Many people experience problems with acquiring proper, restful sleep. We often associate this with direct causes like stress, anxiety, or diet. Have you ever thought about your overall daily posture and, in particular, your head position as being part of the reason for poor sleep patterns? Many chronic health symptoms can actually be indirect results of maladies originating in seemingly unrelated areas of the body.
How poor head posture can adversely affect your sleep
As a society that shifts more and more into the classic seated chair posture, many people become unaware of the poor alignment that often sets into the head and neck. From a gravitational perspective, the head (and its weight) is meant to sit OVER the inherent curvatures of the spine so the upper vertebra can effectively carry the load of the skull.
Common poor posture sets in for most people when the head draws forward of the spinal lines. This places chronic tension throughout the neck: the rear aspect of neck tissues become tense and over-elongated, the neck curvature dissolves losing its ability to take skull loading, and the front neck muscles also become undesirably strengthened. Overall, a great imbalance of loading and muscle tension develops. Result? Neck pain!
The other common side effect of head-forward posture is a tendency to shift into "mouth breathing" over nostril breathing. The combination of neck pain and mouth breathing has a direct affect on overall breathing patterns. Chronic pain as well as mouth breathing inhibits lower lung (diaphragm) breathing. Inefficient breathing mechanics sets in where breathing is localized in the upper lungs (called apical breathing).
The Blood’s Role in Breathing
Apical breathing has a cascading effect – we start to breathe more rapidly and shallowly. This breath pattern increases our exhalation rate and thus the venting off of carbon dioxide (CO2). CO2, when in the blood, exists primarily as an acid – if we vent off too much of CO2 (hence the "acid"), our blood pH moves into a more alkaline state.
The ability of our hemoglobin to deliver oxygen to our tissues is enhanced in a relatively acidic environment (at the tissue level) – this is called the Bohr Effect. When our system becomes more alkaline (due to the increased venting of CO2), oxygen delivery by hemoglobin is inhibited. With less oxygen available to our cells, the tissues shift from an efficient aerobic respiration to more anaerobic respiration.
Anaerobic respiration has been shown to increase the production and circulation of cortisol, a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal glands. Cortisol is typically produced in states of stress. The general function and effects of cortisol are increased blood sugar (through gluconeogenesis), suppression of the immune system, and increased fat, protein, and carbohydrate metabolism.
With the body mimicking a low level "fight or flight" state, another effect of cortisol production is the disruption of healthy sleep patterns. With the body encountering poor sleep, the nervous system remains in a state of arousal. Also, fatigue tends to cause one to fall deeper in poor posture habits. Result? The cycle feedbacks onto itself causing sustained apical breathing and the cascading effects.
Here is a summarized version of this pathway:
- Head-forward posture causes mouth breathing and pain
- Body shifts into apical breathing
- Increased venting off of CO2
- Increased respiratory alkalosis (blood pH increases towards alkaline state)
- Increased Bohr Effect leading to decreased oxygen to tissues
- Increased anaerobic respiration
- Increased cortisol release
- Reduced ability to have restful sleep patterns
- Increased arousal due to poor sleep and increased head-forward posture
- Further shifts into apical breathing
Consider how you sit throughout the day. Address issues of poor sitting posture and work ergonomics – chair height, viewing levels and angles of computers and reading material, and find ways to take breaks to stretch and realign the body. Besides some of the obvious benefits of improving your neck posture, maintaining better head alignment in upright and seated positions may offer support for better sleep.