Pillows and sleep go hand in hand.
In fact, they’re so deeply rooted in the human sleep cycle that references to the comfy contrivance date back as far as 7000 B.C, when ancient Mesopotamians used stone blocks to prop their heads.
Fortunately, we’ve come a long way since then, what with the manufacture of cloth and all, but the question remains:
Do we even need a pillow in the first place?
According to experts, not necessarily. Especially for those suffering from back, neck, and skin problems.
In this article, we’ll take a look at the pros and cons of “free sleeping” and provide instruction on how to readjust your routine to accommodate a comfortable, pillowless slumber.
What’s in this guide:
- Making the transition to a pillowless sleep
- Benefits of sleeping without a pillow
- Disadvantages of sleeping without a pillow
If your sleep quality isn’t as great as you’d like it to be, and you’ve tried many types of pillows without any success then it might be time to give your pillow up completely. I decided to make the switch and haven’t looked back!
Making the Transition
Ultimately, my decision to forfeit the feathers came by default, when a herniated disc reduced the quality of my lower back to that of a retired construction worker.
Trust me, when the simple act of tying your shoes becomes a three-step writhing-on-the-ground process, you begin to understand how terribly fragile your body really is.
But of all of the acupuncture treatments, chiropractic appointments, and medicinal supplements I’d employed in the fight to restore my spine, I’ve found that the easiest, cheapest, and most effective treatment was simply to rid myself of a pillow.
Here’s how I did it:.
1. Start with a folded bedsheet
As with any lifestyle change, your best bet is to ease into it with a series of small changes. Given the fact that you’ve probably spent a lifetime training your body to sleep a certain way, breaking the cycle won’t happen overnight (pun intended) .
Personally, I’ve always been a stomach sleeper, and as I can personally attest, using a pillow as a stomach sleeper puts a ton of strain on the lower back. Still, try as I might, I just couldn’t make the switch.
So I worked my way down.
I started by folding a thin bedsheet to about the height of my old pillow. Then, every few days, I’d unfold one of the layers.
Simple as that.
By the end of the second week, I was officially pillowless.
Note:Back sleepers without a pillow should be wary of their chin drifting toward the ceiling, as this adds pressure to the neck and spine. A good way of compensating for this is to put a small, folded hand towel behind the head.
When your head and shoulders are pushed forward by a pillow, muscles in the neck and back become strained and tight. When making my transition, I found that some basic neck stretches several minutes a day helped make the process a smooth one.
Here are some basic stretches I used.
This is great for relieving tightness in the shoulders, and as the name implies, it’s performed in the corner of a room.
This is how it should look:
- Face the corner at a two-foot distance
- Bring your feet together
- Place a forearm on each wall with elbows slightly below shoulder height
- Lean as far forward as possible without causing pain
- Hold for 30-60 seconds
For best results, perform this stretch 3-5 times per day.
Note:Because this stretch focuses on the major, primary muscle groups, it’s recommended that this stretch be performed first.
Levator Scapula Stretch
The Levator Scapula is a muscle that runs from the neck down to the shoulder blade. When irritated, (typically from sleeping with a thick pillow that angles the neck) it causes a “kink” in your neck.
Here’s an easy way to loosen this muscle:
- Raise one elbow above your shoulder, with the elbow resting on a wall
- Turn your head away from your elbow while bringing your chin down
- Using your free hand for leverage, gently pull your head forward and hold for 30-60 seconds
When it comes down to it, weaning yourself from the pillow doesn’t have to be any harder than some light stretching and gradual reduction in its height.
Benefits of Sleeping without a Pillow
In a previous article, we discussed the pros and cons of sleeping on the back and found the main reasons for doing so pertained to the improvement of spinal health, the prevention of wrinkles forming and acne, and the reduction of breast deterioration, all of which can be attributed to sleeping on the stomach.
But what if you could enjoy the health benefits of sleeping your back while sleeping on your stomach?
Well, ditch the pillow and you can!
Now, pillow or not, sleeping on your stomach will inevitably cause some deterioration to breast tissue. However, going without will still allow you to reap most of back-sleeping’s benefits while lying comfortably on your stomach.
1. Maintaining Support in the Neck (while sleeping on your stomach)
When you prop your head with a pillow, you’re displacing a portion of the spine. If this displacement falls within a normal range of motion, there’s no harm done. But if you’re a restless sleeper, one wrong toss or turn can turn your pillow into a fulcrum, with the weight of your head and upper body working to stretch the muscles in your neck.
And if you’ve ever woken up with a kinked neck, you know how miserable it makes rest of the day.
The ideal sleeping position is one in which the center of your head, the base of your neck, and the entire spinal column create a flat, straight line. While some pillows such as the contour pillow allow support without breaking this line, most pillows prop the head at an unnatural angle and add stress to the back.
By eliminating the pillow from the equation, you’re guaranteed to avoid neck and back strain while you sleep.
2. Spinal Support (while sleeping on your stomach)
Sleeping on your back without a pillow is the absolute best position for spinal health. It allows for the even distribution of body weight along the body’s natural curves without channeling pressure into any one area of the spine.
However, if you’re an incurable stomach sleeper, fear not.
Sleeping on your stomach with your head to the side still allows you to maintain a healthy, flat angle and won’t add unnecessary pressure on the back.
Even if you choose to use your hands or arms as a pillow, thus elevating the head and breaking form, you’re doing so only slightly, and this slight rise in angle is far less detrimental than a thick pillow.
And believe me, your spine notices the difference.
3. Avoid Acne
In a perfect world, going to sleep would play out like it does in the movies; hands folded gently beneath a head of perfectly combed hair, soft lips parted by a gentle smile. Perhaps there’s the slight caress of a significant other…
But that’s not reality.
Unfortunately, pillows don’t just act as a support for your head and neck, they also act as a sponge, greedily soaking up bacteria and oils hell-bent on clogging up your pores.
And when you spend eight hours a night with your face pressed against that sponge, it shows.
But even without the germ factor, pillows are still a cosmetic criminal, and by mushing your face against one night after night, you’re speeding up the wrinkling process. They are called sleep lines for a reason.
Aging’s nothing to be ashamed of. But why speed the process?
Disadvantages of sleeping without a Pillow
Even in spite of the numerous benefits to sleeping without a pillow, there are a several drawbacks worth considering before deciding whether or not to make the switch:
1. Pillow-less Sleeping is Awkward for Side-Sleepers
To be fair, it’s nearly impossible. While you could use your arms to support your head, it’s just frankly not very comfortable. In this case, you may want to use a pillow to maintain a healthy alignment of your head, neck, and spine.
It’s also worth noting that many people find it easier on their backs when sleeping with a pillow wedged between their knees. In fact, these pillows are so effective at reducing tension in the lower back that there’s an entire model of pillow (the knee pillow) designed for this purpose.
Sleeping on your side without a pillow can also increase the risk of developing osteoarthritis in your neck. This is because when you sleep on your side, you’re causing a bend in the cervical spine, which, in turn, pinches the ridges of your spine (foramina). The friction generated by this pinching can result in painful bone spurs.
2. Sleeping Without A Pillow Can Aggravates Glaucoma
Intraocular pressure refers to the amount of fluid pressure in the eye. Those with Glaucoma tend to have higher amounts of this pressure, and they have to work to keep it as low as possible to prevent serious effects of the disease such as blindness.
Ironically, pressure within the eye is highest when lying down, and lowest when standing.
The flatter the angle, the higher the pressure. And it’s for this reason that those afflicted with this disease are advised to use a pillow to raise the angle of their head.
Fortunately, using a pillow doesn’t have to mean sacrificing form.
For upright support while maintaining proper alignment of the spine, experts recommend using a wedge pillow. This door-stopper shaped pillow keeps your body at a steady 15-20 degree upright angle and is firm enough to hold its shape under the weight of your upper body.
3. Pillows help with Acid Reflux
When it comes to acid reflux, gravity can be your best friend or your worst enemy.
For most, it’s their worst enemy.
Much like the intraocular pressure of Glaucoma, acid reflux correlates directly with the angle of the body. The flatter the angle, the stronger the symptoms.
In this situation, ridding yourself of a pillow is the exact opposite of what you should be doing.
And again, like those with Glaucoma, sufferers of acid reflux should invest in the aforementioned wedge pillow for upright support while maintaining alignment of the neck and spine.
So there you have it! The pros and cons of throwing away the age old pillow. My personal favorite is not having to worry about replacing my pillowwhen it turns soft and lumpy.
What’s keeping you from giving up your pillow? Or have you already made the switch? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!