

So now the problem is how to do that. Every night I fall asleep on my back. And wake up on my side, facing the door. I’m not alone in my side-sleeping either. According to the Mayo Clinic 63% of Americans sleep on their side. Only 14% sleep on their back and 16% on their stomach. People would rather sleep on their stomach than their backs?! I can’t even.

How do you guys like to sleep, ideally? Any ground or tatami mat sleepers out there? Have you ever changed your default sleep position to something else? I need tips!

*Except for the last month of pregnancy. That’s the 7th circle of sleeping hell. NOTHING is comfortable. I usually spend most nights by that point watching infomercials, eating boxes of popsicles, and threatening to name my kid Dorcas if they dare go overdue.

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