I have a confession to make - I’m a recovering pillow addict, and last night I fell off the bandwagon, with some surprising results. Namely, I woke up with a migraine - the first I’ve had in 6 or 8 months! Good news, though - within ten minutes of pushing my pillow aside and switching to my now-standard pillow-free sleeping position, the migraine was gone!
In my former life (pre-Restorative Exercise, Nutritious Movement™, and generally feeling more empowered about my health), I was known to sleep with at least two fluffy down pillows, sometimes three. I had a cozy nest - one pillow under my head, one under my top arm (I primarily sleep on my side), and often one under my top knee.
I have to admit, there’s something really comforting about a pillow nest. Also, most of us started using pillows at a very young age, so our bodies have spent decades adapting to these bolstered (and perhaps unnatural) sleep positions. So it's no surprise that pillows are so difficult to give up.
However, in my former life I was also known to get migraines 1-2 times a month. I was often unable to work, be with my family, or generally function as a normal human being during these times - not fun!
MY INSTINCTIVE SLEEP PROGRESSION
Luckily, a couple of years ago I read this fascinating article on how pillow-free sleep postures in hunter-gatherer societies positively affect spinal health. This article really resonated with me - enough to inspire me to start transitioning to pillow-free sleeping.
This has been a looong transition, so don’t throw your pillows out the window just yet! Like I said, our tissues and joints have spent many, many years adapting to being in certain positions for a third of each and every day. Even if your mind is 100% on board with the idea of a pillow-free existence, it’s going to take the rest of your body a while to catch up.
Here is my pillow progression, which happened over the course of about one and a half years, and is still a work in progress:
- 2-3 down pillows under head and various limbs
- 1 down pillow under head, wadded up corner of comforter under top arm (I’m sure my husband loved this stage - he’s always accused me of stealing the blankets)
- Buckwheat pillow under head, filled with progressively less buckwheat, folded towel under arm
- Large fluffy towel under head, towel under arm
- Small towel under head, top arm unsupported or resting on my side
- No external support!!! Bottom arm under head, top arm unsupported or resting on my side
- [Coming soon! No arm under head, allowing neck to stretch down to the ground]
As you can see, this has not been a quick fix, and there was a lot of trial and error. When I transitioned between stages I often switched back and forth on any given night over the course of several weeks.
Also, when I started using my arm as support under my head, that arm would frequently go numb. My guess is that a combination of tension in the shoulder and neck plus the weight of my head was cutting off circulation. Adding a couple of layers of towel between my head and arm would usually, but not always, solve the problem. On nights when it didn't, I switched back to using the towel as a pillow. But I persevered, and my tissues have adapted. Now this is a comfortable position for me, and it also creates wonderful massage-like compressions on my head, neck, shoulder girdle, and rib cage with every breath!
NO PILLOW = NO MIGRAINE? THAT’S EASY MATH!
Back to last night... I was really craving my buckwheat pillow (did I mention that I'm a pillow addict?!?). But I didn't think too much of it - it was actually nice to fall back into my old resting position. However, early in the morning I woke up with that familiar, horrible throbbing over my left eye, and a vague sense of nausea and dis-ease.
I immediately got rid of the pillow and laid on the migraine side with my arm under my head. I was expecting to feel a nice stretch in the side of my neck. What I wasn’t expecting was an immediate and drastic decompression of my entire cervical spine, plus a lengthening of my top arm, torso, and the rest of my spine all the way down to my tailbone. It was such an amazing experience! I turned over and felt a more subtle version of these adjustments on the other side. Within about 10 minutes the migraine was completely gone, and I’m here writing this a couple of hours later headache-free.
HOW DO YOU CAST YOUR BODY?
All this is to say that things we take as inevitable or incurable might actually be rooted in choices - either ones we’ve made consciously, or those that fly under our radar because they’re so common in our culture. At one point in my life I thought I'd exhausted the options for getting rid of migraines and was resigned to living with them. What a relief that I was wrong!
I invite you to start examining the things you take for granted, and questioning how you may be casting your body on a daily basis, over the course of a lifetime. You might just become healthier for it.