Whether you’re the type of person who’s bought numerous pillows to seek out just the right one or one who has kept the same dusty pillow for decades, you’ve likely given in to the adage that the “right pillow matters” in getting quality sleep. What about tossing everything aside in favor of no pillow at all? Are there health benefits of sleeping without a pillow?
The science of sleep has some good answers as to whether you should sleep on a pillow or not. Let’s see what we know.
What Are The Benefits Of Sleeping Without A Pillow?
Many people believe that sleeping with a pillow is essential for good posture. Pillow salespeople point out that the neck is curved and will tell you that you must use “their” pillow for optimal sleep. Naturally, this is not always the case.
Researchers are quick to point out that your choice of pillow depends a lot on your sleeping position and that some sleep positions provide better sleep posture if you don’t use any pillow whatsoever.
Those who sleep on their stomach will see the greatest benefits of sleeping pillow-free. Stomach sleepers with pillows may unnecessarily arch their neck and back during sleep, reducing sleep quality. Other types of sleepers can gain benefits from sleeping without pillows, depending on their health and bone structure.
When we say you have “good posture,” we mean you don’t naturally slouch and can sit or stand up with a straight back and neck. Humans have a normal inward curvature in the low back and neck regions of the spine. When we have good posture, those curves are optimally maintained and not too straight or curved.
How Does Sleeping Without A Pillow Improve Posture?
For stomach sleepers, pillows tend to tilt the head and shoulders too far backward. During a long night of sleep, the back and neck muscles are not in proper alignment. This puts too much stress on the spine. Without a pillow, stomach sleepers have a straighter back and neck, allowing them to stay comfortable with good posture throughout the day.
Back sleepers may also feel better without a pillow. Tall or fluffy pillows create forward tension on the neck, throwing the sleeping posture out of alignment. Just as with stomach sleepers, posture can suffer.
Side sleepers might benefit from a pillow that prevents neck tilting during sleep. It is still possible to sleep on your side without a pillow if you practice cradling your head in your arms or hands to ensure proper spinal alignment.
What Other Benefits Does Improved Posture Have?
Optimal posture allows your neck and back muscles to be balanced at all times. You sleep for a third of your life, making sleeping with the best possible spinal alignment necessary for reducing spinal pain. Less pain means you are more active, which benefits all aspects of your health.
Reduced Neck Pain
Nothing is worse than awakening in the morning with a stiff neck. Most of your ability to take in your environment depends on being able to turn your neck in all directions without pain.
How Does Sleeping Without A Pillow Reduce Neck Pain?
Stomach sleepers who sleep without a pillow maintain optimal neck alignment all night. Without pillows, you can turn your neck from side to side during sleep, which maintains full neck mobility without pain. Pillows can mean awakening with a painful, stiff neck or headache – sure signs that your neck alignment was not optimal during sleep.
What Other Benefits Does Reduced Neck Pain Have?
Waking up without neck pain is the best way to begin the day headache-free. Imagine sleeping without nagging pain because your neck is “crooked” and awakening without pain. You can work without a sore, stiff neck at the office, turn your neck while driving, and function better in your everyday tasks.
Your pillow might be the ticket to improved breathing, even if you think you aren’t having any trouble getting air in and out of your lungs at night.
How Does Sleeping Without A Pillow Improve Breathing?
If you snore at all, your pillow may be part of the problem. Snoring means your airway (breathing tube) is getting blocked during sleep. While you may not be aware of the effects of snoring on your sleep, research shows that this is a sure indicator of more frequent brief awakenings and reduced restorative sleep at night.
If you sleep on your back with a pillow that tilts your head forward too much, your airway will be further compromised, and you’ll likely snore more. Without a pillow, your breathing passages will open up to keep you breathing smoothly all night long.
What Other Benefits Does Improved Breathing Have?
Anytime you can breathe better during sleep, you are more likely to sleep deeply and have reduced daytime sleepiness. Finally, if you use CPAP for sleep apnea, pillows can get in the way of the tubing, interrupting sleep.
Better Sleep Quality
Sleep experts have become more aware of the ill effects of poor sleep quality. They indicate that the quantity and quality of sleep determine your level of daytime functioning, your mood, your risk of chronic diseases, and even how long you’ll live.
How Does Sleeping Without A Pillow Improve Sleep Quality?
When you slumber with proper neck alignment and get enough sleep free of restlessness, you will awaken better able to tackle the day. Daytime sleepiness is reduced if you sleep with improved breathing and better neck alignment.
What Other Benefits Does Better Sleep Quality Have?
Daytime sleepiness is a bigger problem on the road than driving under the influence. Improved sleep quality can translate to improved memory, better mood, and a reduction in the risk of sleep-related traffic accidents.
Q1: Is sleeping without a pillow safe?
Sleeping without a pillow is completely safe. As long as you feel comfortable and sleep well without a pillow, you can do it indefinitely and see an improvement in all aspects of your health.
Q2: How should I start sleeping without a pillow?
Start by assessing whether you sleep on your back, side, or stomach. Stomach sleepers are most likely to see an immediate improvement when sleeping without a pillow. If you are a back sleeper, try sleeping with a flatter or thinner pillow or a folded towel. Once this is comfortable, you can transition to sleeping without a pillow more easily. Side sleepers can also transition using a folded towel.
Q3: What are some alternatives to sleeping without a pillow?
There are plenty of pillow-free sleep options you can try.
- Side sleepers can learn to cradle their head on their hands.
- Small neck bolsters made from microbeads similar to those used by some travelers can also keep the neck in proper alignment.
- Folded towels or blankets are great when you need something to raise your head and neck into proper alignment.
- Bonsignore, M.R., Baiamonte, P., Mazzuca, E. et al. Obstructive sleep apnea and comorbidities: a dangerous liaison. Multidiscip Respir Med 14, 8 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40248-019-0172-9.
- Gordon, S. J., & Grimmer-Somers, K. (2011). Your Pillow May Not Guarantee a Good Night’s Sleep or Symptom-Free Waking. Physiotherapy Canada. Physiotherapie Canada, 63(2), 183–190. https://doi.org/10.3138/ptc.2010-13.
- Liu, S. F., Lee, Y. L., & Liang, J. C. (2011). Shape design of an optimal comfortable pillow based on the analytic hierarchy process method. Journal of chiropractic medicine, 10(4), 229–239. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jcm.2011.04.002.