Your pillow might be causing your lack of sleep, expert says

Woman with pillow on face, tired and frustrated with stress, nightmare or dream
How do we choose a pillow that actually supports us? (Getty Images) (Getty Images)

Going to sleep should be the most natural thing in the world. Once the day is done and our eyelids are heavy, we simply snuggle down into bed, close our eyes and drift off.

Yet, millions of people aren’t getting enough sleep. While the NHS recommends adults get an average of seven to nine hours of sleep per night, a study found that 71% of Brits - equivalent to 37 million people - don’t get as much sleep as they should.

The Need for Sleep study by Direct Line Life Insurance, in partnership with Dr Holly Milling, founder of The Sleep Practice, revealed that more than a third (36%) of those in poor health get less than five hours of sleep, with women more likely (48%) to say they were dissatisfied with their sleep than men (39%).

The impact of our sleep on our physical and mental health can’t be overstated. Research has shown that the long-term consequences of not getting adequate sleep include an elevated risk of developing cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity.

There have also been studies linking a lack of sleep to poor mental health. Researchers from University College London found that consistently sleeping fewer than five hours a night can increase the risk of depression.

Not getting enough sleep over long periods of time can also lead to irritability, stress, anxiety, and, in extreme cases, thoughts of suicide or self-harm.

While there are many lifestyle factors that may contribute to sleep problems, the one thing everyone can do to improve their sleep is to take a closer look at their pillow and question whether it is the culprit of a bad night.

Choosing the right pillow can make a major difference in your sleep posture, which in turn affects the quality of your sleep. When your pillow supports you correctly in getting a more comfortable night’s sleep, that’s a major step towards having better sleep.

Sleep posture expert and founder of Levitex, James Leindhart, explains how your pillow may be ruining your sleep, and how to choose the right one.

To understand how our pillow affects the quality of our sleep, we must first understand the importance of sleep posture, says Leindhart.

"Sleep posture is a simple principle that considers the position you lie in when you’re asleep and the surface you lie on to preserve and maintain a good position," he explains.

The key to good sleep posture is maintaining a neutral resting spine, which means keeping it straight so that the muscles around the spine are relaxed. "If we have to hold a certain posture for a long period of time, the structures around the spine will start to feel pain," Leinhardt says.

"The single biggest difference between daytime postures and nighttime postures is that, in the daytime, every single time you are uncomfortable, you will move, because you’re conscious of the pain.

"But if you fall asleep in a poor position on the wrong hardware, on something that doesn’t support you properly, then your muscles will have to work twice as hard throughout the night. If you’re waking up with symptoms of pain, the likely cause is how you lie and what you’re lying on."

woman in bed having backache
Waking up with aches and pains is very common, but it shouldn't be. (Getty Images) (Getty Images)

Many people go to sleep in what are called "provocative sleep postures". In simple terms, these are positions in which both knees touch the bed, resulting in the hips rotating.

"For example, most people lie on their side in bed and they do so with both knees touching the bed. This means the hip on top is rolled forward, which puts unnecessary strain on the spine."

The "optimum" sleep posture to fix this starts with imagining yourself in a good, upright seated position - and turning yourself 90 degrees so you’re on your side.

"That’s the position you want to be in while sleeping on your side," Leinhardt explains. "The only change is that you now need support underneath you, so you need to fill the space between your ear and your shoulder, and between your knees and ankles.

"What you lie on needs to support you properly. The neck is the most delicate part of the spine, so the pillow is arguable the most important thing you need to consider," he adds. He also recommends placing a pillow between your knees and ankles to stop the hips from rotating.

Leinhardt's number one advice on sleeping positions is: never sleep on your stomach unless there’s a clinical reason for doing so. "We call it spine abuse," he jokes.

Instead, the two best positions that he recommends sleeping in are on your side or on your back. However, there are ways to optimise both positions so that you’re comfortable all night long and don’t wake up in pain.

"These are the only two positions we ever recommend to anyone, no matter what your condition is," Leinhardt says. "If you’re on your side, put a pillow between your knees and ankles, and ensure the pillow you’re laying on is high enough to fully fill the space between your ear and your shoulder, so that your head is properly supported and your neck doesn’t strain.

Tips on how to get the optimal side sleeping position. (Levitex)
Tips on how to get the optimal side sleeping position. (Levitex)

"If you’re on your back, place a pillow under your knees. This will help straighten your spine, and your shoulders, hips, knees and ankles will be nicely aligned. You’ll be likely to stay in those positions for longer because you’re more comfortable."

He recommends trying to sleep in these optimum positions for at least half an hour each night. "Don’t worry if you can’t get to sleep in the new position for the first few nights. If you keep doing it, eventually the body will adapt and remember the positions, and it will get easier to sleep."

Most people choose a pillow based on the price and the feel. Some people believe that the more expensive a pillow, the better it must be, whilst others take advantage of Buy One, Get One Free deals without thinking about whether it’s the right pillow.

To test a pillow, most people give it a squeeze to see if it’s soft or firm. But Leinhardt says this isn’t the best way to determine how much support a pillow will provide.

Sleep posture expert and founder of Levitex, James Leinhardt, gives us his top tips on how to choose the right pillow. (Levitex)
Sleep posture expert and founder of Levitex, James Leinhardt, gives us his top tips on how to choose the right pillow. (Levitex)

Instead, he advises focusing on three things:

There’s no such thing as one size fits all

"If you don’t wear the same size shoe as your partner or your kids, why would you all sleep on the same pillow? Choose a pillow based on your own needs."

Consider what position you usually fall asleep in

"This is the only position you can work with, so choose a pillow that will improve on this. If you lie on your back, you only need a thin pillow because the distance between the back of your head and the mattress is small. If you lie on your side, it needs to be a thicker pillow to fill the space between your ear and shoulder."

Choose a material that’s just right

"The material needs to be firm enough to support your head, otherwise you get neck and shoulder pain, and soft enough so that your ear doesn’t feel like it’s burning off because of the pressure."

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