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The Best Sleeping Position for Breathing Problems and Shortness of Breath

Breathing is more essential to our lives than our needs for food, water, and shelter. Nothing else matters when we don’t feel like we’re breathing properly. For this very important reason, getting to the bottom of any breathing problem will help the rest of your life be much more enjoyable.

Let’s look at breathing problems and study the best sleeping positions for breathing problems.

What Causes Breathing Problems?

When you think of “breathing,” it’s easy to think only of the lungs. While the lungs are the most important part of getting the oxygen you need, there is much more to breathing than exchanging oxygen for carbon dioxide in the lungs.

Besides healthy lungs, you need a healthy heart, a brain that is in tip-top shape, and a normal body weight. These interactive features of your health combine to allow you to breathe comfortably, whether you are fully awake or sleeping.


Asthma is a condition referred to as “reversible airway” narrowing. In short, your breathing passages narrow because of allergies, stress, or other environmental issues. Wheezing and coughing are common and often annoying when they happen. In moderate to severe cases, air cannot adequately escape the lungs, and you won’t be able to get enough oxygen to your vital organs.

Asthma comes on as “attacks” that can be managed with inhaled medication, allergy medicine, or corticosteroids. A similar disease that involves difficulty getting enough air and more complications than asthma is emphysema. Emphysema or COPD can look like asthma but is generally caused by smoking (or heredity) and is less likely to be treatable with medications.


Allergies cause breathing problems, even if they don’t affect the lungs. If you’ve ever had a bad cold and couldn’t breathe through your nose, you understand a bit about what it’s like to breathe with allergies.

Hay fever generally refers to seasonal allergies from grasses, trees, or other plants. Reactions to animal dander, mold, and other indoor allergens are other reasons it would be hard to breathe at night because of a stuffy nose, sneezing, and post-nasal drip. 

Sleep Apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea involves having frequent blockages of the upper air passages during sleep, such as the throat and tissues behind the mouth and nose. The problem occurs only at night because the throat muscles relax during sleep.

Snoring is the most common symptom of sleep apnea. Snoring sounds come from air trying to get through relaxed airways. This disrupts sleep because your brain feels short of breath during these episodes and awakens you briefly to get a breath.

You might not notice this has occurred; however, the lack of deep sleep and frequent brief awakenings leads to daytime sleepiness, obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

A genetic tendency to snore, a short neck, and being obese increase the risk of obstructive sleep apnea. It is possible to have breath stoppages without an airway obstruction if the brain’s respiratory centers are damaged and fail to send signals to breathe during sleep. This is called central sleep apnea.


GERD or acid reflux interrupts sleep by causing acid to come out of the stomach during fully reclined sleep. The acid can cause pain known as heartburn; however, it may lead to wheezing if droplets of acid irritate the breathing passages.


Obesity causes what’s called restrictive breathing problems. The excess weight around the middle makes it hard to breathe deeply. Obesity is like having a tight band around your chest when you need to breathe. Sleeping tends to make the problem worse.

How Can I Improve My Sleep Quality?

Sleep quality is important for overall health. Without optimal sleep, you may feel more tired during the day, increasing your risk for obesity, heart disease, and metabolic diseases like diabetes. Your brain restores itself when you sleep well; good sleep means you can reduce your risk of poor memory and even dementia.

How can you maximize sleep quality?

Maintain a Regular Sleep Schedule

Your brain and body thrive on having a set schedule for things like eating, being active, and going to sleep. A regular schedule that honors your chronotype (whether you are an evening or morning person) will allow for optimal sleep and creates fewer times when you have difficulty falling asleep.

Avoid Stimulants Before Bed

Caffeine in energy drinks, colas, and coffee throws off your desire to sleep. Caffeine is one of the few substances you might commonly encounter that will keep you alert on a long drive; however, at bedtime in your home, it will work against you.

Create a Relaxing Sleep Environment

Environment matters in your sleeping quarters. Low light, quiet, and comfortable beds make sleep easier and teach your brain it is time to sleep. Avoid screen watching before bedtime, as the blue light from most laptops and phones keeps your brain awake at night. Use white noise machines if you live in a noisy area.

Exercise Regularly

Regular exercise is linked to better sleep as long as you don’t do heavy exercise before bedtime. Exercise doesn’t literally “tire you out” but instead promotes an optimum sleep-wake cycle. Exercise before bedtime is not the best idea as it warms your body too much at a time when it is naturally cooling down in preparation for sleep.

Avoid Eating Late at Night

Eating triggers your metabolism, which also warms your body too much before bedtime. Sleep is a time when your metabolic processes slow down. A late meal will ramp up your metabolism and may worsen nighttime heartburn.

Best Sleeping Position for Breathing Problems

What Is the Best Sleeping Position for Breathing Problems?

You sleep for a full third of your life, so breathing at night is essential for optimal health. The best sleeping position for breathing problems depends on what type of breathing issue you have.

Sleeping on Your Side

Most breathing issues are improved by sleeping on your side. If you have sleep apnea, the airway collapses less on your side or stomach, giving you more air during nighttime. Side sleeping is good for allergies as it allows at least one nostril to be cleared because of gravity acting on the nasal passages.

Sleeping with Your Head Elevated

Elevate your head when sleeping with GERD, heart failure, or emphysema. Place wooden blocks beneath the head of the bed to elevate the entire bed by about 4 inches. This will improve many breathing problems caused by those issues.

Using Pillows to Support Your Body

Pillows can help you get into the optimal sleep position. You don’t need an expensive pillow at all; however, several ordinary pillows or a body pillow behind your back can prevent shifting from your side to your back while sleeping.


Q: What is the best sleeping position for people with breathing problems?

In most cases, optimal sleep comes through side sleeping rather than sleeping on your back. Your airways naturally relax during sleep but are less likely to block your airflow if you lie on your side.

Q: When should I consult my physician about breathing problems?

If you have excessive daytime sleepiness, you should consider seeing a doctor to discuss why you feel so tired, especially if you think you are getting enough sleep. Severe insomnia or waking at night gasping for breath are good reasons to visit your doctor to discuss your sleep.



  • Christine Traxler, M.D.

    Dr. Traxler has over 17 years of experience writing in the medical field. She specializes in medical, health and wellness, dermatology, pregnancy, nursing, and medical assisting. She has a B.S. in Biochemistry and a Medical Doctorate. Visit LinkedIn page.

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