Greener BeeGreen GadgetsThe quest for the perfect pillow: ‘It’s complicated’

“That’s OK,” she said, opening a closet.

I stared at a tall pile of ostensibly tested and rejected pillows. Fluffy ones, firm ones, large ones, small ones.

“We have a pillow problem,” she said, apologetically.

I thought it was only me, but it seems others also have the Goldilocks syndrome of not being able to find just the right pillow.

Some clients mention it when they arrive at the Sleep Center at the University of Colorado Hospital, said Dr. Katherine Green, interim medical director. But what tells her more about the search for the Holy Grail of pillows is the multitude of choices and advertisements that claim to have discovered it.

“There are a lot of different options,” Green said. And one reason for those options: “There’s no one perfect pillow for everybody.”

That’s because some sleep on their backs, some on their sides or stomachs, and some toss and turn. On top of that, Green said medical conditions such as snoring, sleep apnea, gastric reflux or heartburn can affect sleeping positions.

“It’s complicated,” agrees Jennifer Marks, editor-in-chief of Home Textiles Today, a New Jersey-based publication.

“Pillow preferences are so individual. How big is your head? How heavy? How long is your neck? … Do you sleep hot or do you sleep cold? Are you menopausal? Are you pregnant?”

A variety of choices

Today’s market includes bed pillows filled with memory foam, shredded bamboo, goose down, adjustable air and cool gel, to name a few.

There are neck pillows, pillows with arm holes, knee pillows and whole-body pillows.

There even are “hotel-style” pillows, presumably born out of the desire to recreate the sound sleep that sometimes comes from the exhaustion of traveling and heavily draped hotel room windows.

Green, who also is an assistant professor and director of sleep surgery at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, said no medical studies exist to support claims that one pillow is better than another.

“You don’t necessarily have to buy the $150 pillow that’s marketed as the best thing since sliced bread,” she said.

A $5 or $20 pillow works just as well for some people.

“It’s really about finding what’s good for you, what’s comfortable for you,” she said.

Pillows are intended to help align the head and spine during sleep and support the head during body shifts, Green said. Side sleepers generally need more pillow height to keep the head aligned while back sleepers require less height, she said.

Despite the marketing hype, pillows aren’t driving the $3.165 billion bedding industry, Marks said.

“We haven’t seen more than year-over-year, incremental growth in the sales of pillows as a whole,” she said.

The benefits of good sleep and the health conditions associated with sleeping poorly have become hot topics, however, and thus presented an industry opportunity.

“The proliferation of gadgets like the Fitbit that help people monitor the amount and quality of sleep they’re getting raises awareness of the subject as well,” Marks said.

Hence, manufacturers are developing pillows to address those concerns, and retailers are pushing healthy sleep.

‘There are no rules’

American culture is not very supportive of a good night’s sleep, Green said.

“It’s more difficult to get sufficient sleep and quality sleep, partly due to our 24-hour society,” she said.

Smartphones, televisions and other electronics emit light that inhibit deep rest and detract from the business at hand, Green said.

“It’s hard for us to turn off and disconnect,” she said.

The best thing to do is create a dreamy environment that supports proper shut-eye, Green said.

Along with establishing a relaxing bedtime routine to wind down – such as reading 30 minutes before going to sleep, drinking a cup of tea or taking a hot bath – Green said a favorite pillow and a cool, dark room are helpful.

The most preferred pillow style today is one filled with some kind of shredded material, such as latex or polyurethane foam, said Jon Heizenrader of Bob’s Discount Mattresses. The locally owned company has four locations in Colorado Springs.

“A pillow is a personal thing,” he said, “but shredded filled pillows are popular because the profile can be adjusted.”

He recommends taking a “test rest” at a specialty store and trying out different kinds.

“A lot of times people find pillows are too flat, too bulky, too thick, too hard,” Heizenrader said.

“It’s based on your sleeping habits, likes and dislikes. There are no rules.”

Finding a favorite

My sister estimates she and her husband have spent upwards of $1,000 on pillows in the past five years. She finally settled on one she likes – for the most part. And that’s what usually happens.

Pancake Pillow is old and not perfect, but it works best for me. Many have a similar story.

Yoga instructor and stomach sleeper LeAnne Carrouth went through a bunch of pillows before she finally gave up. She now doesn’t use one.

“I push all the pillows to the top of the bed – it’s the way I have to fall asleep.” she said.

Plenty Goover, a Colorado Springs software engineer and a side sleeper, said friends kept giving him pillows as gifts until one that he loves turned up.

It’s a wedge-shaped memory foam pillow that has both a flat area and a thick section.

“It forms to fit my head and neck, and I know it’ll be the same shape whenever I lay down,” he said. “Other pillows were too high, too soft, too low, and then I’d wake up with an old-fashioned crick in my neck.”

Nobody needs that.

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