Sleeping Without a Pillow: Is It Safe or Healthy? Main Pros and Cons Explained

Written by: Alex Savy
Read 8 minLast updated September 1, 2020

Sleeping Without a Pillow

Sleeping without a pillow is safe in terms of for most people, but it’s definitely not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution. Some may not enjoy all the benefits — or even worse, may cause harm to their own health — which is why it’s important to consider all the pros and cons of sleeping without a pillow before trying this out.

So, let’s look at what science has on this topic.

Benefits of Sleeping Without a Pillow

#1 Neck Pain Relief

Many people today have a job that requires them to constantly look at the computer screen. Plus, most of us regularly use smartphones or other gadgets to stay in touch with the world.

Here’s the deal:

If you stare at your phone in your hands or sit at the computer desk for long periods of time without taking breaks and stretching, you may develop a condition called ‘text neck syndrome’, or anterior head syndrome. It’s a stress injury caused by strained neck muscles when they fail to properly support your head. 

Your posture will also suffer.  To check your posture, when you stand straight, your ears should be directly above your shoulders. However, when your head is bent forward for long periods of time, it causes your neck muscles to become deconditioned, which makes it difficult for those muscles to support your head and maintain good posture (1).

When neck muscles are strained, sleeping on the back with a pillow — especially if it’s too high for you — can strain them even further and aggravate neck pain.

If you sleep on your back, ditching a pillow, on the other hand, may help the neck adopt its natural curvature, bringing you relief.

Quick tip:

You might try using an egg-crate mattress topper for more pinpoint pressure relief and a slight massage effect for your upper body.

#2 Acne Prevention

Sleeping without a pillow can also improve your skin quality if you sleep on your back. A pillowcase comes into direct contact with your face and it can accumulate skin oils, dirt, and makeup residue if you don’t clean your face properly. These agents increase your chances of waking up with acne breakouts.

No matter what the material of your pillowcase is, they all collect dirt and oils equally fast. Plus, most pillows aren’t washable, so even if you wash your pillowcase regularly, they continue to collect skin particles and dirt.

So, if you’re prone to acne breakouts, along with other treatment options, you may want to consider ditching your pillow completely.

#3 Easier Falling Asleep

Savasana corpse pose

Source: http://www.yogaru.ie/pause/savasana-corpse-pose

If you’re into yoga, you probably know about Savasana. 

Savasana, or the Corpse Pose, is a pose in which you’re simply lying down on your spine with your face up, and limbs comfortably stretched. This pose is often used at the end of yoga sessions because it promotes deep relaxation and boosts the feeling of calm.

One of the most potent benefits of Savasana is that it can trigger dominance of the parasympathetic nervous system response (2). This division of our autonomic nervous system is responsible for regulating the unconscious actions, such as heart and breathing rate. When the Activation of the parasympathetic nervous system allows us to de-stress and relax by regulating these unconscious actions.

So, if you’re prone to anxious thoughts that prevent you from falling asleep, try sleeping in the Savasana position without a pillow and concentrate on your breathing. This may help you ward off anxiety and relax.

Note that there are many other yoga poses that promote better sleep, and you can perform some of them without even having to get up from your bed (3). So, consider giving this yoga evening routine a try if you have trouble falling asleep.

Is It Bad to Sleep Without a Pillow Long-Term? Common Risks Explained

Now, having read all of the above, you might think that ditching your pillow will be a great improvement in your life.

But hold on right there.

You first need to know if there are any weak points to this decision. So, here’s a list of possible risks and disadvantages of sleeping without a pillow.

#1 Neck Pain

Here we go again.

Although pillow less sleeping can indeed prevent or ease neck pain, this only applies if you’re a solid back sleeper.

Most of the global population are combo sleepers, meaning they switch between side, back, and stomach sleeping during the night.

So, if you ditch a pillow and try sleeping on your side, this can actually make things worse. All side sleepers need a pillow to make up for the gap between the edge of their shoulder and the base of the neck. Plus, your pillow also supports the weight of your head — the brain alone weighs about 1,267 grams or 2.8 pounds on average (4)! If you leave your head without that support, it can cause the neck to bend and strain the side muscles.

Speaking of stomach sleepers, even though they may benefit the most from ditching a pillow, their position is generally considered the worst for spinal health (5). When you sleep on your stomach, the natural lumbar curve flattens, which may cause you pain. Aside from that, most stomach sleepers turn their head to the side while sleeping, which creates a strain in the cervical region as well.

Now, if you’re a combo sleeper, instead of ditching a pillow, you may try one compatible with your preferred sleep positions. Pillows for mixed sleepers typically are adjustable, so you can set the optimal height and feel comfortable.

#2 Headaches

Another problem that you might encounter while sleeping without a pillow is headaches, which is especially common for side sleepers. When you sleep on the side without a pillow, the pressure on the cervical region isn’t evenly distributed

This can pinch the nerves and blood vessels that go from your neck to your head. Pinched nerves result in painful sensations and squeezed vessels can make your head spin because of mild hypoxia.

That’s why, again, if you’re used to sleeping on your side, ditching a pillow isn’t an option for you, unless you’re ready to train yourself to sleep on your back.

#3 Acid Reflux 

Acid reflux is the irritation of the esophagus caused by stomach acid traveling up towards the throat. This condition typically worsens at night because when you lie down, your esophagus is nearly at the same level as your stomach, which makes it easier for gastric juices to travel this way.

In the case of mild acid reflux, sleeping on a slightly inclined surface can help you alleviate the symptoms, as this elevates the esophagus and prevents the stomach acid from getting into it. 

So, if you’re prone to this condition, you may want to keep using a pillow to ease the symptoms. Also, try sleeping on the left side, as this places the stomach even lower and prevents the acids from getting into the esophagus more effectively (6).

So, Is It Better to Sleep With or Without a Pillow?

As you can see, we’ve got a dilemma here. 

The truth is, there’s no right answer for everyone and you should consider your own situation, your health condition, and personal preferences. 

But generally, if you’re a healthy adult who mostly sleeps on your back and doesn’t have any chronic health conditions, you should be totally OK sleeping without a pillow.

In other cases, you will likely still need some support for your head. This applies to side and mixed sleepers, and people with certain health issues, such as GERD or sleep apnea.

So, what do you think now? Have you tried sleeping without a pillow before and will you try it now? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Can sleeping without a pillow improve posture?

Yes. Sleeping without a pillow may remove the strain from the cervical region, helping it straighten out a bit and relieving the tension, but only if you are a back sleeper. This may improve your posture in the long run.

Is sleeping without a pillow good for your hair?

Currently, there’s no scientific data about the impact of sleeping without a pillow on hair quality.

Does sleeping without a pillow make you taller?

Indirectly, yes. Sleeping without a pillow can improve your posture and correct the alignment of your neck. If you’re prone to slouching, straightening the neck and shoulders might make you look taller.

References:

  1. David DeWitt, MD (2018, October 26). Text Neck Symptoms and Diagnosis. Retrieved from https://www.spine-health.com/conditions/neck-pain/text-neck-symptoms-and-diagnosis
  2. Danilo Santaella, et. al (2014, October). Yoga Relaxation ( savasana ) decreases cardiac sympathovagal balance in hypertensive patients. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/286120984_Yoga_Relaxation_savasana_decreases_cardiac_sympathovagal_balance_in_hypertensive_patients
  3. Marlynn Wei, MD, JD, Harvard Medical School (2018, October 5). Yoga for Better Sleep. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/8753-201512048753
  4. P. Hartmann, A. Ramseier, F. Gudat, M. J. Mihatsch, W. Polasek (1994, June). Normal Weight of the Brain in Adults in Relation to Age, Sex, Body Height and Weight. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8072950/
  5. Elea Carey (2018, September 18). Is It Bad to Sleep on Your Stomach? Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/is-it-bad-to-sleep-on-your-stomach
  6. Dennis Tompson Jr. (2011, August 8). Is GERD Keeping You Up at Night? Retrieved from https://www.everydayhealth.com/gerd/managing/sleep-tips-for-people-with-gerd.aspx

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