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Can sleep affect your health?

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A child sleeping (Wikimedia Commons photo - Alessandro Zangrilli)

One third of every day of our lives we spend sleeping. There is not a human alive who can function without sleep, and yet, there is no one proper way to do it. Can how you sleep affect you during the rest of the day? The short answer is yes, but not for the reasons you might think.

It’s a common misconception that sleep is when our body gets a chance to shut down and unwind after a busy day. In fact, our body is as active during that time as any other, if not more so. This is when our parts get a chance to regenerate. Neural connections are firing, cells are busy making repairs, and it’s the time when the short term memories we’ve made throughout the day get converted into long term memories. Think of sleep as the overnight maintenance crew starting their shift – you wake up in the morning, and if the crews have done their job, you’re ready for a new day.

Even though sleep is crucial to function, many people walk around tired. Sleep may not be long enough, deep enough, they may wake up several times and have trouble going back to bed, they may be uncomfortable, or it may take a really long time to fall asleep. The bottom line is, less sleep means difficulty with function.

Research shows that pain sensitivity is inversely correlated with how much sleep one gets. More sleep means less pain sensitivity. Studies are emerging that show that when one doesn’t sleep, chronic pain, low back pain, response to painful stimulus (hot/cold) are all affected negatively. As well, pain inhibition is decreased. As noted in my previous article, pain is completely manufactured by the brain. Giving the brain’s neural connections a chance to repair and work, without the load of the day, is crucial to handling pain.

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As a chiropractor, one of the biggest contributors to sleep disturbances I see is sleeping position. When it comes to position, professionals have a wide variety of opinions on what’s best, and how to change it. Some feel back sleeping is the best, some feel fetal sleeping is the best, and that the best option is to train yourself to sleep on one of these. Here’s the catch: it’s not entirely known what determines sleeping position. There is a new theory suggesting it’s related to personality, and others suspect it may be inherent to development. One thing’s for sure, a focus on changing position can most certainly diminish the quality of sleep you’re getting.

Stomach sleepers: There are those who consider this position the worst for its added strain to the back, however, there are ways to modify it, rather than avoid it. It’s considered the best position for those suffering from heart burn or snoring. Rather than ditch this position, stomach sleepers may benefit from a pillow added under a bent knee, for a slight oblique angle to the side (for breathing), and their arms overhead around a pillow. Another option is to add a pillow under the abdomen for added support to the lower back.

Side sleepers: Side sleeping and fetal sleeping can be modified similarly. Putting a pillow between the knees, and a pillow under the head that keeps the neck in neutral is key. Putting a pillow in front of your chest for arms to rest around is also helpful for shoulder or arm issues.

Back sleepers: For many, this position is largely favourable. However that doesn’t mean it’s an absolute must. This position can aggravate snoring, digestion issues, sleep apnea, and heart burn. Back sleepers may feel relief with pillows under the upper back creating a recline, and a pillow under the knees to take strain off of the hamstrings and lower back.

If you’re suffering from pain during sleep or awake hours, your chiropractor or physiotherapist should be able to help you modify your sleep position to your comfort level. It’s important to communicate on the quality of sleep you’re getting through these modifications as it can directly affect other issues you may be seeking help for (i.e: pain), and gives the therapist feedback on what’s right for you.

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