Establishing positive habits is one of the most important ways that you can take control of your health. Considering that as many as half of all adults report at least mild insomnia, it would seem that a great deal of us never learned how to set good sleeping habits. Sleep is the time for daily maintenance, when the conscious mind shuts down and the entirety of our internal energy can be put toward rejuvenation. Everyday life is inundated with tasks to complete and emotions to manage, giving our bodies ample repair to do by the end of our waking hours.
Sleep allows our bodies to recover faster. When we sleep between 7 to 8 hours per night, we are more mentally sharp, sifting through information faster and more efficiently; we have more energy and a better outlook; we are more apt to pay closer attention to our eating habits; we build stronger immunity; we find it much easier to deal with stress; and, with our systems working vibrantly, our bodies are able to optimally regulate heart function, hormone production, digestion, and the like. The opposite to all of the above is true when we do not sleep; insomnia, from mild to severe, wreaks havoc on our health.
The process of sleep is an automatic activity engaged by a network within your central nervous system, so it is to an extent beyond our conscious control. However, we can support healthy sleeping patterns by eliminating deficiencies that cause insomnia within each of the five basic areas of overall health: proper function, stress management, nutrition, exercise, and structural balance.
It is on that last category that the remainder of this article will focus. Structural balance makes life easier in general, but specific to sleeping habits makes it possible to breathe through fully opened airways, fully relax your muscles to release the stress from your joints, and allow for proper circulation. Maintaining proper sleeping posture, then, is an important step that must be taken to ensure the best quality of rest. The three common sleeping positions are on the back, the side, or the stomach.
Stomach sleeping should be avoided completely. It puts tremendous physical strain on the body; the neck twisting stresses the supporting musculature, starting a domino effect that causes one hip to pull the attached leg up into a bent position close to the waist. Try standing that way and see if you think it is comfortable. Stomach sleeping also cuts off the blood supply to your brain. The vertebral arteries that run up both sides of your neck and supply roughly 25% of your brain’s blood supply are stretched and twisted when the head is turned, decreasing blood flow; combined with the manner in which it contorts the body physically, this is why stomach sleepers are notorious both for not being well-rested and for being stiff when they wake up in the morning.
The two best ways to sleep are on your back or on your side. Back sleeping is ideal. The body is most relaxed in the supine (back-lying) position, with the head slightly elevated by a supportive pillow and a small pillow tucked beneath the knees. The head and neck are the body’s structural foundation; wherever the head goes, the rest of the body follows, so sleeping on your back without the lower body support creates a situation in which the musculature in the lower back, hips, and legs attempts to pull itself into a similar position as the head on the pillow.
Side-sleeping is okay too as long as it is done correctly. Two things are required to ensure high quality sleep when side-lying. First, the pillow that you use must allow your head, neck, and shoulders to rest in their neutral positions. If you imagine looking at yourself in the mirror when your posture is relaxed and then tipping 90 degrees onto your side, that is the correct head and neck posture for side sleeping. Second, a pillow between the knees is a must, for it prevents the natural shifting of one hip and leg across the other to avoid the bones of the knees resting on top of each other. To put it simply, the head, neck, shoulders, and hips need to be balanced in order to avoid undue strain on your body. If your body is stressed while sleeping, then sleeping will not accomplish the fullest extent of its intended purpose.
In regard to pillows, the one that you use to support the lower body can be a regular pillow, but be sure to use common sense when gauging the size of the person (slight of frame needs a smaller pillow, larger frame needs bigger pillow). The head and neck pillow represents a more delicate search for both comfort and support shaped by the consistency of your preferred sleeping posture. The SleepRight side-lying pillow, for instance, is designed for sleepers that exclusively lay on their side. It is custom fit to meet the requirements of your body style and its website offers a helpful, basic guide to help you measure your shoulder heights correctly. The D-Core is the back sleeper’s equivalent.
Perhaps the best pillows are the ones that allow you to fluctuate between your back and your side. Cervical contour and standard memory foam pillows give you that flexibility, but they have to be replaced more often than a fiber support pillow, the gold standard of which is the Therapeutica. The Therapeutica has a wedge extension that acts like a ramp to support the upper back, as well as a dip in the center where your head rests that provides optimal head/neck support and keeps you from turning/straining your neck. It is also raised on each side to allow you to roll to your right or left without having to maneuver it.
Without proper sleep, we cannot be truly well. The manner in which we sleep, thus, has a big impact on our health. Paying attention to your sleeping position and investing in the supportive pillows that are right for you goes a long way to ensuring that you sleep not just adequately, but optimally.
Sources: WedMD, Therapeutica.com, SleepRight.com