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Is Your Pillow Messing With Your Sleep? Here's What Experts Recommend

Emma Loewe
Author:
May 6, 2022
Emma Loewe
mbg Sustainability + Health Director
By Emma Loewe
mbg Sustainability + Health Director
Emma Loewe is the Senior Sustainability Editor at mindbodygreen and the author of "Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us."
Image by Painted Wood / Stocksy
May 6, 2022
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By now, you've probably heard all about the importance of finding the right mattress (and if not, allow us to share!). But did you know that your pillow is just as essential for a comfortable snooze? Sleep doctors, physical therapists, and chiropractors are in agreement that there is one thing everyone should have in a supportive pillow—and a lot of us are missing out on it. When you're looking for a place to rest your head after a long day, here's what to do:

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How to find a pillow that won't mess with body alignment.

"The point of a pillow is really to fill in the space between your head and the mattress," Doug Cary, Ph.D., a physiotherapist and sleep posture researcher based in Australia, explains. Sounds simple enough, but it turns out that finding a pillow that perfectly suits your spinal alignment takes a bit of effort. If you use one that places your head too high or too low, you might wake up with soreness and stiffness in the neck and shoulders.

Instead, the perfect pillow will support the natural curvature of the spine, making it easy to breathe through the night and wake up ache-free.

You can figure out if yours fits the bill with a simple test from physical therapist and founder of Aletha Health Christine Koth, PT: Lie down on your bed in the sleep position where you spend most of the night. Then, simply gauge if your pillow is making your head hang up, down, or just right in neutral.

Your body structure and the firmness of your mattress will both affect the type of pillow you need. "If you sleep on a firmer-than-average mattress, your body is going to sit a bit higher on that mattress because you can't sink down, and that means your pillow will need to be a bit thicker because your head is sitting higher off the mattress," explains Cary. "Conversely, if you're sleeping on a softer mattress, you're going to sink further down into it so there is going to be less of a difference between your head and the pillow."

Your sleep position will also play a role in your ideal pillow. For example, those who spend the majority of the night sleeping on their side (that's most of us!) will need to account for the width of their shoulders. Your pillow should be the height of the distance from the outer side of your shoulder to your ear. Those with wider shoulders will need a thicker pillow, or even two pillows, to make up the space between their head and the mattress.

Stomach and back sleepers, on the other hand, will usually want to opt for one pillow that's on the flatter side.

And while experts note that the material of your pillow is largely a matter of personal preference, Joshua Park, DPT, physical therapist and founder of MOCEAN, advises avoiding synthetic memory foam pillows that trap heat as you sleep. And Cary notes that feather pillows tend to be a little too soft for the head and neck as you snooze.

All in all, the proper pillow will be firm enough to keep your noggin supported and in line with your spine throughout the night.

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The takeaway.

From the temperature of your bedroom to the contents of your dinner, a lot of factors come together to dictate the quality of your sleep. And when it comes to setting the stage for a comfortable night, now you know not to snooze on using the right pillow either.

Emma Loewe
Emma Loewe
mbg Sustainability + Health Director

Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.

Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.