Meet Mark

Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

Tell Me More
Stay Connected
July 02, 2010

How to Improve Your Sleep Posture

By Mark Sisson
78 Comments

Yesterday, I posited that it’s not so much the bedding that matters in making for rejuvenating, nourishing sleep, but rather our sleeping position/posture. Man is the supreme adaptor, having proven himself capable of surviving in just about any natural environment, no matter the climate, topography, and available selection of edibles – and our bedding is no different. Of course, there is a limit to our adaptability. We couldn’t survive in the Antarctic or get a good night’s sleep in a mud pit. Thriving in the current food environment is definitely doable, but, as you well know, it takes a lot of effort to make it work. Luckily, we aren’t dealing with hydrogenated mattresses or high-fructose pillows, so the bedding situation isn’t so dire.

You can keep it pretty simple, in fact: if you’re getting good, pain-free sleep already, hacking isn’t necessary. Just keep doing what you’re doing and keep the bed you’ve got. (Keep reading, though.)

If you’re waking up with pain, though, we should reevaluate. Pain usually indicates an improper sleeping position, and that’s the easiest thing to fix (rather than buying an entirely new bed), so let’s look at some other options.

Sleeping in the supine position with a lengthened spine, as I mentioned yesterday, seems to be the least problematic. It’s relatively easy to attain, and as long as you don’t snore and drive your sleeping partner to retaliatory violence, you should be able to get a good night’s sleep and wake up without pain. I should note that I messed up a small detail regarding the spine lengthening; while I said you should lengthen the spine by pushing with your hands, it’s actually much easier pushing with your elbows. Gokhale’s book goes into far more detail, of course.

Another potential problem with sleeping on one’s back is that some people just can’t get comfortable enough to sleep. It can be rather boring. You can’t spoon your loved one (or a pillow) from that position, and there’s something about splaying out across the bed on your stomach or side that just feels good. Side or stomach sleeping, while satisfying, tends to be a bit more problematic. There’s more room for error.

But the allure is undeniable. It’s almost instinctual, isn’t it, to sleep on your side? I’m a firm believer in listening to your body, and if it’s telling you to sleep on your side, or stomach, maybe you should listen. Just make sure you do it right. Side sleeping is the most popular position worldwide, but many of our musculoskeletal systems have spent their time on earth sitting in bad chairs, hunched over keyboards, and exercising incorrectly in bulky shoes. We might be a bit too “tainted” to launch into instinctual sleeping positions without worry. Side sleeping can often aggravate shoulder injuries, and if you’ve got poor thoracic mobility and a strong tendency toward kyphosis of the shoulder blades, sleeping on either side will exaggerate the kyphosis of that side. If you’re a right-side sleeper, your right shoulder will slump forward all night under your bodyweight. People without kyphosis can probably handle side sleeping without much of a problem – but how many people don’t have some modicum of slumping going on?

Gokhale ‘s book contains a lesson on side lying, which involves lengthening your spine without turning it into a hunch, which is how most people nowadays sleep on their side: in the fetal position with a strong forward curl of the spine. All you folks who like to cuddle pillows, I’m pointing at you. Be wary of the forward curl! She shows you how to maintain the comfort of side lying with bent legs and a straight, lengthened spine. I bet you could even slip a big comfy pillow in there and stick the position.

For you stomach sleepers, physiotherapist Michael Tetley has some interesting observations – and recommendations – based on his time with several groups of African tribesmen. He comes off as a bit wacky, but his observations are useful. His first example is the side lying position. The visual juxtaposition of a mountain gorilla with a Kenyan man is striking, with both subjects lying on their side with impeccable form and long, straight spines.

Next, he recommends sleeping in the recovery position, sort of a half-stomach, half-side sleeping position with the bottom arm looping across the front of the neck to the opposite shoulder for neck support and the outside arm resting gently on the ground or bed. In this position, the bottom leg is positioned as a resting place for the penis to avoid it “[dangling] in the dust…bitten by bugs.” Let’s hope genital-feeding insects aren’t an issue in your bed.

He writes of Tibetan caravaneers sleeping on their shins when the ground is wet and cold, presumably because the lack of significant muscle in the contact areas reduces heat loss. I tried this out and found it initially uncomfortable, but after some fooling around I managed to get into a fairly comfy spot. The key was sitting back with the hips and resting lighting on the forearms, rather than slumping forward and resting on your head. Try it out.

Then there’s the lookout position, where you use your arms as pillows while lying on your stomach. He doesn’t mention what to do with the penis, but I imagine it’s resting on a thigh. This guy is really all about protecting his junk. I guess we all are, though. He’s just honest about it.

My favorite is the quadrupedal lying position. It looks awkward, what with the spine rotation and flexing, but it’s actually pretty darn comfortable. I did have to play around a bit. If you look at the picture, the bottom leg is drawn up pretty closely toward his chest. I found that letting it drop back a bit felt better. Either way, playing with that bottom leg position seems to be key to finding the sweet spot.

It’s interesting that all of the positions he details are couched in utility: protecting the penis from bugs, keeping the ears clear to hear oncoming threats, avoiding cold. In today’s world, most of us rarely, if ever, have to worry about keeping a lookout, or watching for biting bugs, but the fact that our ancestry evolved under similar conditions means that these protective sleeping positions still make sense. Really, though, it’s all about protection. Gokhale’s lying recommendations are designed to protect your musculoskeletal system from degradation and dysfunction, while Tetley’s are primarily about avoiding exogenous dangers (without compromising the body’s form, of course).

Next, I’ll discuss bedding options. Sticking with good sleep posture is most of the battle, but not all of it. In the meantime, let me know about your favorite sleeping positions!

Subscribe to the Newsletter

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!

Leave a Reply

78 Comments on "How to Improve Your Sleep Posture"

avatar

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Uncephalized
Uncephalized
6 years 2 months ago

I did the spine-lengthening exercise you mentioned yesterday last night and slept like a baby. Woke up without having moved a muscle all nit, and it felt great. Thanks Mark!

Bound to Earth
6 years 2 months ago

I tried this too! It felt very comfortable, and very similar to (if not the exact same as) corpse pose in yoga. Unfortunately my mind was still racing so I didn’t fall asleep right away. Oh well, I’ll try again tonight.

Uncephalized
Uncephalized
6 years 2 months ago

Oops. That should read “all night”, sorry.

BiggyT
BiggyT
6 years 2 months ago

I sleep best on my stomach: left arm over my pillow, right arm underneathe, right leg straight, and with my left leg pulled up to the side. It almost looks as if I’m scaling a rockface with my leg cocked like that haha, but I find that position extremely comfortable 🙂

Rob
Rob
6 years 2 months ago

That’s the EXACT description of how I’m most comfortable.

Peggy
Peggy
6 years 2 months ago

ditto

Jenny
Jenny
6 years 2 months ago

I do that also, Having the leg bent and out to the side takes some of the pressure off my lower back. If I’m flat on my stomach, my lower back arches and start to hurt after a while.

Jeff
Jeff
6 years 2 months ago

I call it the peacock!

CriQue312
CriQue312
6 years 2 months ago
I do the same thing most nights. I did try the spine lengthening suggestion last night and I’d like to say it helped me get to sleep, but the baby had me up until 3am, so I can’t rule out sheer exhaustion. lol. When I was pregnant I had to sleep in Recovery Position to avoid the belly and always found knocked-knees to be irritating. Eventually my knees began to enjoy hugging a pillow at night. I was surprised how comfortable that was, but am glad to have more flexibility with my sleep posture these days, like the climber’s position… Read more »
ronna
ronna
6 years 2 months ago

one issue with elbows bent at 90 degrees or more is with ‘ulnar neuropathy’ (the nerve that runs thru the elbow is stretched for a prolonged period of time) that can lead to tingling and numbness in the fingers. I sleep in basically the “recovery” position except I try to keep the elbow under my head flexed to less than 90 degrees. I used wrist braces in the past at night to train my wrists to remain in neutral position. Haven’t found anything to do the same for my elbows!

Lyle
Lyle
6 years 2 months ago

I’m told wrapping your arm in a towel and securing it with rubber bands works fairly well.

jj
6 years 2 months ago
What’s interesting is that when you look at all those side lying-ish positions is that their bodies are flexed at the hip, rather than having a deeply curved spine. When I look in on my 2 year old side sleeping that’s what he looks like, legs flexed up from the hip joint, spine relatively straight, not curled into a “fetal” position. Also, lying on the back is not ideal for pregnant women. There’s fancy science about compressing veins and all that, but ask any pregnant lady what’s comfortable (or at least semi-comfortable), and she’ll tell you she sleeps on her… Read more »
amyj
amyj
6 years 2 months ago

i too had to wear wrist braces every night (although since going full primal 6 months ago not so often). But i switch hit between the recovery and the lookout position, and i see what you mean about the 90 degree angles…try using a small pillow, like a travel one, and brace it inside the arm under your pillow, that helps me with keeping the arm not so 90 degress 🙂

Milton Hill
Milton Hill
6 years 2 months ago

I have been sleeping on the floor of my carpeted bedroom in the crossed armed recovery position and I have been sleeping like a baby.

My only problem is that I seem much more sensitive to sound and light. The light maybe that I am much closer to the window and the sound maybe due to both ears being uncovered. Seems that this is both a blessing and a curse but it has been far more good than bad.

trackback

[…] Original post by Mark Sisson […]

Primal Toad
6 years 2 months ago

I sleep on my side just like the lady in the photo. I am on my back first for a few minutes to just think… then when its time to sleep I switch to my left side and sleep like baby every night. I bend my legs and keep my spine straight (I think). I never wake up with any pain unless I am sore from overdoing an exercise.

Madeline
Madeline
6 years 2 months ago

Great post! I’ll try some of these positions. I normally sleep spooned w/ my husband yet end up sleeping on my side w/ a leg up & the other straight out to the left side, my arm under the pillow & the other arm comfortably over the chest. Sometimes I wake up with the head off the pillow. I also sleep on my back. When I lived in PRico, I took naps in hammocks & its just the best way to unwind & rock yourself to dreamland 🙂

Jean-Patrick
6 years 2 months ago

Some positions look awkward to the point a kinesiologist might even be concerned about it. I will have to try them out before I judging them though.

JP

Caffery
Caffery
1 year 7 months ago

I agree with JP. Although some of these positions may be comfotable, they cannot be the ideal way to sleep. You are contorting your body, therefore your spine is not straight, and your muscles are stretched out and not fully relaxed/in their natural position.

Kelda
6 years 2 months ago
I tried out the lengthened spine trick at lunchtime lying on the carpeted floor of my bedroom. I have to say I was very dubious as I would normally sleep with earplugs and an eyeblind in a bed with covers and pillow etc! I normally settle in the classic recovery position on my left side. However, I duly lay on my back and let my arms fall onto the floor – elbows by my torso and lower arms around 90 degrees which flattened my shoulders to the floor nicely – and would you believe it I fell asleep, quite amazed,… Read more »
Karla
Karla
6 years 2 months ago

Yeah, I know what you mean. I also gave up ‘pooing’ and haven’t looked back. My mom and daughter said something about my hair looking nice and when I told them what I was doing, I got the unbelievable/mom’s at it again look. They can call me crazy, but Mark’s suggestions haven’t let me down yet. NO spoofing, please Mark.

Dave, RN
Dave, RN
6 years 2 months ago

Yea, like how Grok wasn’t monogamous!

Dave, RN
Dave, RN
6 years 2 months ago

Even though that shin position looks pretty uncomfortable, when my kids were babies I’d oftentimes find them sleeping in just that position, all bunched up on their shins with their heads against the corner fabric bumper of the crib. I read somewhere that they like that because it’s the same position they are in before birth: curled up with their head against the cervix.

Patsy
Patsy
6 years 2 months ago

That explains a lot with how my toddler sleeps.

Steve
6 years 2 months ago

In light of your recent posts about sleeping, I was wondering if Grok would have been a light sleeper and if he snored. Or put another way, are industrialized humans more prone to heavy sleep and snoring? I would think a hunter/gatherer would need to be a light sleeper able to wake up at the slightest threat. I happen to be one and just had a terrible weekend of camping with snorers! Is there anything that suggests following a paleo lifestyle would lessen snoring?

Kelda
6 years 2 months ago

Dunno, but I just spent 9 days sleeping in fields surrounded by snorers, best advice – get got ear plugs!

Kelda
6 years 2 months ago

good ear plugs!

MamaGrok
6 years 2 months ago

Yes! Read Weston Price – our modern nasal/mouth troubles are from our parents’ diets before we were conceived. Assuming they weren’t living in an isolated tribe somewhere, they likely ate the white sugar and white flour that cause “facial deformity,” as Dr. Price termed our modern orthodontic & nasal nightmares.

Henrik
Henrik
1 year 8 months ago

Steve, in my opinion sleeping without a pillow lessens snoring when lying on your back because it seems to open your throat somewhat. You can try it by tilting your head forwards and you’ll notice that breathing becomes increasingly difficult the more you tilt.

Rick W
Rick W
6 years 2 months ago

“This guy is really all about protecting his junk.”???
I don’t know about you, but my genitals are not “junk”.

Shaleah
Shaleah
6 years 2 months ago

I sleep in a hammock every night… my back problems are no more and I’m a peaceful, happy person in the morning.

Katherine
6 years 2 months ago

great points here; sleep posture is not something I think about but obviously makes a huge difference

Oliver
Oliver
6 years 2 months ago

I think honestly if diet is good and you get some activity in your life (nothing major) and you manage your stress well you WILL sleep well.

Sleeping with good posture will only do one thing and thats help towards good body posture generally.

trackback

[…] In this blog post, Mark Sisson gives some ideas on improving sleep […]

trackback

[…] post by Mark Sisson […]

Patsy
Patsy
6 years 2 months ago

It was funny to see the shin pose; this is my toddler’s favorite position for sleeping. I thought he was strange, but maybe not.

My favorite way to sleep is the recovery position. I have neck and back issues, and this position helps the most to ease pressure. Where I sleep is even more important — on a carpeted floor with a beanbag and pillow. My husband bought a $2,000 mattress for me, but when I try sleeping in it, I wake up in pain. Go figure!

primalorgan
primalorgan
6 years 2 months ago
I don’t find Tetley to be at all wacky. He draws on a rugged experience quite different than ours, and the sleeping positions may be truly primal. But the two Figure 2 pictures might be reversed (upper and lower), compared to the commentary. In the lower picture, the hip rotation moves the penis towards the ground (even more so during inevitable REM sleep erections); whereas, in the upper picture, protection really is afforded by the lower thigh, at least for the average length, or smaller, flaccid organ. The bunion remedy may be effective, but is probably not primal, as Grok,… Read more »
Phaedra
Phaedra
6 years 2 months ago

Lyocell sheets from Select Comfort are amazing! So comfortable! I just don’t want to leave the bed. Also they have an amazing body pillow that stays “plump” since there are seams sewn to prevent the fill from spreading or flattening. Love it!

Medical professionals and massage therapists get 30% off.

Will
Will
6 years 2 months ago

On side, sleeping mask on, pillow between legs (much more comfortable for the twig & berries) lengthen spine before settling. Works a treat for me everytime.

Daniel
Daniel
6 years 2 months ago

Haha… Primal Blueprint Law #11 – Protect your junk.

Eva
Eva
6 years 2 months ago
I usually sleep on my back. Once in a while, I will shift to the side for a while. No stomach sleeping though as it is mildly uncomfortable on the boobs. I will usually wake up only for unusual noises and lights, but not for commonly occuring ones. If after waking, I decide it was not important, I just go right back to sleep. I would guess this would have been a good survival adaptation, but then again, in a tribe, you could probably have had both light and heavy sleepers and both morning and night people. SOme might wake… Read more »
Jordan
Jordan
6 years 2 months ago
Hahaha, “genital-feeding insects”. I’m a new follower to the Primal Blueprint but find it so uncanny how, everytime I am thinking of something in my life and if I’m doing it right or not and if I need to make a change, you post a topic about it. I have been trying to work out my sleeping situation for the past couple of weeks and lo and behold, you talk it about. I love it. You’re a great man Mark, for all that you do for your fellow man and woman. My question is about night splints. For the past… Read more »
Andrew
Andrew
6 years 2 months ago

Paleo Diet author Loren Cordain points out that SAD often has less than half our needed magnesium level, while hunter-gatherers got something like 250%. Quite a few people I know have eliminated nighttime foot and leg pain spasms with judicious magnesium supplementation over a period of months using magnesium glycinate or magnesium taurate. In addition, others have found excellent relief using myofascial trigger point release. See the book by Clair Davies, The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook. But the trigger points involved may result from magnesium deficiency and may stop recurring after some months of supplementation.

Griff
Griff
6 years 2 months ago

I take a couple of potassium capsules every night (99mg apiece) and my night-time leg and back spasms are a thing of the past. So you might try that, too, in addition to the magnesium.

Andrew
Andrew
6 years 2 months ago

Valuable observation re potassium. Potassium capsule supplements are limited by law to 99 mg ea. capsule, which is only 3% of the RDA, in order to avoid side effects of concentrated potassium.

Interestingly, increased intake of magnesium may itself help resolve low potassium (hypokalemia) problems, without additional potassium intake, though I’d expect a Paleo diet to be naturally very high in potassium.

See, e.g.

http://barttersite.org/magnesium-and-potassium-balance/

So if I had symptoms of low potassium, I’d wonder about my magnesium level.

JD
JD
6 years 2 months ago

Alcatraz prisoners “in the box” slept on their shins too.

Damndirtyape
Damndirtyape
6 years 2 months ago

For me it’s all about a large body pillow for comfy fetal side sleeping with a fan for white noise/cool breeze.

jitsuka
jitsuka
6 years 2 months ago

can anybody please post a video of the lenghtening spine posture in correct form, same indicated by mark? I can’t figure it out. tnx

Andrew
Andrew
6 years 2 months ago

I’ve experimented with different sleeping positions while recording my blood oxygen saturation all night using a medical pulse-oximeter. In my case, at least, sleeping on my back produces lots of desaturations – frequent episodes where blood oxygen drops indicating that my airway is being compromised by snoring. Stomach sleeping took getting used to, but produced the most consistent oxygen saturation all night long.

Sharon
Sharon
6 years 2 months ago
Somewhere around the age of 50 I acquired a frozen shoulder. Then the next year the other shoulder had the same thing. Ever since then, while sleeping on my side, the arm I am NOT sleeping on would go to sleep during the night and I would wake up with a numb hand and arm. However, I realized in the last week since going primal a year or so ago, that I no longer have that problem. Less inflamation? Could be. I apologize but penis eating bugs cracked me up. Yikes! Never heard of that. Luckily, it’s one problem I… Read more »
Andrew
Andrew
6 years 2 months ago
Speaking of Paleo improving snoring. I’ve checked overnight oxygen saturation graphs after adopting the practice known as “oil pulling” (Google it). Overnight blood oxygen saturation improved. I suspect that the process improves airway muscle and tissue tone, perhaps by exercising the same the throat muscles that a hunter-gatherer would use often to suck hard-to-get marrow out of bones, etc. The dangerous medical condition often associated with snoring, obstructive sleep apnea, has been described as inconsistent with human evolution. Possibly something paleo tended to prevent it, like using head and neck musculature that we no longer use much or very hard.
trackback
6 years 2 months ago

[…] How to Improve Your Sleep Posture | Mark's Daily Apple […]

trackback

[…] How to Improve Your Sleep Posture (From Marks Daily Apple) […]

trackback
6 years 2 months ago

[…] How to Improve your sleep posture – Mark’s Daily Apple […]

trackback

[…] How to Improve Your Sleep Posture | Mark's Daily Apple […]

Rick
Rick
6 years 2 months ago
I had experienced tremendous pain in my upper back shortly after I got married. I thought it was from weight lifting. I went to doctors, chiropractors, therapists, etc and nobody could figure out this pain or what was causing it. I couldn’t do any weight lifting for 15 years because it just made the pain worse. Two years ago I found a chiropractor who looked at my spine, my clavicles, neck angle, etc and she said, “You sleep on your side don’t you?” I said yes. She said, “Here’s what you do. Learn to sleep on your back, get a… Read more »
trackback

[…] If you’re waking up with pain, though, we should reevaluate. Pain usually indicates an improper sleeping position, and that’s the easiest thing to fix (rather than buying an entirely new bed), so let’s look at some other options. Read more […]

NSWM
6 years 2 months ago

Is it just me or is this MDA post has more genital references than usual?

I can only sleep in one position.
On my stomach, both arms hugging the pillow and supporting my neck, one leg stretched out and one leg curled (and there must be a pillow under this leg!). I’m not sure if it’s a good sleeping position but I can’t sleep other ways and I’ve tried.
This is dangerous territory since I’m also a proclaimed insomniac -if I don’t sleep this way I won’t sleep at all.

primalsleep
primalsleep
6 years 2 months ago
Some may need to avoid sleeping on the stomach as it can cause sleep paralysis–scary when you wake up and can’t move your head without a major mental effort. Also, sleeping on the left side can aggravate heart arrhythmias. As for Tetley’s reverse recovery position, my experience is just opposite. The scrotal sac and frenulum underneath the glans penis are in constant and annoying contact with the bed sheets, and this is too uncomfortable to endure for very long—although the raised hip is an unusual position which somehow seems to release lower back tension, so I’m experimenting with short duration… Read more »
trackback

[…] back pain for good. According to Mark, the key to pain-free sleep is lengthening your spine, read HERE and find out how. This article is a great example of how important posture is in ALL aspects of our […]

trackback

[…] and fall asleep. I've been using something similar to this: (as inspired by a post on MDA here) […]

trackback

[…] If you’re waking up with pain, though, we should reevaluate. Pain usually indicates an improper sleeping position, and that’s the easiest thing to fix (rather than buying an entirely new bed), so let’s look at some other options. Read more […]

Michael Gibson
6 years 7 days ago

Sleeping posture is sooo important…when you stop and think about how much time we spend sleeping if we’re in the wrong position it can’t really affect your muscles, ligaments and spine.

I wouldn’t recommend sleeping on your stomach though…in practice (I’m a chiropractor) those who sleep on their stomach almost always have more neck concerns and degenerative changes on their x-ray if they’ve been doing it a long time.

trackback

[…] How to Improve Your Sleep Posture (marksdailyapple.com) […]

trackback

[…] How To Improve Your Sleep Posture? […]

trackback
trackback

[…] If you’re waking up with pain, though, we should reevaluate. Pain usually indicates an improper sleeping position, and that’s the easiest thing to fix (rather than buying an entirely new bed), so let’s look at some other options. Read more […]

trackback
5 years 2 months ago

[…] How to Improve Your Sleep Posture […]

wpDiscuz