In the next few columns I will focus on the impacts of three items used by most people in the west: pillows, shoes, and cars. What do these three have in common? They all impact our posture and therefore our spines. In this column I will focus on pillows.
Any of you who have read my previous columns will know that the spine houses the communication highways that relay vital wellness messages between the brain and every cell in the body. The spine also houses the communication highways that take status updates from the body back to the brain.
The brain uses this information to adjust its instructions to the body, and the signals are sent off again. In this way the brain and the body remain in balance always striving to maintain wellness. Over two billion wellness messages are sent every day through the communication highways housed in the spine.
But these information highways can be compromised, making it much more difficult for this proper communication to take place. Just as a tree can fall on a power line or telephone lines cutting off electricity and land line communication to our houses, slips and falls, bad posture habits, auto accidents, and other injuries can cause our spines to get stuck in positions which interfere with the communication between the brain and body and back again. When the information highways are compromised by our bad spinal conformation and vertebrae being stuck in the wrong positions as a result of slips, falls, bad posture, sleep and work habits, and injuries, our wellness is compromised.
Research done 1989 at the University of Colorado confirmed that even the weight of a single dime shuts off 60% of the communications between the brain and the body. Research done in the ‘90s confirmed that every inch of spinal displacement away from ideal normal position causes 25 pounds worth of tensile stretch on the spinal cord.
How does this translate to pillows? The primary restorative part of our day is sleep. Those of us who are lucky enough to get our daily-recommended sleep are doing this 7-12 hours a day, depending on our age. It follows that what we do with our bodies during this time and the habits we have while we sleep are impacting our health about a third to a half as much as what we do when we are awake.
For those who are not pregnant, or with breathing or acid reflux issues, or for some other reason have been advised to the contrary, the ideal sleeping posture is on our backs with no pillow or a small neck pillow just to support the neck.
I’m sure I’m getting a lot of eye rolls on this one.
It’s difficult to achieve back sleeping all night, primarily because, as people descended from animals, it is a psychological vulnerability to sleep with our bellies exposed. You rarely see animals sleeping on their backs.
In addition, people who already have trouble with their spines or have lots of inflammation due to their lifestyle choices and nutritional status may find that staying in one position all night causes them to feel stiff.
As far as our spines are concerned, back sleeping is the most symmetrical way to sleep and the healthiest. For most of us, however, moving around at night and changing our sleep position is part of what we’re used to, due partly to the fact that most of us have pillows that are not designed for ideal spinal health. Most of us are trying to back sleep on pillows that crank our heads up way too high, tightening the paraspinal muscles, and stretching the spinal cord causing pain and discomfort all along the spine. It follows logically that we are going to need to move around a lot to relieve this pain and discomfort.
While the neck sometimes can benefit from support of an elevated section of the pillow, the head should not be elevated more than an inch off the bed. If you have the proper curve in your neck and upper back, you should be able to sleep on your back without a pillow. People who sleep on pillows that elevate their heads more than an inch are causing anterior head carriage in their general posture. This, along with our present endemic cultural habit of tilting our heads down to look at devices, is the primary cause of anterior head carriage.
Anterior head carriage leads to a stooped posture as we age, not to mention dowagers hump, pain in the neck and upper back, tight shoulders, and spinal degeneration – also known as arthritis. The ideal gravity line for the head while standing, lines up the middle of the ear right over the middle of the shoulder.
Where there is anterior head carriage, for every inch we deviate from this ideal gravity line there is 25 pounds worth of stretch on the spinal cord. This stretch on the spinal cord interferes with the transmission of wellness messages from the brain to the body and back again. This is why people with posture deformities are often tired and why they have so much more energy after an adjustment.
If you are a side sleeper or, even worse, a stomach sleeper, sleeping on your back may seem impossible.
Just as one can change eating habits, exercise habits, and smoking habits, changing sleeping habits is very much possible. A method of autosuggestion has been very effective for many in my practice. This very simple method involves telling yourself before you go to bed at night, “If I go onto my side or stomach tonight I will wake up and roll onto my back.” Before long you will have created a new habit and back sleeping will be comfortable.
Other ways to aid this transition is to sleep with a small pillow under the knees (not appropriate for certain kinds of musculoskeletal issues, but okay for most) and a heavy quilt or regular pillow on top of your body. This helps with the vulnerability some feel sleeping with their stomachs exposed. If you absolutely must sleep on your side, pillows should be properly fitted so that the head and neck remain in neutral and do not bend either down or up and shoulders are squared not collapsed. Most pillows are not constructed for side sleeping. Some die hard side sleepers find support with Therapeutica pillows, which are sold by some chiropractors. These are most effective when a person is properly measured and fitted. While picking an ideal pillow is a personal experience, it should be an informed decision, balancing comfort with a choice that supports spinal health.
If you are a stomach sleeper even occasionally, you should consider changing this habit immediately. The worst posture, spinal distortion, and degeneration I see arise from poor stomach sleeping.
If you’ve had poor sleep habits for a while, know that your posture does not line up with the gravity line mentioned above, or is asymmetrical in any way, changing your pillow and sleep habits alone will not correct this posture and spinal distortion. To correct the damage already done you will need to consult with a corrective chiropractor specializing in spinal correction. But changing your sleep habits now may prevent them from getting worse. Teaching our children and teenagers about the importance of proper sleep habits is another aspect of preventative healthcare. If you are having challenges in changing your sleep habits, consult a chiropractor or other practitioner with experience in such matters.