“A good laugh and a long sleep,” the old Irish saying goes, “are the best cures in the doctor’s book.” But when restful sleep eludes you, good luck finding anything to laugh about.
If you spend your night tossing and turning, or you wake up less than fully rested, your pillow might not be pulling its weight, according to Keith Overland, DC, former chiropractor to the New York Mets and the US Olympic speed skating team who now practices in Norwalk, Connecticut. He stresses the importance of using pillows to create neutral spine position during sleep. Regardless of your sleep position, he says, “a pillow really needs to fill in the contours under the head and neck.” His advice: Figure out, based on your physique and sleep position, which pillow will depress beneath your head and provide firm support under your neck.
You can find pillows made of just about every material (or every soft material, anyway). Expect to see anything from hypoallergenic memory foam to good old-fashioned goose down inside the pillows at your local sleep store. The latest trend? Grain pillows, like buckwheat, which you’ve certainly seen wrapped around the neck of many weary travelers if you’ve been to an airport lately. There’s no right or wrong when it comes to picking a pillow’s ingredients, Overland says. “People have to look at a pillow that has a material that’s comfortable to them,” he points out. “A lot of it has to do with the way it feels against the body.”
A few of the more common pillow choices:
Water pillows offer customized support: Just fill them with as much water as needed to fit your shape. They’re heavy, though, so be careful not to pull a muscle while moving them during the night.
Cervical pillows have a depression for your head and support for your neck. Ones made of memory foam form to your particular shape, but Overland cautions that they do retain heat—a problem for people who tend to get overheated while sleeping.
Body pillows, when hugged with both arms and placed between the legs, help side-sleepers keep their spines neutral by creating a space between the knees and reducing twisting in the low back. Back-sleepers: Put a regular pillow beneath your knees for a similar effect.
Now, to the age-old question: Which position is best? Regardless of pillow selection, Overland recommends sleeping on your back or side, with your knees bent. “By having bent knees, you’re taking a little bit of stress off your back muscles and putting your body into its most neutral posture.” But stomach sleepers take note: You’re setting yourself up for neck problems down the road by constantly applying pressure to a rotated cervical spine.
With so much to consider, it’s a wonder any of us is able to sleep at night. But you’ll know you’ve made the right pillow choice when you awaken truly rested, full of energy, and ache-free.