4 common sleep positions and what they do to your body

Doctor explains the physical effects of front, side and back sleeping

Man asleep on his side in bed
(Image credit: Getty)

The position you sleep in could have a big impact on your health and wellbeing. I spoke to a pillow specialist who walked me through the best and worst positions for sleep, based on spine health. Since then, I've come across this viral TikTok post that explains how different sleeping positions – front, back, left and right sides – can improve or worsen common conditions, like snoring and acid reflux.

This viral TikTok video comes from Dr Karan Rajan, an NHS surgical doctor who has built up quite a following on various social media channels with his science, health and medicine-related posts. I've also looked at what other trusted health resources are saying, to make sure his claims are legit. Let's take a look at the health repercussions of different sleeping positions...

On your front

Bad for: everyone

Pretty much everyone agrees that sleeping while lying on your front is a bad idea. "This is a really unnatural position for the human spine," explains Karan. The position puts stress on your cervical spine, which can cause neck pain, and also your lumbar spine, causing lower back pain. All round, one to avoid, then. 

If you're dead set on lying on your front, Karan suggests putting a pillow underneath your lower torso to correct the alignment of your spine somewhat. 

On your back

Bad for: sleep apnoea or snoring

Lying on your back could make problems like sleep apnoea and snoring worse, says Karan, because that position makes "the airway is more likely to collapse". 

This is backed up by WebMD (opens in new tab), which also reminds us that snoring is not just annoying for whoever's in the bed with you, but it might actually lead to "problems with the carotid artery, which supplies blood to your brain, face, and neck." 

Also bad for: pregnant people

Lying on your back is also a bad idea if you're heavily pregnant. Not only can it lead to back pain, but also the weight of the uterus can compress the inferior vena cava, resulting in "reduced blood flow to the heart and to the foetus".

Assuming you don't fall into any of those categories, you're probably okay to lie on your back, although you might want to pop a pillow under your knees to improve the spinal alignment.

Good for: nasal congestion

If you suffer from allergies or are bunged up with a cold, the best position for you might be on your back, with pillows under your upper back to prop you up into a slightly more upright position, says Sleep Foundation (opens in new tab). "This positioning can enable your airways to stay open and may help drain your nose. Avoid lying flat on your back, as that may increase nasal congestion."

On your side

Most specialists agree that lying on your side is one of the better sleeping positions, because in most cases it keeps your spine in neutral alignment. It can also have some other benefits. 

Good for: acid reflux (... if you're on your left)

If you suffer from acid reflux, try to lie on your left, says Karan: "[On your left side], the oesophageal sphincter and oesophagus are in a higher position than the stomach, and because of gravity, you're less likely to experience acid reflux." WebMD also suggests that lying on your back can improve acid reflux.

Also good for: your brain

There are more benefits to left side sleepers, too: "Side sleeping may also help your brain's lymphatic system flush out toxins and proteins," he adds. WebMD suggests that, due to this, lying in a foetal position might even help ward off conditions such as Alzheimer's or Parkinson's. 

Also good for: pregnant people (... if you're on your left)

A side lying position on your left is the best position for pregnant people. In this position, there should be good bloodflow to the foetus and the uterus won't be pressing against the liver.

Also good for: high blood pressure (... if you lie on your right)

Provided you're not pregnant and you don't suffer from acid reflux, those with high blood pressure might want to flip over to their right side. "Right sided sleep... could reduce blood pressure," says Karan.

Bad for: your youthful complexion

So side sleeping is a winner all round, right? Sleep Foundation has bad news: "Side sleeping can... contribute to facial wrinkles, since your face is pressed against the pillow, stretching and compressing the skin." 

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On your right side

For more sleep tips, see how to optimise your sleep position for better posture and fast recovery, and check out our best pillow and best mattress guides to make sure you've got something that's providing sufficient spinal support.

@dr.karanr (opens in new tab)

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Ruth is currently on secondment as Sleep Editor for Tom's Guide and TechRadar. The role is an extension of her work on T3, where she ran the site's Wellness channel, which includes sleep, relaxation, yoga and general wellbeing. She was also Outdoors editor, reviewing and writing about everything from camping gear and hiking boots to mountain bikes, drones and paddle boards. She has tested more mattresses than her small flat can handle, and has had to implement a one-in-one-out pillow policy, for fear of getting smothered in the night.