Bed basics - the A to ZZZ of a good rest
Rest easy ... sleeping on your back is good for the neck. Photo: Getty Images
A great night's sleep is a thing of beauty, but many of us aren't getting our share.
More than 1.2 million Australians have a sleep disorder, and the associated health and other costs add up to more than $5 billion a year, according to a study commissioned by the Sleep Health Foundation, a collaboration of sleep medicine practitioners.
All sorts of things can help improve the way we sleep (see below), but one that's often overlooked is posture.
The author of Sleep, Interrupted, Steven Park, says poor sleeping posture can aggravate fatigue, sleep apnoea, headaches, heartburn and back pain, among other things.
''The position you adopt can have an effect,'' says an associate professor of physiotherapy at James Cook University, Sue Gordon.
Medical conditions, particularly respiratory illnesses, can restrict your choices but the most important thing, she says, is fairly straightforward. Find a position that's comfortable.
What suits you, however, won't suit everyone, and there is no ideal sleep position.
''It's horses for courses,'' says a physiotherapist and creator of the Happy Body DVD series, Anna-Louise Bouvier.
While some people change positions up to 45 times during the night, improving our primary position can affect the quality of our sleep as well as how we feel when we wake.
Sleeping on your back is good for the neck and keeps the spine in a relatively neutral position. However, it can aggravate respiratory disorders, reflux and sleep apnoea, Gordon says.
People who sit at a desk all day might also prefer to avoid this position.
Sedentary workers are likely to have tight muscles across the hips, and lying supine is likely to cause the back to arch and feel uncomfortable, she says.
A pillow under the knees can help with back discomfort, Bouvier says. She also suggests back sleepers stick to one pillow and test its height before buying.
''It's like Goldilocks when it come to pillows,'' she says. ''If a pillow is too low, the head tends to extend and the chin lifts … it scrunches the joints at the base of the neck and people often wake up with a headache. If it's too high, it stretches the junction between the shoulders and neck.''
Stomach sleeping is the absolute worst position for the neck, Bouvier says. Some sleep experts, however, say it lessens the chances of snoring. (Stomach sleepers also experience sexier dreams, according to a study published in 2012 in the journal Dreaming.)
Only about 5 per cent of people, most of whom are women, sleep on their belly. For those who do, though, it is ''really cosy and a comfort thing'', Bouvier says. ''It is really hard to give up.''
Generally, as people get older they struggle to sleep on their stomach because the neck is in full flexion and the spine is less able to cope. To take the strain off the neck, Bouvier suggests putting a pillow lengthwise down your belly so you're only about three-quarters rolled over.
Gordon says people who sleep on their stomach are more likely to have repeated sleep disruptions. However, some people ''cope really well'' in the position, she says. ''If it's comfortable for the person, then that's OK.''
Most people (about 72 per cent) sleep on their side. A study published some time ago in The American Journal of Gastroenterology found that sleeping on your left side can reduce reflux. Additionally, Gordon says, ''there is some evidence that side-sleepers get a better night's sleep''.
Comfortable pillows are important for side-sleepers, Bouvier says. ''Pillows too high or low lead to scrunching on one side of the neck and stretched nerves on the other. This can lead to dead or tingly arms and shoulder pain upon waking.
''Try two pillows - one thin pillow to fill the space between the ear and shoulder, and a second smaller, softer one to snuggle around the head and support the neck, taking the stress off it.''
Pillows can also help other sleep position-related problems, Bouvier says.
''If the mattress is too soft, a pillow between the legs helps to balance out the spine. Also, sleeping on the side can cause the top shoulder to roll forward and scrunch through the neck. You can fix this almost immediately with a snuggle pillow.''
Five tips for a better night's sleep
1 Turn it off Watching television or using a computer can interfere with sleep, so consider keeping screens out of the bedroom. Your mind needs to be in the habit of knowing that if you are in bed, you are there to sleep. Try not to use a computer within an hour of bedtime.
2 Keep it nice Make sure your bed is comfortable and clean. Keep the bedroom quiet, dark and fairly cool.
3 Wind it down Give yourself time to unwind before bed. Develop a relaxing routine. Get any worrying or forward planning you have to do out of the way earlier in the day. Look for ways to make your life less stressful.
4 Turn it around If you're lying awake at night, watching the clock just makes you more anxious about not sleeping. Consider taking the clock out of your bedroom or turning it around so you can't see the time.
5 Call the professionals If you are still struggling to get a good night's sleep or have persistent problems with mood, restlessness in bed or severe snoring, it might be time to see your doctor.
Source: Sleep Health Foundation