Sleeping on the Floor: A Medical Opinion

By: Kealia Reynolds Featured

Sleeping on the floor has been a heavily debated topic between medical experts and Paleo enthusiasts, with proponents claiming that it can alleviate back pain and provide for a better sleep and others saying that it can cause adverse health effects. So, which is it? We compared the pros and cons of this sleep choice and talked to a few medical experts about whether sleeping on the floor is actually good for you.

Is sleeping on the floor good for you?

A medical opinion

According to Doctor Mark Queralt, back pain clinical director of the Musculoskeletal Institute at the Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin, “Bottom line: There appears to be no strong evidence based [on] literature either for or against sleeping on the floor.” In Dr. Queralt’s experience, patients’ sleep interruption has less to do with the bed (or lack thereof), than it does other factors.

Doctor Patricia Carter, PhD, RN, CNS member of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society and associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin School of Nursing, says that it’s not so much a particular type of sleeping surface that is proven to be best for sleeping, rather factors like support and comfort can influence the quality and quantity of sleep that an individual achieves.

According to Dr. Carter, the best way to ensure a good night’s sleep is to work on setting yourself up for one during the day. “Sleep is NOT an isolated (opposite) state from wake. Sleep science has shown that it’s more of a wake-sleep-wake cycle in that the choices we make during the day (e.g. when do we have our last caffeine dose) impacts the quality of sleep we have at night, and the quality of sleep we have at night impacts our ability to make good choices (e.g. whether to have caffeine or to go for a walk at 3 p.m.) during the day.”

Dr. Carter says this essentially all boils down to what is commonly known as sleep hygiene. Sleep hygiene is the combination of different practices and habits that are necessary for quality sleep and daytime alertness.

Here are four of Dr. Carter’s sleep hygiene recommendations:  

  1. Get bright light (blue light or sunlight) during the first half of your day to “set” your circadian rhythm to wake mode and get dim (orange/sunset) light during the hour or so before bed to allow your circadian rhythm to move to sleep mode.
  2. Relax throughout the day to avoid bringing a huge load of stress into the bedroom with you. Stress is a wake-promoting factor and tells you that “you have to stay awake because there is a threat.” A day full of stress cannot be removed in five minutes of breathing before bed. It can, however, be dealt with and “released” by two minutes of deep breathing practiced throughout the day (say every couple of hours). Then, top it off with the five minutes of deep breathing before bed to brush away any remaining stressful thoughts.
  3. Make your bed a place for sleep (and sex) only. This will avoid giving mixed signals to the brain (am I supposed to be awake or asleep in this space?). Watching TV, reading, and eating are all activities that tell the brain “wake up” and should be conducted in places other than the bed.
  4. Keep stimulants in the first half of the day. This includes both activities (e.g. vigorous exercise) as well as substances (e.g. caffeine). Stimulants are wake-promoting and will keep the circadian system in wake mode. This is good if it’s the first half of the day when you want to be awake, but it’s not beneficial in the second half of the day when it might negatively impact your ability to fall asleep (e.g. caffeine can keep you awake for up to 12 hours after ingested).

Aside from these recommendations, Dr. Carter advises people to choose a sleep surface that’s most comfortable for them, one that allows for a great night’s sleep and provides the energy needed to get things done throughout the day.

“Sleep is essential for all aspects of a healthy life, but it is highly individual,” says Dr. Carter. “This is why it is important to understand that recommendations are just that: recommendations. Every person would be well-served to spend time understanding what they need to do to get their best sleep.”

Remember: there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for the best night’s sleep. When determining if sleeping on the floor is right for you, consult with a doctor to help you make the appropriate decision.

Is sleeping on the floor for everybody?

It may seem tempting to ditch your mattress and start sleeping on the ground, but this choice isn’t for everybody. If you’re suffering from a health condition that requires you to sleep on a comfortable mattress, we advise not sleeping on the floor.

Additionally, side sleepers may find it difficult to transition to this sleepstyle because of the added pressure from the hard floor (side sleepers have often complained of severe discomfort to the hips and shoulders when sleeping on the floor).

Why people love sleeping on the floor

1. Alleviates pain

People suffering from back pain have tried sleeping on mattresses on different ends of the spectrum, from memory foam to overly soft mattresses. However, overly soft mattresses fail to provide required back support, leading to poor posture during sleep and potential back misalignment.

Some people who experience back pain or scoliosis claim that sleeping on the floor provides spine support and helps keep the back straight. Without the additional cushioning from a mattress, your body is able to adapt and distribute pressure throughout the body. But you must be sleeping in the correct position for this to actually work. According to MD Health, “Lying flat on your back with something marginally softer than the floor under you” is the ideal way to sleep because your spine remains in the most neutral position.

2. Reduces stiffness

In addition to alleviating pain, sleeping on the floor can help reduce stiffness. Mild stiffness can develop in side sleepers while sleeping on a mattress because our bodies typically end up in hunched positions when we sleep, making us feel stiff when we wake up. Though it’s common to experience mild soreness after the first few nights of sleeping on the floor, those who do find that they soon adjust to the change.

3. Aligns posture

If you sleep on an overly soft mattress, your spine can get pushed out of alignment. Over time, your body adapts to these misaligned positions and develops unhealthy curves and postures. Sleeping on the floor allows your body, especially your spine, to realign its natural posture much more easily.

4. Improves blood circulation

When you lie on your back on the floor, your spine straightens and aids in proper blood circulation throughout the body. When blood flow isn’t obstructed, the muscles and tissues are able to receive the optimal amount of circulation.

5. Provides a cooler sleep experience

Some people who sleep on memory foam mattresses experience “hot sleeps,” which affects overall sleep quality. According to Casper, “Our core temperature drops by a couple degrees during the night, shedding heat into the surrounding areas, and certain sheets and mattresses trap the heat and moisture in around us.” Sleeping on the floor rather than a mattress allows more air flow and prevents you from sweating through the night.

Why people criticize sleeping on the floor

Though sleeping on the floor does have its benefits, it’s not for everybody. Here are some common drawbacks to sleeping on the floor.

1. Provides lower quality of sleep

While it’s pleasant to sleep on the floor in warmer climates, resting on a cold surface, especially when it’s close to freezing outside, can do more harm than good. Breathing in extremely cold air can harm your lungs and restrict blood flow, even causing hypothermia.

2. Causes adverse health effects

Though sleeping on the floor has been known to alleviate back pain, some doctors maintain that it could actually make things worse and hit certain pressure points, like your tailbone, heels, and shoulder blades, and cause muscle degradation. Especially those who sleep on their sides may find that sleeping on the floor causes severe discomfort to the shoulders and hips.

3. Exposes you to dust and allergens

A traditional bed is typically elevated, keeping you away from dust and cold air. If you choose to sleep on the floor, you won’t have that buffer between you and the ground and will likely come into contact with more dust and allergens. When sleeping on the floor, routinely clean the area where you sleep to avoid allergies and respiratory problems.

4. Creates an unsanitary sleep environment

In addition to dust and allergens, insects can be an issue when sleeping on the floor. Not only can this be uncomfortable and interrupt your sleep cycle, it can potentially lead to disease spread by certain bugs.

Tips for getting a good night’s sleep on the floor

  • Instead of sleeping on you stomach or side, sleep on your back—this position provides the support your spine requires and won’t hurt your shoulders and hips.
  • For more comfort, try sleeping on a yoga mat or sleeping bag—it will offer additional back support and extra cushion to help you remain comfortable.
  • If you’re just starting out, don’t rely on a ton of pillows for comfort. Stick to a single pillow for your head.

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