Why Don’t You Sleep Well?

By Dr. Janine Pulley, L.Ac.

Sleeping is a critical part of your life – both because you need sleep to rest and heal, and because how you sleep at night makes a huge difference on the amount and quality of sleep you get.

If you are not sleeping well, waking unrested or achy, or are having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, there are a few things that could be going on. If you are already following the usual tips for ensuring good sleep (do not eat, drink alcohol, watch TV or otherwise stimulate your mind right before bed, keep your room dark, and use white noise) then it is very likely that your trouble sleeping is due to some physical issues that you can address.

There are three important parts to getting good sleep: sleeping on a firm mattress, having a pillow at the right height for you, and getting adjusted so your body is aligned properly.

First, you need a firm mattress. I know, I know, “but they say memory foam is the best! There’s studies!” Research done on broken people (those who are not properly aligned musculoskeletally aka through chiropractic care) yields broken results. 

The reason memory foam feels good (at first) is because it alleviates pressure points created when you are sleeping twisted up. The problem is that those pressure points are making you uncomfortable because they are trying to tell you that your body position is not right. If you use memory foam, you are able to ignore your body’s message and sleep twisted up all night (not to mention that it will sink and compress, further twisting you up). That is why you wake up sore in the morning despite spending several thousand dollars on a bed.

A firm mattress will not sink or compress, so it will keep your body in the same position all night. You need this kind of support to keep your body aligned all night so you do not wake up with aches and pain (and so you can fall asleep in the first place!). You do not want a mattress to contour to your curves – in the end, you will end up contouring to it instead.

If you are afraid that you will be uncomfortable on a firm mattress, buy it anyway and also purchase a ½ inch to 1 inch (non-memory) slightly softer foam topper that you can put on top of the firm mattress. It will have some give, which will help you get comfortable, but maximize the support you need all night. Then when you find it uncomfortable to sleep again (roughly a few weeks to a month or two into care for most people), you can remove the topper and just sleep comfortably on the firm mattress.

Second, you need to find the right pillow height. This height varies for each person and depends on how you sleep. The height can also change over time because as you undergo chiropractic care, your posture changes.

Like the mattress, you also need a firm pillow, as in, a pillow that will not sink or compress over the course of the night. Memory foam is again an offender – it compresses with pressure and heat over time, so it will likely be too low for you. What you need is a firmer pillow made out of foam or you can stack up towels – anything that will maintain the right height for you all night.

If you sleep on your back, you need the least amount of pillow height (just enough to keep your spine aligned, but not too much or it will push your head forward. As your posture is corrected, your head will not be forward as much, so it is likely that your pillow height will decrease.

If you sleep on your side, you need more pillow height than on your back. You will likely have a different pillow height on your right side compared to the left; it all depends on your posture. The more forward rounded your shoulders are, the lower the pillow will be. As your posture is corrected through chiropractic and you are no longer slumped forward, you will need a higher pillow because your shoulders will be wider.

I have bad news for stomach sleepers – it’s just not good for your body. Laying on your stomach means that your head must be twisted to one side or the other all night, which is just not good for you. On the bright side, once you are aligned and have found the right pillow height on your new firm mattress, sleeping on your side or back will be very comfortable and sleeping on your stomach will not be comfortable at all.

Third, you need to get your body aligned. Proper musculoskeletal alignment is critical. For most people, the reason they feel uncomfortable on a firm mattress in the first place is because their posture is twisted up.

I will use myself as an example. I used to be a stomach sleeper. I would sleep with my head turned to the side, torso down, and one knee up near my hip. I despised traveling because I hated the firm mattress at hotels – they created too many pressure points and I could hardly sleep. The worst time I ever had was the two months I was in Japan for a summer sleeping on a bamboo futon (basically I was just lying on the ground), but that was all we had available. I used to sleep on top of the (thin) comforter, desperate to sleep.

Fortunately, I started chiropractic school after that summer, where I discovered ABC and began to get treated regularly by my friend, Dr. Mark Scholl. Because I was so twisted up from sleeping like this for years, it took a while before I really acknowledged how terrible my memory foam bed was. After driving an hour one way to get treated in Ithaca, NY, and complaining that my adjustments never held past that evening, Dr. Mark looked at me and asked me if I was still sleeping on my memory foam mattress. I admitted that I was, so he shook his head and told me to get rid of it ASAP or he could never fix me. I told him I couldn’t afford a new mattress because I was just a kid in graduate school so I had no money; he told me to do whatever I had to to make it happen – “why else drive 2 hours a week to see me?”

So I sucked it up, saved my money, bought a super firm mattress online and had it delivered and my old memory foam mattress taken away. It was easily the best decision I made all year. I noticed a huge difference immediately. I went from feeling great for only one evening after being treated to feeling great for 5 days at a time.

At first it was tough changing from sleeping on my stomach to my side, but I just couldn’t sleep on my stomach anymore. It felt wrong and I could feel it make my neck sore instantly. However, I felt weird on my side because I was used to having my arm under my pillow all these years (my body’s attempt to make my pillow higher because it was also memory foam so it was too low). I started using a body pillow, which gave me something to tuck my arms around and helped keep me on my side. It took me a month or two to get used to it, but I did it and it was 100% worth it.

I used to have a ton of trouble falling asleep and staying asleep (it would take me over an hour to fall asleep every single night, and I would generally wake several times). It would take me hours to wake up and I always felt achy, so I would take very long, hot showers to wake and loosen up. My parents actually took me for a sleep study because it was so bad, but the study came back normal. I did all of the tricks you usually hear, like good “sleep hygiene” and light and sound blocking curtains, which all helped but not enough. Now I know why I slept so poorly: it was all that memory foam.

Now, I can fall asleep within 15 minutes (usually only that long if I am thinking about something) and I only wake if I need to use the restroom. I wake rested and clear immediately. I do not need to take an excessively long shower to “warm up.” I have never slept this well, and it was all from changing my mattress and pillow and getting adjusted with ABC regularly.

When you are properly aligned with the right pillow height and a firm mattress, you will be able to comfortably lay on your side or back all night with no uncomfortable pressure points, you will sleep deeply, and wake refreshed without feeling sore.

Furthermore, if you never change your Sleeping patterns, especially if you are sleeping on a memory foam mattress, I will never be able to fully fix your posture – and it will take me a whole lot longer to fix what I can. Every night when you go to sleep, you spend anywhere from 6-8 hours twisting up your body and knocking bones out of their alignment, which I will constantly have to fix. Don’t get me wrong, I love to help! But if you really want to get truly healed (and save a ton of money!), make the investment in a firm mattress, customized pillow, and committing to regular care sooner rather than later.

Are you tired of being tired? Then make an appointment with Dr. Pulley today by calling 978-237-5106.She will put together a care plan and help you find the right mattress and pillow height so you can finally get a good night’s rest!