Pillow Talk

Lifesizeimages / iStock

Lifesizeimages / iStock

MOST OF US GREW up sleeping on one pillow. Unaware that there were different kinds of pillows, we wouldn’t have considered complaining. Now pillows with names such as Chiroflow and MyPillow are everywhere, but how do you decide which one is right for you?

In recent years, hotels have started offering “pillow menus,” which allow you to request a specific kind of pillow before arriving. From the “pillow library” at Kimpton’s 70 Park Avenue hotel in New York, the most popular pillows over the years have been those filled with buckwheat hulls — said to stimulate acupressure points and increase circulation — according to the hotel pillow librarian, who advises guests on the best option for them. The Liaison Hotel Capitol Hill allows guests to choose more than one among six choices: feather & down, sound (thin speakers inside for plugging in an MP3 player), hypoallergenic, magnetic therapy (reduces swelling), buckwheat and Swedish memory (self-molding foam).

The most important feature of a pillow is how it supports your neck, according to Rebecca Carli-Mills, Certified Advanced Rolfer and Movement Therapist in Chevy Chase, Md.  A pillow that’s too firm and too high can cause the neck to over-straighten; too low and too flat has the same problem. “To keep the neck’s natural curve,” says Carli-Mills, “lie on a pillow, reach back under your neck and push up on the cervical spine. There should be some give, and your neck should feel soft and have a slight curve.”

Carli-Mills’ favorite: “old-fashioned down,” she says, “because it can mold to cradle your neck in whatever sleeping position.” Sleepers with allergies, however, need hypoallergenic pillows and should use a zippered pillow protector that is washed weekly.

Buckwheat-hull stuffings tend to get too firm and shift around, says Carli-Mills: “Before you know it, you have a straightened neck.”  As for Tempur-Pedic pillows — composed of “viscoelastic foam” developed by NASA research to protect airplane passengers in case of  an accident — they can work well unless you are over-straightening your neck and tucking your chin down, she said. Among the different Tempur-Pedic pillows, she advises finding the correct size for your height: For the small- to average-height person, the small size is usually good.

One of the latest entries on the pillow market is MyPillow, stuffed with torn-up pieces of foam. While some sleepers rave about its ability to support and keep the right shape for their heads and necks, others complain that it starts sagging after a few months.

Over the past decade, many pillows have claimed they prevent snoring and protect against sleep apnea, which can result from blocked airways. A 2013 survey by Living Healthy 360 looked at several models, including the ObusForme Anti-Snore Pillow, the Silentnight Anti-Snore Pillow, the  Brookstone Anti-Snore Pillow and the FDA-approved as a medical device for snoring and mild sleep apnea, the SONA Anti-Snoring Pillow . Each had mixed reviews, most likely because the cause of snoring varies among individuals.

Turning on one side can help stop snoring. In a recent national survey by The Company Store, 59 percent of Americans sleep on their sides, 18 percent on their backs and 13 percent on their stomachs. According to Carli-Mills, side sleepers usually do best with a normal rectangular pillow that has an additional panel on each side, making it slightly firmer than those for back sleepers. Stomach sleepers, who have a problem with their necks getting turned at a strong angle, should sleep with a firm pillow under their body “like floating on a water raft to lessen the neck rotation.” For most of her clients, who report that they don’t stay in any one position, goose down that adapts to different positions is the best.

Those who can’t afford the time or money for a night at a pillow-testing hotel are stuck with the old method: trial and error. On a positive note, Carli-Mills says she has gotten inexpensive pillows at Ikea that do as good a job as expensive brand-name models. A side sleeper, she currently rests on a two-pillow combination: on the bottom, something harder like a Tempur-Pedic or lately a Chiroflow pillow that you fill with water; on top, a pillow of fluffy down.

Carli-Mills tried a medical “sleep study” —  with electrodes on her head to detect periods of REM sleep — but found it so hard to sleep under the study conditions that the results didn’t show anything useful. And she pointed out that those medical professionals “didn’t care about the pillows.”

For those who believe their nights are insufficiently restful, Carli-Mills has non-pillow advice: “People have unrealistic expectations about how they will feel in the morning.  Scanning your body for tension and doing simple movements and self-massage before going to sleep can improve how you feel while sleeping, so that you wake feeling refreshed.  A supportive pillow is beneficial but does not fully solve the problem for someone who goes to sleep clenching their jaw.”

What happens first thing in the morning is also important, she says: “Joints lose mobility with age. Preferably before getting out of bed, you need to stretch — the way cats stretch before they move when they have been lying around for long periods — moving your body in all different directions, reaching with arms and legs, maybe some ankle and wrist rolling, and breathing — like a full body yawn.”

 — Mary Carpenter

If you’re wondering what to do with your old pillows, International Pillow Fight Day  is tomorrow, April 5. The fun begins at 2 p.m. at the Washington Monument.

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