Sleep is very important when it comes to the maintenance of our mental and physical health. Although some seem to consider sleep to be a wasteful use of a third of their lives, that time is critical for many bodily processes necessary to keep you up and running well during that other 2/3 of your life. Especially if you are ill or recovering from an injury, sleep is possibly the most important part of your cure.
However, it is very common to have difficulties sleeping. Whether you wake up with a “tweak” in your neck, a headache, a limb or two that went numb, or aches and stiffness in your body, these are signs that something needs to change so your body can get the proper sleep it needs. While there is copious research and conjecture on the myriad issues surrounding sleep, the one most relevant to my line of work is posture, and hence, what you do your sleeping on.
The majority of people throughout the history of humankind have not slept on mattresses or pillows. These luxuries only started being more commonplace after the rise of factories and mass production. With the level of civilization our population enjoys today, even the poorer of us, with our toilets, warm and protective clothing, and of course soft beds, live “better” than many royalty of the past. It seems very strange, then, that we can still have such an unrestful night when we pamper our bodies so. In the abundance of beds, our people have forgotten that just because we always sleep on soft, squishy surfaces doesn’t mean that the majority of humankind that slept on dirt, stone, wood, and other hard surfaces was less comfortable than we are. In fact, they may have been more comfortable.
Mattresses and pillows are the same as shoes in our culture. Everyone uses them because everyone else does, too, and therefore we forget that they aren’t necessary and we were born without them. Of course, it is important to have a bed that is warm and in a safe place, but all that squish is unnatural. Before beds existed, people’s bodies weren’t suffering for the lack of an expensive, “supportive” mattress, and they didn’t search in vain for the pillow that would prop their head in the right position. Just as your body adapts to lying on a pile of fluff, their bodies would have been toughened up so that the pressure of their body on the ground wouldn’t be painful, exactly like your hand toughens up from gripping tools. Their joints would have been acclimated to the different angles they’d experience while lying down, and their tissues would have been able to enjoy a wide variety of positions due to the unyielding surface they were sleeping on. Without a pillow, their head and neck would not only still be able to support themselves, but would also be unrestricted by the shape of the pillow into a limited range of positions.
For our people today, remembering that mattresses and pillows are not required for a healthy, restful sleep creates a monumental opportunity. Many of us have already experimented with finding a better pillow, a better mattress, or a better sleeping position to relieve the pain we feel in bed or upon waking. Why not experiment some more, by decreasing the pillow and mattress, and increasing the body positions possible?
The important thing to keep in mind is that our bodies adapt to everything we do. Therefore, any changes you make to something that has been a constant for a long time needs to be done in small steps. For example, switching to a slightly firmer mattress, reducing the number of pillows on your bed, or changing the side of the bed you sleep on all are ways to more gently introduce new angles and pressures to your body parts. Even if you don’t ever make it down to the floor, making small changes like these can still have great benefit.
Similarly, when experimenting with different pillows or no pillow, you need to consider what angle your neck and head have adapted to during the course of your life. Chances are, they are projected forward more than they should be (towards that computer screen, or craning out from the driver’s seat?). If this is the case, your head may have travelled too far forward to be able to rest on the ground without something underneath it to keep your spine happy. This doesn’t mean you have to stay there forever. By making an effort during your waking life to reduce the amount you bring your head forward, and slowly reducing the height of your pillow, you can change the shape of your body to improve your function and sleep.
Keeping in mind that I am pretty young and my back is not very hunched-over, the following is my experience with transitioning to sleeping on the floor and how it impacted my life:
A major issue I was dealing with a year ago was headaches. They had been relatively common for years, but the frequency had increased to once a week. I also occasionally woke with a sharp pain in one side of my neck that would dissipate over the day. I tried a few different pillows and actually had just found one that seemed like it was the best fit for me, except I was still getting those headaches.
Over a couple months, I reduced my pillow to a pile of towels, then to one towel (where I lingered for a while because it felt more comfortable than any pillow ever before), then finally to nothing. I stayed like that for several months because my spouse didn’t want to give up the mattress. However, we changed sides of the bed every now and then as one way to add variety. Finally, we started occasionally spending the night sleeping on a rug and comforter. After some well rested mornings proved to us that this was doable, we dismantled the bed and opted for the rug and comforter. The first couple weeks were a little uncomfortable on joints and boney parts not used to such firmness, but we still woke well rested.
Now it has been about 6 months and I don’t notice any discomfort, and I don’t miss the mattress. Also, my headaches reduced significantly (about 1 every 2 months), and I never wake with a pain in my neck. I have been putting my head on part of my bunched up robe, but that is mainly to keep my head warm during the winter. For me, this experiment has been a success. I sleep soundly with the thought that the shape of my bed is not reinforcing the slumped over posture my culture tends to induce.
Lastly, I’d like to add that I sleep on all four sides, and I believe this helps keep balance to my different body parts. It seems to me that sleeping on your belly is only unhealthy when you have a mattress that sags in the middle, or a hammock. Sleeping on your side can be unhelpful if you have a particular injury to that side or if you only ever sleep on one side. But the more variety of positions your body can experience (both in sleeping and while awake), the more each part gets a chance to be nourished. So the thing to experiment with is not which bed molds to the shape you’re in, but which bed allows you to shift toward a better functioning, more comfortable shape.
For further reading, these are great sources: