When it comes to full health, getting enough sleep is paramount. We all know this on an intuitive level, but it doesn’t mean that life doesn’t barge in and get in the way of our precious rest. Friends keep us out late, alcohol interrupts REM sleep, and many of us have undiagnosed conditions like sleep apnea which affect our quality of sleep and can even damage the heart. Even if we have the best of intentions, there can be hidden reasons for our aches, pains, and chronic conditions that are linked to our sleeping behavior.
For example, here are some common reasons that patients have undiagnosed pain or tight muscles that can be traced back to sloppy sleeping positions:
- Sleeping on your Stomach-I’m guilty of this one! It took me a long time to train myself to not roll over in the middle of the night. We humans have an innate tendency to protect our underbelly, or stomachs during periods of vulnerability, like during sleep. What happens, however, when we enjoy prolonged belly time, is that our shoulders collapse inward, rounding towards the heart. This pulls the neck forward and causes tight cervical and upper back muscles. This is similar to text-neck syndrome and can cause cervical and thoracic problems. I have a sneaky suspicion that my bad habit lead to closed shoulders over time. If you have this poor sleeping habit too, look into a body pillow which can rest between your legs and still gives the feeling that your abdominal area is protected.
- Sleeping on the Back is Ok unless.…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. (A CPAP is a machine that uses positive pressure to keep the throat open during sleep which prevents oxygenation levels from dangerously falling). If this is the case, then opt for an orthopedic pillow and an inclined sleeping position.
- Sleeping on the Right Side-This position has been associated with increased heartburn, poorer circulation and digestion. A study published in the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology showed that patients who laid on their right side suffered from significantly worse heartburn after a fatty meal.
So whats the best position to sleep in?
THE LEFT SIDE!
And believe it or not, this has been verified by science and taught by Ayurveda, the ancient eastern medicine that originated in India over 500o years ago. Ayurveda believes that each side of the body is distinctly different and carries energies and issues all on their own. Heres some of the ways you can improve your health by incorporating this one sleeping trick.
- Facilitate lymphatic drainage-In the body, the lymphatic system is the sewer system. It transport waste products that the body no longer needs to the thoracic duct. In medical school in my gross anatomy class, 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 by way of 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.
- Better digestion and bowel movements-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 are bowel movements! They are so important for proper elimination of toxins and overall health. Not only should everyone be having 1-2 bowel movements a day, but all of us should be headed straight to drop the kids off at the pool first thing in the morning. If you are not going first thing in the morning, this is constipation! Try incorporating more fiber, water, my Colon Master and sleeping on your left side!
- The Heart is on the 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 is free to hang without any pressure from other organs so that it can fully appreciate adequate blood supply as well.
- Decreased Acid Reflux-As mentioned above, 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 postulated that perhaps 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 Also on the Left! 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.