This story was originally published in the Chicago Tribune Brand Publishing "Cover to Cover" section.
Are you a starfish or a log? A face planter or a thinker?
Sleep experts say that although sleep positions are largely a matter of personal preference and comfort, they can also affect your overall well being and sleep health. Interestingly enough, they could even reveal your personality traits.
"People naturally move around to different positions during sleep," says Dr. Mark T. Brown, author of "Smarter Sleep: Real Answers. Science Based Solutions. Healthier Sleep."
"As we know, people sleep in cycles," Brown says. "About two to three times a night they will wake up, readjust their pillow and covers, and go back to sleep. They don't remember this. So most people don't wake up in the same position they went to sleep in.
"Brown theorizes this waking ritual may be a holdover from earlier times. "If an animal or person is sleeping in a vulnerable place in the wild, it makes sense to wake up a few times in the night and readjust," he says.
Personalized sleep postures
If you're wondering if some sleep positions are better than others, the answer largely depends on your health, age and any medical conditions you may have, says Dr. Naveed Shah of Northwest Hospital Sleep Center in Baltimore. According to Shah, people who most need to pay attention to their sleep position are those with obstructive sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a chronic condition in which the airway collapses or becomes blocked during sleep. Breathing pauses or becomes shallow, disrupting sleep.
"If I'm talking to someone with sleep apnea, I always tell them not to sleep on their back because the tongue can obstruct the airway," Shah says. "If you have sleep apnea, that is the worst position because it makes the sleep apnea worse."
So, what is the best position for sleep? In healthy individuals, Shah says it's on your back with your neck, head and upper chest slightly elevated. "This provides rest for shoulders and back and also helps acid reflux, (in which stomach acid flows backward into the esophagus)," he says.
For side sleepers, lying on the left side is better for circulation than on the right, Shah says. "If you're pregnant, it's best to sleep on your left side due to circulations issues. "Some people sleep in the fetal position, though he says that can be bad for your back because it creates an unnatural curvature of the spine.
The worst position, according to Shah, is the stomach position, because it's not very good for your neck and back. Because you can't breathe face down, you'll twist your neck and put your head and spine out of alignment.
Role your bed plays
Experts say your sleep position preference should play a role in the type of bed and bedding you choose.
"Your mattress should not be super firm, but also not too soft," Shah says. "Some people like a very firm mattress, but it's not very good for the joints."
Further, your pillow matters too. With so many types of pillows available today, there should be something for everyone. "You want a pillow large enough to support your shoulders, neck and head. If you're a side sleeper, the pillow should be a little more firm," Shah suggests.
When shopping for a mattress and pillow, be sure to try them out in the store, mimicking your preferred sleep position.
"Sleep preferences vary from person to person, and because many mattresses can look alike, choosing the right bed to meet your specific needs can be a challenge," says Craig McAndrews, chief merchandising officer at Mattress Firm. "We recommend each customer visit a store near them to let our experts walk them through our Comfort by Color system. It's a great way to experience a variety of sleep surfaces and pinpoint their ideal bed."
Shah agrees. "Overall, the mattress you feel is most comfortable is probably the best for you."
Mattress Firm also recommends that a mattress be replaced at least every eight years for maximum comfort and quality sleep. To learn more about how to buy the mattress right for you, check out Mattress Firm's buying guide.
Role your personality plays
Chris Idzikowski, a director at the Sleep Assessment and Advisory Service in London, studied the idea that there is a deeper meaning to our sleep positions. A researcher and author of "Sound Asleep: The Expert Guide to Sleeping Well," Idzikowski has linked sleep positions to personality traits.From a study of 1,000 participants, Idzikowski reported 41 percent of people like to sleep in the fetal or "thinker" position, curled to one side with knees drawn up, one hand near the chin. Participants who liked this position were identified as "tough on the outside, sensitive on the inside."
The second most common position was the "log," at 15 percent. That is, sleeping on one's side with arms straight down along the sides of the body. Log sleepers were identified as easygoing, sociable and trusting, according to the study.
Coming in a close third was the "yearner" position at 13 percent. This is a side-sleeping position with arms outstretched, often hanging off the bed. People who sleep in the yearner position were more likely to be characterized as suspicious and cynical, and unlikely to change their mind once they make a decision, according to Idzikowski.
No matter what position you sleep in, if you are comfortable and sleeping well, it is probably the right position for you.