In this day and age, pillows seem to come in all shapes and sizes, and are intended to suit any specific requirement, such as pregnancy or back pain. From the luxurious comfort of feather and down pillows to the plumpness of ’bounce back’ pillows, pillows are an established part of everyday life.
According to a National Sleep Foundation poll, 64% of people use one to two pillows, while 27% use at least three. Although popular, pillows are often taken for granted. When flipping the pillow over to the cool side, have you ever actually stopped to deliberate how this innovation came about?
To explore the phenomenon of the pillow, we take a look at the history behind pillows, the science behind pillows and how to find your perfect pillow.
The history of the pillow
The first people reported to use ‘pillows’ were those who lived in early civilisations of Mesopotamia, an ancient region in the eastern Mediterranean, around 7,000 BC. These pillows however, consisted of blocks of stone and were only used by the wealthy. Although it’s evident these pillows would have offered little comfort, they were used mainly to elevate the head from the ground and literally keep the bed bugs away from people’s mouth, nose and ears.
Following this, the ancient Chinese created pillows using wood, stone, bamboo, and even porcelain, bronze and jade. While they could create soft pillows, they believed they stole energy from the body and were not as effective at keeping demons away as their jade equivalent.
The ancient Greeks and Romans however, used soft pillows made of cloth and stuffed with feathers or straw. Although many, particularly men, viewed using these pillows as a sign of weakness. This stigma associated with ‘going soft’ continued into the Middle Ages, when King Henry VIII was said to have banned the use of pillows by anyone except pregnant women.
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The benefits of the pillow
Although today’s pillows have advanced tremendously from the stone pillows used in Mesopotamia, the history of the pillow suggests that elevating one’s head during sleep offers several health benefits.
Lynnfield Mitchell, sleep expert and creative director at bedface.com explains, ‘pillows are necessary elements of proper rest. Apart from their comfort, pillows elevate parts of the body to permit optimal blood flow and circulation, which is necessary as sleep is the time when bodies repair themselves.’
This is also confirmed by Terry Cralle, a certified clinical sleep educator, who says:
‘I have heard the saying that a pillow is a bed for your head and I could not agree more! In fact, I think a pillow is just as important as the mattress when it comes to getting a good night’s sleep.
Our heads and necks need to be supported while we sleep. The right pillow can make a big impact on your quality of sleep, your health and ultimately your well-being. Pillows probably don’t get the attention they warrant, as they can be instrumental in getting a good night’s sleep or be the cause of a terrible night of sleep, which will lead to a terrible day!
A pillow helps keep your neck and spine in comfortable alignment as you sleep. Yet pillows that do not fit the sleeper, for example [which] are too thin or thick, can leave you with neck pain, shoulder pain, back pain or headaches.’
Further exploring the idea of an optimal pillow height is a 2015 study, which tested 16 adults using 3 different pillow heights and consequently found that an average pillow height of 10 cm offered the best spinal alignment, most comfort and least muscle activity.
Choosing pillows for you
Terry Cralle adds that ‘pillows should be individualised for each sleeper based on preferred sleeping position, height, weight, allergies and chemical sensitivities, temperature preference and any personal health condition.’ So after discovering the optimal pillow height, how can you know which kind of pillow is best suited to you and your sleeping habits?
If you sleep on your back your pillow should be firm enough to support the natural curve of your spine, without too much height to bend your neck unnaturally. In general, your pillow height should be lower than side sleepers, so don’t double up.
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If you’re a side sleeper, your pillow should help your spine maintain a natural horizontal line, and a thicker cushion than back sleepers is recommended. Although you can get away with most types of pillow, it’s best to opt for a plumper one to support your neck, so try to avoid feather options.
Although sleeping on your front is not recommended for your spinal alignment, if you find you adopt this position overnight, the flatter the pillow, the better. So again, avoid bounce back choices or doubling up.