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The Best Sleep Tips for Bigger Bodies

/ July 26, 2019

Everyone wants a good night's sleep, but that's easier said than done. If you have a bigger body, it can be difficult to get quality shut-eye for a variety of reasons.

“It has been reported that higher-weight individuals experience more sleep problems, including difficulty falling asleep, sleep disturbances, excessive daytime sleepiness, and insufficient sleep," says Terry Cralle, RN, certified clinical sleep educator and Saatva sleep consultant.

From sleep apnea to acid reflux to low back pain, here are six common sleep issues you may experience if you have a larger body—and more importantly, advice on how to prevent them from ruining your sleep.

Sleep apnea

Beyond just snoring, sleep apnea is a more serious sleep condition that causes you to momentarily stop breathing while you sleep. According to the American Sleep Apnea Association, obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) can occur when the tongue falls back against the mouth's soft palate, causing it to collapse against the back of the throat and restricting the airway. This can lead to pauses in breathing lasting 20-40 seconds and a reduction in overall blood oxygen levels.

Nearly a quarter of men and 9% of women in the US are believed to have sleep apnea—but that number goes up considerably for bigger bodies, with up to 93.6% of high-weight men and 73.5% of high-weight women dealing with this condition, according to a study published in the journal Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care. "There's a very strong relationship between higher weight and obstructive sleep apnea," explains Scott Kahan, MD, director of the National Center for Weight and Wellness.

What to do about it: To decrease your risk of sleep apnea, try side sleeping or elevating your head with pillows, a foam wedge, or an adjustable bed frame. Changing your sleep angle can help prevent the soft palate from collapsing, keeping the airway open. Kahan also recommends treatments that help minimize obstructed breathing such as oral appliances or a continuous positive airway pressure machine, also known as CPAP. (Read about one Saatva employee's experience using a CPAP machine.)

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Restless Legs Syndrome

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is characterized by discomfort in the legs and a strong urge to move them. RLS occurs when the legs are resting or inactive, which makes the symptoms most prevalent at night, disrupting sleep quality. Research has found that RLS is more common in both high-weight children and adults.

What to do about it: While there is no cure for RLS, according to the Restless Leg Syndrome Foundation, you may be able to decrease symptoms and discomfort by taking iron supplements, making dietary changes, limiting alcohol and caffeine, stretching, massaging your legs, and using a heating pad.

Insufficient mattress support

Most conventional mattresses aren't made with the needs of heavier people in mind. When your mattress doesn't adequately support you, this can result in discomfort and difficulty moving around in bed.

What to do about it: Choosing a mattress designed for bigger bodies is key, says Cralle. “The sleep challenges affecting individuals in the higher-weight category can be minimized with a mattress specifically designed to accommodate their unique comfort and support requirements."

Mattresses engineered for your body type often fall into the hybrid category. That means they feature an innerspring base, which provides solid support, and are topped with comfort layers made of foam and/or latex for contouring pressure relief and better motion isolation, so you won't wake up a sleeping partner if you move around during the night. You should also look for a mattress that has reinforced edge support, which will make getting in and out of bed easier.

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Sleeping hot

In the evenings, our bodies naturally cool down through a process called thermoregulation, which is crucial to both falling asleep and staying asleep. Getting too hot at night can throw this system out of whack and impact a good night's sleep. As a bigger-bodied person, you may find that you sink deep into your mattress, which can trap heat and make you feel uncomfortably warm while you snooze.

What to do about it: Selecting a mattress and bedding made with breathable materials can help move heat away from your body, keeping you cooler at night and more likely to sleep better. Innerspring mattresses, as well as hybrids, generally do a better job of helping hot sleepers stay cool at night since their open coils allow air to circulate more freely than a solid foam mattress. Meanwhile, organic cotton is a great material to look for in a mattress cover and sheets, as it's breathable.

Related: The best cooling features in mattresses

Acid reflux

People with bigger bodies are also at a higher risk of acid reflux. Acid reflux occurs when a muscle in the esophagus becomes weak or relaxes when it shouldn't, allowing stomach acid to flow out of the stomach and back up the esophagus. This leads to a painful, burning feeling in the chest and stomach. Symptoms can often worsen at night when you're lying down, making it easier for stomach acid to move up the esophagus.

What to do about it: Elevating the head can help prevent acid reflux. You can do this with extra pillows or with an adjustable base that allows you to maintain your upper body at a constant incline all night. Other ways to mitigate the effects of acid reflux include wearing loose pajamas, avoiding foods you know trigger heartburn for you, and quitting eating and drinking three hours before bed.

Low back pain

While back pain impacts 70%-80% of the population at some point during their lives, a 2010 analysis released in the American Journal of Epidemiology looked at the results from 95 different studies and concluded that larger-bodied people are at a higher risk. “Pain complaints are common in high-weight individuals, which can interfere with sleep," explains Cralle.

What to do about it: A medium-firm to firm mattress will help keep your spine aligned so you don't wake up with low back pain. You may also be able to find relief by adding a latex mattress topper to an existing mattress for added comfort and support. Consider changing your sleep position too—side sleeping is the best for keeping your spine in neutral alignment.

For more ways to protect your back while you sleep, check out our article on lumbar support.

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