If you've spent any time shopping for pillows lately, you know that choosing just one from the variety of options stocking today's store shelves could be enough to keep you up at night. No longer content with simple down or foam options, manufacturers are creating new shapes, sizes and materials - and are even wiring some pillows for sound and scent.
Decisions were so much simpler just a few years ago. Then, the options were pretty limited to soft or firm, and down, feather or foam. Then viscoelastic "memory" foam came on the market, promising a sleep-inviting mix of softness and support. Since then, new shapes supporting side and stomach sleepers have been introduced, along with products intended to reduce snoring. Experts say manufacturers are waking up to marketing opportunities related to some vital new research - the importance of sleep to overall health.
"I think we're starting to see that it affects our organ systems, how we lose weight and our health," says Michael Breus, Ph.D., author of "Beauty Sleep: Look Younger, Lose Weight, and Feel Great Through Better Sleep" (Plume, 2007). "Research has come out to link all these things."
Breus leads a Scottsdale, Ariz., sleep clinic and has appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and the "Today" show to discuss these new findings. He says he's become a convert to the idea that pillows are an important component of a successful night's sleep.
"At first I didn't think they played any role, now I know they're critical," Breus says. He's built his practice around the idea of sleep as a sensory experience. Just as noise- and light-isolated surroundings address the senses of sight and hearing, pillows affect our sense of touch - or, more broadly, physical comfort - in his approach. So, for example, the wrong pillow could lead to poor neck alignment, and the resulting discomfort could stop you from reaching deep sleep.
"I think of it as a total sensory experience," he says. "If you're satisfying all five senses, you've got a better chance of getting a good night's sleep."
So what pillow will help you create your best sleep environment? Lisa Schein, an associate buyer for The Company Store, the La Crosse, Wis.-based pillow and comforter manufacturer, suggests beginning your search by thinking first about your particular sleeping patterns.
"How you sleep will determine the density of the pillow you will want," she advises. So, she says, while stomach sleepers generally prefer soft pillows and side sleepers tend to like firm or super-firm options, back sleepers are more likely to prefer medium-density products. Those who switch frequently from side to back probably should opt for medium, as well.
And, if you're looking for new ways to make your sleeping environment friendlier to the global environment, The Company Store also now carries several green pillow varieties. These include products filled with polyester fiber spun from recycled plastic and others filled with organic wool and protected with organic-cotton covers. The store also uses a bamboo-based rayon to create pillow-ticking material that Schein says is naturally antimicrobial.
Green doesn't just look pretty, feel comfortable and help the environment when it comes to pillows -- it also can smell great. The Mi pillow line, created by Pasadena, Calif.-based designer Michaela Scherrer, is the latest blending of powerful, calming scents with home couture.
Rooted in the beauty of Japanese lace and dressmaking fashions, Scherrer's pillows foot the bill for sustainability by way of recycling, repurposing and reusing textiles, and they are filled with calming lavender to ensure a peaceful night's rest.
"I feel that it is important in the environment to engage all the senses," Scherrer says. "The scented smell creates an aromatherapy for the home and helps bring peace to our lives. I like to be creative in using recycled materials like vintage linens and remnants to produce unique products. The outside world has become more and more hectic, therefore the need for sanctuary in our living space has become more important."
Still can't decide which option is best for you? Some hotels now are giving you the chance to sleep on your decision, with "pillow menus" offering a selection of shapes, firmnesses and materials.
The Hotel Benjamin in New York City has provided a pillow menu for its guests since it opened in 1999. Anya Orlanska, the hotel's "sleep concierge," says she recently added two new options to the original 10-pillow listing. The most popular offering is the Swedish memory foam pillow. Also included are a "gelly neck roll" option, which includes a removable gel-filled core that can be heated in a microwave oven (standard in the hotel's rooms), a shape-shifting buckwheat-hull filled pillow, a maternity pillow to support sleepers carrying their own onboard guests and a magnetic-therapy pillow.
And, for those guests who can't part from their iPod playlists, even as they drift off to sleep, the hotel's menu now includes the "Lullaby" pillow - which features ultra-thin speakers buried deep within its fill, with an extra-long cord to connect to most popular MP3 players.
"It calms you down," Orlanska says of this high-tech headrest. "When you sleep on that pillow, it's like hearing your music from far away."
Orlanska, who jokes that her primary qualification for the sleep concierge position was that she sleeps a lot, uses personal recommendations to determine new menu additions.
"I experiment on my family," she says. "I take the pillow home and make them sleep on it."
The Hotel Benjamin also offers the new "Snore No More" pillow. This product is one of several recent introductions promising sounder sleep for snorers (and quieter sleep for their bed partners). Some models are designed to position a back-sleeper's head so that airways stay open, while others feature inner cores or other shaping strategies to encourage side sleeping, because side-sleepers snore less than those who rest on their backs.
"I haven't seen one that has any clinical data," sleep expert Breus says, though he adds that pillow designs can enforce side-sleeping patterns, which could, in turn cut down on snoring. However, he adds, using a pillow to reduce snoring can mean ignoring a serious health problem, obstructive sleep apnea, for which the snoring may simply be a symptom. Also, he notes, not smoking, minimizing alcohol intake and, most significantly, losing weight can be more direct - and healthier - ways to eliminate snoring.
"If you lose 4 percent to 5 percent of your body weight, you'll drop your snoring by 40 to 50 decibels."