Pillows have been part of the human sleeping experience since at least 7,000 BCE, when the wealthy within Mesopotamia began cushioning their heads and necks against the typically hard, uncomfortable bed platform on which they slept. Since then, almost every Western culture has used pillows for sleeping, and in America, the average adult uses no fewer than two pillows to achieve comfort.
While pillows are certainly important elements for successful sleep, they can also get in the way of your body’s ability to rest and recover. If you find yourself tossing and turning, unable to relax or find comfort, you might have your pillows to blame. Here are three ways pillows can interfere with sleep, harming your physical and mental health:
Your Pillow Doesn’t Suit Your Sleep Style
The primary objective for a pillow should be to keep your head and neck in line with the rest of your spine. If your pillow causes your neck to form an angle with your spine in any direction, it could be interfering with your ability to breathe, creating strain on your muscles or otherwise interfering with your comfort and sleep.
Fortunately, if your pillow is causing your head to tilt one way or another, you don’t have to do away with pillows entirely. There are different types of pillows designed for different types of sleepers:
Back sleepers need slim pillows that cradle the head. Some back sleepers can sleep without pillows, but if you prefer some cushion, you should look for a pillow that doesn’t lift your head too high off the bed and cradles your neck, keeping your spine in line.
Side sleepers need taller pillows that wedge around shoulders. Side sleepers need pillows to fill the space between the mattress and their head, to prevent the head from angling down and causing discomfort. You will probably prefer a firmer pillow, as well, for appropriate support.
Stomach sleepers need a large pillow of low height. Sleep experts advocate against sleeping stomach-down because it forces the head sideways to allow breathing. If you can’t sleep any other way, you should look for a thinner pillow that will fit under your head, neck and some of your torso, to gradually incline your body and facilitate respiration.
Having the right pillow should help your body sink into the right position for sleep much faster. The sooner your body can find relaxation, the sooner you will reach deep, restorative sleep.
Your Pillow Is Old
Bed pillows, when properly cared for, only last about two years. Though you might be able to rest your head on an older pillow, it could be preventing you from reaching restful sleep. Most notably, older pillows tend to lack the support necessary to keep the head and neck in the right position. Even if you invest in a good pillow for your preferred sleep style, the materials in that pillow will degrade with use and time. A luxury pillow that you cover with a clean case and periodically wash is likely to last longer than a cheap pillow you don’t take care of, but even so, you should get in the habit of cycling out your pillows every three years at most.
Your Pillow Is Dirty
Just like everything else in your home, your pillow gets dirty; in fact, your pillow is likely among the dirtiest objects in your bedroom because it is kept in such close contact with your body. As you sleep, your skin and hair shed sweat, oils and cells that cause dirt and grime to accumulate within your pillow. If you aren’t washing your pillow, that organic junk will attract dust mites, which will make various other types of waste inside your bedding. In fact, if you aren’t diligent about cleaning, as much as 10 percent of the weight of your pillow could just be dust mites and their droppings. This fact alone might keep you up at night, but dust mites also tend to cause various skin, eye and respiratory irritation that can make sleep more difficult.
Pillows can make sleep more difficult — but they can also radically improve sleep. As long as you prioritize the right qualities in your pillow, you should be able to sleep comfortably and soundly forevermore.