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How does posture affect sleep?

Author: Jeffrey A. Sklar
DC Medical Director of Chiropractor Services
Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Why is getting a good night's sleep so important to our overall well-being?

To consider the impact of high-quality sleep on the brain, we can use the popular analogy of the brain as a living computer. Using this model we can note that our brains need quiet time in the same way a computer needs to be powered down. But whereas computers become inactive when they “sleep,” the human brain and body continue to carry out important processing functions.

Sleep is an opportunity to hit a reset button. In today’s high-tech world of screens and communication devices, people are bombarded with information overload. Sleep allows for information from the day to be sorted and processed. It allows for memories to be consolidated and for effective functioning and learning to take place during waking hours. In looking at emotional well-being, a good night’s sleep has been shown to reduce irritability, anxiety, and depression, whereas sleep deprivation invites these uncomfortable feelings. Finally, lack of sleep has a negative impact on the immune system, potentially making one susceptible to mild conditions such as cold viruses, which in turn can create greater challenges in recovering from serious illness.

Why is it important to consider posture during sleep?

During the day our bodies do a great job fighting gravity, and—like our brains— our muscles and joints need a break at night. Posture awareness during sleep helps ensure this needed rest for our bodies and helps us avoid aches and pains during the day.

Just as an ergonomic approach during the workday helps minimize physical effort and discomfort and maximize energy, focusing on ergonomics during the six to eight hours we spend sleeping helps us get the greatest benefit from that period of rest. Allowing for maximum support and relaxation of muscles and joints during sleeping hours helps the vascular, immune, digestive, and nervous systems optimally recharge.

Is there an ideal posture to assume while sleeping?

The spine has natural curves that need to be supported and maintained during sleep as well as during waking hours. There are a couple of sleeping positions that reinforce the stability of these curves. The optimal position for maintaining spinal curves is lying supine—on your back. A pillow should be placed under the knees so that they are bent 25 to 35 degrees. A contoured cervical or neck pillow can be used for the head and the neck. If snoring or apnea makes sleeping on the back impossible, side sleeping is recommended. The contour pillow can still be used in this position, with a regular down or foam pillow between the knees. These sleeping postures with pillow support can profoundly improve sleep and thereby reduce neck and low back pain.

Are there certain mattresses or pillows that will help me maintain good posture while I sleep?

Contour pillows designed to support the neck provide good support for the cervical curve and may slow degenerative changes in the joints of that part of the spine. These pillows are often made from memory foam, which can provide a great surface to rest the head. It should be noted, however, that there are different grades of memory foam; pillow prices can range from $25 to $125. A lower-cost memory-foam pillow may not be optimal quality. At the other end of the spectrum, a high-priced pillow may be top-grade foam but uncomfortable for sleeping. For these reasons seeking a moderately priced pillow that offers support and comfort is likely the best choice.

It is a bit trickier to recommend a specific type of mattress, which is an expensive, long-term investment. While moderate firmness is again a general rule of thumb, keep in mind that every mattress is different—there are beds that are part memory foam, entirely memory foam, latex, different foam layers atop traditional box springs, and air mattresses. The best approach is consumer research. Test various mattresses, review your choices with consumer advocacy groups or publications, and ask friends for recommendations. All consumers should ensure that their purchase is backed by a money-back guarantee that allows them to test the mattress at home.

Are there steps I could take during the day to ensure that I get a good night's sleep? 

With all the electronic stimulation we are bombarded with throughout each day, combined with caffeinated drinks, sugary snacks, and stressful demands from work and family, there seems to be an arsenal of foes waging war against a good night’s sleep. Some of these things cannot be avoided, but changes to daily activities can facilitate a more restful night.

First, try to plan for eight hours of sleep and set a goal for a consistent bedtime. If it is 10 p.m., power down all screens by 9 p.m. Spend the next hour winding down: get ready for bed and engage in quiet, mindful activities like reading, doing a crossword, or journaling.

Here are some other steps you can take to help ensure high-quality sleep:

  • Avoid alcohol and caffeine.
  • Engage in cardio exercise during the day or early evening.
  • Do not eat after 8 p.m.
  • Avoid sugary foods.
  • Try gentle stretching and deepbreathing techniques to help settle the body for a night of continuous and peaceful sleep.

Finally, consider seeing a chiropractor for a spinal evaluation. Sometimes a few simple treatments can lead to countless hours of beauty rest.

Jeffrey A. Sklar, DC, has been practicing chiropractic and rehabilitative physical therapy for more than 15 years. He earned a doctor of chiropractic degree from Palmer College of Chiropractic in Davenport, Iowa, and a bachelor’s degree from Pennsylvania State University. Dr. Sklar has extensive training and clinical experience in treating patients with neuromuscular and skeletal conditions as well as more-complicated conditions, such as cancer. He practices Palmer Package, Flexion Distraction, Activator Technique, and Impulse and Sacro-Occipital Technique. Dr. Sklar is a board member of the Pennsylvania Chiropractic Association Philadelphia District and the alternate Pennsylvania delegate for the American Chiropractic Association. He is also a frequent presenter at chiropractic conventions and national webinars on the topic of chiropractic care for cancer patients. In addition to his professional experience in oncology, Dr. Sklar has witnessed the struggle and the success of cancer survivors in his personal life. His mother and brother are both cancer survivors. His stepmother is a threetime survivor and also the former co-chair of the Komen Race for the Cure in Philadelphia.

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