If you’re living with any number of breathing disorders, simply switching to one of the three best sleep positions for increasing oxygen levels can make a world of difference.
Some breathing issues we face in our sleep are relatively benign in terms of their short and long-term health implications. Whereas others, such as Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) can disrupt the balance between carbon dioxide and oxygen in the blood, resulting in raised blood pressure and a host of cardiovascular issues.
In fact, a study published in the Journal of Thoracic Disease found that adults with untreated sleep apnea were 2.6 times more likely to suffer from heart failure and heart disease than non-sufferers.
Meanwhile, further evidence shows us that sleep-related breathing disorders and heart failure have a direct cause-and-effect relationship with one another.
In other words, the more you struggle with sleep-disordered breathing, the greater the risk of heart failure, and the more issues you have with poor cardiac functionality, the more likely it is that you’re going to struggle to breathe during your sleeping hours.
Obviously, this isn’t something to be taken lightly, which is why we put together this comprehensive guide to help you boost your oxygen levels, improve your breathing, and enjoy the kind of restorative sleep that helps keep you and your heart fit and healthy.
What Causes a Decrease in Oxygen Levels When we Sleep?
Changes to our breathing during sleeping hours are entirely normal.
As we move through our sleep cycles, breathing patterns become increasingly irregular, and it’s neither uncommon nor cause for concern for our breathing to decrease by as much as 15% during light, non-REM sleep.
Once we enter into the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) stage of sleep, breathing becomes even more inconsistent and may even temporarily cease altogether.
Again, this in itself is nothing to worry about. It happens to everybody.
However, if those gaps in breathing occur more frequently than normal, and especially if they last for longer than ten seconds at a time, the amount of oxygen in our blood sinks to below 90% (average blood oxygen levels in sleep are usually between 95% – 100%). This results in a condition called sleep-related hypoxemia.
Any number of conditions can lead to hypoxemia, including bronchitis, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, and emphysema, with 80% of patients registered in a 2020 National Emphysema Treatment Trial using oxygen therapy to combat hypoxemia.
That said, the disorder can also be caused by a number of other health conditions as well as environmental factors.
Asthma, sleep apnea, pneumonia, and a number of lung diseases can lead to hypoxemia, as can smoking, spending time in high altitudes, flying on a plane, or being in which there’s not enough natural oxygen in the air.
The severity of hypoxemia’s effect on our health varies.
In some cases, it can lead to lightheadedness, raised blood pressure, and a sense of confusion.
In more extreme cases, the disorder has also been linked to cases of pulmonary hypertension, polycythemia, and cardiac arrest, as well as behavioral and cognitive disorders.
So, with all that in mind, you can see why it’s so important to maintain optimum oxygen levels while you sleep.
If you struggle with unexplained bouts of lightheadedness, abnormal blood pressure, or more serious cardiac-related illnesses, it may well be the low oxygen level in your blood caused by hypoxemia that’s at least contributing to the problem if not directly causing it.
The good news is that there is a lot of treatment available, and while oxygen therapy may be the most recommended course of action, changing to one of the following best sleep positions for increasing oxygen levels can also make a noticeable difference.
Top 3 Best Sleep Positions to Increase Oxygen Levels
If you read our ultimate guide to the best sleeping positions, you may recall that, in most cases, sleeping on your back is generally considered to be one of the best ways to get a solid night’s rest.
When it comes to raising your oxygen levels, however, the opposite is true. Sleeping on your back can be one of the worst sleeping positions to adopt.
This is especially true if it’s obstructive sleep apnea that’s causing your breathing difficulties, as lying on your back (what experts call the “supine” position) results in gravity pulling your mouth tissues down over your airway. This creates a blockage which can trigger an apnea episode, resulting in less oxygen getting into your system.
That said, lying on your back isn’t only detrimental to apnea patients.
Back sleeping can cause a decrease in your pulmonary function, a term that describes how good your lungs work in helping you to breathe.
The lower your lung capacity, the less oxygen it can take in before passing that oxygen through your body via your blood.
So, instead of sleeping on your back tonight, try out these alternatives.
1. Stomach Sleeping
Just as back sleeping is usually considered one of the best sleeping positions, lying on your stomach is normally regarded as one of the worst. Once again, however, the reverse is true when it comes to raising your oxygen levels.
When you sleep on your tummy (known as the “prone position”), you put far less pressure on your lung tissues, which means you enjoy better pulmonary function, and your lungs are able to take in much more oxygen. This is why medical experts continually recommend the prone position as the most effective sleeping position for COVID-19.
How to Sleep on Your Stomach to Improve Oxygen Levels ?
While sleeping on your back may be great for improving your lung capacity, it’s not so great in the sense that it can also cause neck and shoulder pain as well as a sore back.
Fortunately, there is an optimum way to sleep on your stomach to reduce that pain and enjoy comfortable rest.
To do so:
- Use a thin pillow
The thinner the pillow you use, the less you’ll need to angle your neck, and therefore the less strain and pain you’ll suffer.
Alternatively, you may find it more comfortable to avoid using a pillow at all.
- Place a pillow beneath your pelvis
Having a pillow here helps to maintain a neutral position while you sleep, meaning less pressure on your spine and, therefore, less low back pain.
2. Left-Hand Side
If you find sleeping on your stomach just isn’t comfortable, the next best option is to switch to your left-hand side.
Side sleeping has been shown to reduce the severity of hypoxemia-causing conditions such as central sleep apnea and Cheyne Stokes Respirations.
This is largely because sleeping on your side helps to keep your airways open to allow more oxygen in. Left-side sleeping can also help to improve blood flow to your vital organs, maintain natural spine alignment, and even help improve gastrointestinal conditions.
How to Sleep on Your Left-Hand Side to Improve Oxygen Levels?
When we sleep on our side, many of us are tempted to curl up our knees and perhaps even adopt the fetal position. When we’re trying to improve our lung function, however, it’s a better idea to stretch out as much as possible to help open up your lungs.
Again, it’s a good idea to use pillows to help support you as you drift off.
3. Right-Hand Side
Not everyone is able to sleep easily on their left-hand side. If that’s the case for you, sleeping on your right side will be beneficial as it still ensures that your airwaves remain open.
Sleeping on your right-hand side may also be the best position to sleep in if your low oxygen levels are related to heart failure.
Past research has shown that sleeping on the left-hand side can lead to an enlarged apical heartbeat which can cause discomfort while you sleep.
How to Increase Oxygen Levels During Sleep: Dos and Don’ts
Lying on your stomach or on your side may be the best way to sleep to increase oxygen levels, but unless your issue is particularly mild, simply changing sleep positions may not be enough to solve the problem.
As such, we recommend taking the following steps to help you improve your sleep even further.
Do: Speak to Your Doctor
If you’ve been struggling with the symptoms of low oxygen levels for some time, the most important thing you can do for yourself is to consult a medical professional.
They’ll use a device known as a pulse oximeter to record the percentage of oxygen in your blood. If it’s low enough, you may be diagnosed with sleep-related hypoxemia and offered supplemental oxygen to use while you sleep.
More than anything else, this is the most effective treatment for not only improving your oxygen levels but also treating many of the underlying conditions which lead to hypoxemia, such as COPD and sleep apnea.
It goes without saying that smoking does us no good whatsoever, and it’s always better to quit even if you’re otherwise relatively healthy.
If you’re struggling with reduced oxygen levels, however, it’s even more important.
Smoking reduces our lung capacity, making it difficult to draw in enough oxygen, as well as being a major cause of any number of respiratory illnesses such as chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and COPD.
Do: Get Plenty of Exercises
Just as we all know that smoking is bad for us, it’s no secret that taking regular exercise results in a whole host of health benefits, including improving our lung capacity.
Any kind of aerobic activity, whether it’s running, cycling, jumping rope, or even taking a walk around the block a few times, can make a world of difference.
Exercise is also a great way to improve your sleep quality, meaning you get to rest well without waking up multiple times in the night.
Don’t: Drink Alcohol
We’ve often said that drinking alcohol is one of the most important things to avoid before bed, and that’s certainly the case when it comes to your oxygen intake.
When we go to bed with a few drinks inside us, our throat muscles become increasingly relaxed. In turn, this makes it harder to draw in oxygen and can result in a sleep apnea episode.
Frequently Asked Questions About Increasing Oxygen Levels During Sleep
What is proning?
Proning is a process that is recommended to help COVID-19 patients get more oxygen into their system. It involves lying on your stomach, then your right-hand side, then sitting up before moving to your left-hand side, and finally back to your stomach, spending between 30 minutes and two hours in each position.
What is a normal oxygen level while sleeping?
Typical oxygen levels during sleep range from 95% to 100%. If it’s a little lower, it may not be a big issue, but anything under 90% is likely to lead to a diagnosis of sleep-related hypoxemia.
What are the symptoms of not getting enough oxygen while sleeping?
Confusion, lightheadedness, and shortness of breath are all common symptoms of low oxygen levels, though you may also experience sweating, coughing, and even skin color changes.
Choosing the Best Sleep Position to Increase Oxygen Levels: A Final Word of Advice
If you’ve worked your way through this entire guide, you’ll know that the best sleep position to increase oxygen levels is on your stomach, followed by the left-hand side, and finally the right.
You’ll also have learned why sleeping on your back is one of the worst things you can do for your lung capacity, as well as taking away a few top tips to help you sleep more comfortably.
Yet if there’s one more word of advice we could ask you to take away with you today, it’s that increasing your oxygen levels is perhaps even more about what you do out of bed than in it.
Eating well, drinking plenty of water, getting regular exercise, and avoiding cigarettes can all make dramatic differences to your sleep quality, as can limiting your alcohol intake and avoiding drinking before bed.
More importantly, however, these simple-yet-effective lifestyle changes can help to prevent cardiovascular issues: COPD, and other conditions, which may well be the root cause of your low oxygen levels.
Finally, if your breathing troubles are a result of congestion, we also recommend checking out our guide to the best sleep positions for a stuffy nose.
- University of British Columbia Okanagan campus. (2016, November 17). Sleep apnea immediately compromises blood pressure. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 31, 2022, from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/11/161117105115.htm
- Sarkar P, Mukherjee S, Chai-Coetzer CL, McEvoy RD. The epidemiology of obstructive sleep apnoea and cardiovascular disease. J Thorac Dis 2018;10(Suppl 34): S4189-S4200. doi: 10.21037/jtd.2018.12.56
- Pietrock, C., & von Haehling, S. (2017). Sleep-disordered breathing in heart failure: facts and numbers. ESC heart failure, 4(3), 198–202. https://doi.org/10.1002/ehf2.12193
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