On a recent cross-country drive, I forgot my pillow at a hotel. This threw me into a crisis; 200 miles had passed under the wheels by the time I realized my pillow was gone, and I certainly wasn’t going to turn the car around. However, I knew my pillow was an essential part of my sleeping routine, crucial to helping me get a good night’s sleep. When I got home I began to wonder: what is it about my pillow that helps me sleep?
When you don’t sleep well, there are many factors you might consider; caffeine intake, stress, poor health, and sleep hygiene can all contribute to sleep disturbances. Sleeping on the wrong pillow is a less obvious reason for nighttime waking and persistent pain keeping you from sleeping. A pillow that supports the head and neck effectively can make the difference between a restful night and a restless one.
Determining which pillow will support your head and neck can be difficult. There are many options available, but not enough information to explain how to choose a pillow. According to an article published in the 2011 issue of the journal Physiotherapy Canada, “many people may be sleeping on the wrong pillow (for them), as indicated by compromised sleep quality, low pillow comfort, and the presence of waking symptoms.”
Experts stress the importance of your sleeping position; whether you are a back, side, or stomach sleeper impacts the stress on your neck while sleeping. Dr. John Schubbe, a chiropractor and contributor to Spine-health, an online resource, says the pillow should keep the spine in alignment to promote better sleep. “The human neck curves slightly forward and it’s important to maintain this curve when in a resting position. If the height of the pillow is too high when sleeping sideways or on the back, the neck is bent abnormally forward or to the side, causing muscle strain on the back of the neck and shoulders…Conversely, if the height of the pillow is too low, the neck muscles can also be strained.” He recommends a pillow height that maintains the head at 4 to 6 inches above the mattress, depending on your body.
Dr. Schubbe stresses the importance of choosing a pillow that is the right height for your sleeping position. Back sleepers need a medium height pillow that conforms to the curvature of the neck. Side sleepers need a higher, firmer pillow to maintain a straight horizontal line in the spine. Stomach sleepers would benefit most from a low, flat pillow.
The material your pillow is made of matters, too. Some pillows can accumulate dust and dirt, causing allergic reactions that inhibit sleep. Adjustable pillows, made with hypoallergenic materials, can help you change the support they deliver; air circulation and “fluffiness” within the pillow can help keep the sleeper cool while ensuring the pillow conforms properly to provide support. Foam pillows, while not adjustable, can be a good solution if the proper firmness and height is chosen.
Pillows need to be replaced on a regular basis, sometime between every 6 months and 2 years, according to some studies. In addition to dust mites, contact with your body and the environment can cause fungal spores and microbes to accumulate in your pillow. Many pillows lose their springiness over time, as well; if you can fold your pillow in half and it doesn’t snap back into place, it’s definitely time for a replacement.
If you’re not sure about your pillow, talk to an expert or try some options. It’s worth the work to find the right solution, and your body will thank you for the improvement in your sleep. I’ve been lucky, when it comes to pillows. I found the right pillow for me; firm and supportive, because I’m a side sleeper. When I got home from my trip, it was there waiting - shipped by the hotel to its rightful home - supporting me in restful, comfortable sleep.