7 options: Finding the right pillow

High-quality sleep is a building block for good health, affecting everything from your mood and metabolism to your immune system and cardiovascular fitness. Conversely, subpar sleeping conditions can wreak havoc on your body: cranky mornings, red eyes, long-term back pain—and a constant need for coffee.

While it seems everyone has chosen a side in the great mattress debate — soft or firm, pillow-top or foam — finding the right pillow is not so certain. With particular regard to your spine, that little bit of fluff might have more bearing on your well-being than you realize.

Here are pros and cons of seven types of pillows to help you find your match:

Finding the Right Pillow: Down Feather

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Down/feather pillow

Generally the softest option, down/feather pillows (also known as natural fill pillows) are great for stomach sleepers and those with no history of neck or back pain. They offer adjustable comfort and breathability for a healthy night’s sleep, and are suitable for the widest variety of sleep positions.   According to the Health Sciences Department at the University of Utah, “If you sleep on your stomach, a pillow for your head should be flat, or (you) sleep without a pillow.” That’s because the sharper the angle at which your neck reclines while you’re face-down, the more pressure you’re putting on your spinal column.

The malleability of a down or feather pillow means its center can flatten out almost entirely when you lay your head on it, keeping your spine in a relaxed state. As an added benefit, natural fill pillows are allergen free. The primary difference between down and feather is cost: the dreamy softness of pure down typically comes at a higher price, while combination pillows are often far easier on the wallet since the larger feathers are cheaper to source.

Finding the Right Pillow: Memory Foam

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Memory foam pillow

For those who need strong support to help them sleep through the night, the firm comfort of a memory foam pillow might be just what the doctor ordered.

The discerning product reviewers of The Sweet Home ranked a memory foam pillow as the best on the market in 2016 for both back and side sleepers, thanks in part to the material’s moldable support that stops just short of being too stiff.

Finding the Right Pillow: Contour

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Contour pillow

A smart subset of the memory foam category is the contour pillow, which dips sharply in the center and results in a wavelike shape across the top. These pillows conform to your head and neck with the same consistency as any other memory foam pillow, but provide a well for your head to relieve pressure on your neck and back.

Many contour pillows soften a little over time and may not be comfortable from the outset, but for back and side sleepers who suffer from neck pain, they often prove themselves over the long run.

Finding the Right Pillow: Buckhwheat

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Buckwheat pillow

Buckwheat pillows are a favorite among those who want the firmness and support of a memory foam pillow, but prefer more natural materials. Made from farmed buckwheat hulls, this type of pillow originated in Asia centuries ago and has enjoyed recent popularity among consumers who prefer home goods made from elemental materials.

The downside? The friction between the hulls can be noisy, and Korean medical research has found that buckwheat pillows may trigger allergies.

Finding the Right Pillow: Organic Cotton

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Cotton pillow

Another option for those who prefer simply-made home goods, organic cotton pillows are a quieter, cheaper alternative that also helps environmentally-minded consumers sleep at night. This classic form of pillow upholstery typically starts off very soft and fluffy and grows firmer with use. It can be a detriment to those who need something more firm to keep their spines in check overnight, but it breathes well and is an ideal choice for chemically sensitive sleepers.

Finding the Right Pillow: Polyester

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Polyester pillow

A longtime bestseller due to their affordability, polyester (or synthetic) pillows are cuddly and tend to be a little firmer than natural fill pillows, but also offer the benefit of being hypoallergenic. They’re slightly better for stomach sleepers than those who rest on their backs or sides and may need more support.

Across the board, polyester pillows are best for a tight budget, although when it comes to long-term use, they may clump and need replacing sooner than other varieties.\

Finding the Right Pillow: Body Pillow

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Body and wedge pillow

Particularly well-suited for side sleepers, a body pillow can alleviate pressure on your lower back when you give it a hug and sling a leg over the top.

To reduce neck pain in a shared bed with no room for a bulky third party — albeit an inanimate one — the Mayo Clinic suggests: “Try sleeping on your back with your thighs elevated on pillows, which will flatten your spinal muscles.” If you have a partner who’s also trying to overcome sleep-induced neck pain, a body pillow placed across the bed at thigh level can pull double-duty and act as indirect spinal support for two.

The body pillow’s distant cousin — the wedge pillow, which places back sleepers at an angle from the waist up — may offer a solution for those who want to combat acid reflux, enjoy more lumbar support or simply stop snoring.

The bottom line

Finding the right pillow will likely require some trial and error, but the reward will be a complete night’s rest.

Written by Amy Lynch

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