Ever have difficulty falling asleep at a friend’s house because of an uncomfortable pillow?
Don’t blame your friend. Matching someone with a comfortable pillow requires more than just asking, “Hard or soft?” And not everyone is an expert like Miho Mihashi.
A “sleep adviser” for pillow manufacturer Lofty Co. Ltd., Mihashi says the most important factors in determining a good match are one’s physique and head shape. Using these measurements, the ideal thickness of the pillow — the key to a comfortable headrest — can then be determined.
Mihashi explains that when humans are in a natural standing posture, their spines form a gently curved “S” shape, a body structure that makes biped locomotion possible despite our large, heavy heads. When we sleep, she says, we need a pillow to support our necks and maintain the S-shape of the spine. A pillow that is too thick or too thin bends the neck in an unnatural position and can cause a variety of problems, including breathing difficulties, snoring, and stiffness and pain in the neck and shoulders.
At Lofty’s shops, clerks called “pillow fitters” help customers choose the right pillow. While customers stand straight, eyes fixed on the floor 2-3 meters ahead, these pillow fitters measure the spatial difference between the seventh cervical vertebra (which projects the farthest) and where the neck meets the skull (the most depressed point).
This spatial gap is equal to the thickness of pillow you need. Lofty shops offer pillows in five different thicknesses: 1-2 cm, 2-3 cm, 3-4 cm, 4-5 cm and 5-6 cm. Most customers can find the right size among these choices.
Once the thickness is determined, you can select from among 10 materials to use as stuffing: silk, down, hemp, cotton, camel’s hair, urethane foam, plastic balls, finely chopped plastic tubes, buckwheat hulls and a mixture of buckwheat hulls and hinoki (Japanese cypress) chips.
Now that you’ve got a comfortable pillow, it’s time to reconsider the bedding.
“Unfortunately, many people do not worry much about bedding,” says Tohru Ohki of Nishikawa Sangyo, a major futon maker in Japan. “People say anything is all right as long as they can sleep. But bedding — especially the mattress and bottommost futon — has a significant influence on how deeply one can sleep.”
It is generally believed that firm mattresses and futon are better than soft ones. If the mattress is too soft, Ohki explains, a sleeper’s bottom can sink in too far, making it difficult to maintain the natural S-shape of the spine.
But, he emphasizes, “I’m not saying the firmer the better. The best level of firmness depends on the sleeper’s body weight and physique.”
For instance, too solid a futon or mattress might not be comfortable for a thin person, Ohki says. Since a person with a low body weight will not sink as far into firm bedding, the area near the waistline will likely receive no support.
“As a result, blood circulation suffers in the shoulder and hip that bear the body weight, and the sleeper must frequently turn in bed. This makes the overall sleep lighter,” Ohki says.
“If you have this problem and can’t afford to buy a softer mattress, you should spread a thin pad over it; you’ll find it much more comfortable,” he adds.
Today, a variety of bottom-layer futon with different levels of firmness are available, and some newly developed futon and bed pads are designed to disperse body weight evenly.
“If you actually lie down on several different kinds of bedding at the store and compare them, you’ll immediately know which is best suited to you.”
While you need not be as careful when selecting linen, comforters and blankets, there are some points to keep in mind when choosing what’s best for you and the season.
In hot and humid weather, for instance, hard and rough materials are good choices because they won’t cling to the body. Some manufacturers have developed seasonal bedding products for midsummer, including bed pads and sheets woven from split bamboo, igusa (rushes) and washi paper.
“If you cannot do without the air conditioner while sleeping,” Ohki adds, “cotton terry-cloth blankets, the most popular summer item in Japan, are not necessarily desirable.”
Cotton blankets absorb sweat well, he explains, but do not release the moisture effectively, so that the damp blankets will get cold in the draft from the air conditioner.
“It might be safer to choose blankets or comforters made of animal materials such as wool or down,” he says.