I don’t remember exactly when I started tossing my pillows to the foot of my bed before falling asleep each night. But somewhere along the line, those fluffy head-holders became akin to stuffed animals, or one of those knit blankets with giant holes in them (i.e., totally pointless apart from aesthetic purposes). I stuck to my Kondo-ed sleep environment for years before my minimalist preferences came under siege at my high-school volleyball’s team slumber party. Most of my teammates simply could not understand why I would deviate from sleep norms. And since then, many a pillow advocate has shamed me.
Personally, the whole idea of needing to put your head on something for sleeping feels like a big hoax. I mean, you wouldn’t bring one to yoga for savasana. Newborn babies don’t drool all over miniature Tempur-Pedics. And people are even sleeping on the floor nowadays! But I digress. Back at that fateful sleepover, I had no evidence to support my stance of the pillow industry being a big ole conspiracy theory propagated by mattress companies, and still don’t. So, I decided to consult the pros about how necessary it really is to bolster your head during the hours you spend unconscious. As it turns out, the answer depends on a few factors.
“Whether or not to use a pillow depends on your sleeping position,” says Nate Watson, MD, a sleep specialist at SleepScore Labs. “Side sleepers should always have a pillow to support a straight spine, but those sleeping supine [AKA, on your back] may do well without one.” So while (ha!) I’m technically right that corpse-posing whilst dreaming is just fine, the few nights I do spend sprawled on my side are, well, less than ideal.
“If you don’t sleep with a pillow and you sleep on your side, most likely your neck is laterally flexing or side bending and so one side of the spine is getting compressed.” —Lara Heimann, physical therapist
“If you don’t sleep with a pillow, and you sleep on your side, most likely, your neck is laterally flexing or side-bending, so one side of the spine is getting compressed,” says Lara Heimann, a physical therapist and yoga teacher. “You want to assume a position with support that keeps both sides of the neck as long and symmetrical as possible.” So if you—like me—can’t stand the feel of a pillow, Heimann recommends finding a super slim option that will keep your neck in check without feeling too in your way.
The last snooze-position archetype is the prone sleeper, who belly flops onto the mattress and stays that way all night long. According to Dr. Watson, these folks should also nix the pillow to keep their necks healthy.
So, for those of you not keeping score here, I won this debate two to one—#justsaying. But, okay, okay, there are bigger issues to attend to than pillowgate, according to the experts. “Less important than the pillow itself is how many hours you spend with your head upon it. Adults should get seven or more hours of sleep on a nightly basis to support optimal health,” Dr. Watson says. But whether you spend said nighttime hours with your pillows…well, you get to choose your bedfellows.
BTW, these six stretches are ideal to squeeze in before you hit the sack. And if you’re up against a bout of insomnia, try falling asleep to the sweet sound of Matthew McConaughey’s voice.
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