As the days cool and the warm duvets and blankets start to be retrieved from the upstairs attic storage (that hasn’t been converted into a loft bedroom), many people find that sleep patterns change with the coming of cold weather. Some of us sleep better, some of us struggle with changing patterns of sleep. This can be partly due to the fact that we have more layers to deal with and in a struggle to warm up, we heap extra ‘things’ around us at night. Waking from a stirring dream to find a cacophony of cushions cradling our arms and legs in a various array is not unusual at this time. It can feel like you’ve been in a wrestling match with the Michelin man at times as your appendicular skeleton is pinioned with faux fur rugs and the dressing robe that was barely tossed aside as you leapt under the covers instantly after de-robing in an effort to avoid the clutches of the cold evening.
Sometimes all this ‘comfort clothing’ actually does us a disservice and we find that our mornings are spent working out crinky necks, tight backs and cramped calves as we extricate ourselves from the evening’s restive activities. Cold weather too often exposes our weak points as well and old injuries make a comeback to our youthful summer selves, reminding us of that dislocated knee back in the summers of our youth when we thought we were invincible and beyond injury.
However, when we find ourselves being unable to sleep in various guises because of weather or injury, everyone has their own solution and mechanisms of management. Temperature has a great deal to do with sleep habits. Our body temperatures do fluctuate throughout the day and evening, being up to 1 or 2 degrees warmer in the late afternoon to dropping below our normal 37.5 degrees during REM sleep at night. A decrease in body temperature often signals the body for rest and sleep. This may explain why many of us sleep more soundly in the cooler months. Taking a shower or bath can also precipitate this function. A warm bath may initially raise temperature but when towelling off and removing the moisture from the skin, this signals the body to drop its temperature and cool down which can set the stage for a conducive sleep state.
A bad sleeping position can wreak havoc with our dormant indulgences and broken sleep or insomnia can be one of the most debilitating experiences to live with. It makes us sluggish, slow, inefficient and irritable. We are unable to be productive and even the magical elixir of caffeine can’t make a dent in our miserable demeanour. There is a reason that sleep deprivation is a widely used technique for breaking down prisoners under interrogation. YES – it’s that effective.
Each of us sleeps in our own way and our own position. Rarely do we find that people have an ideal sleeping pattern or repose that fits the ‘perfect position’ prescribed by mattress companies and pillow manufacturers. Many of us may believe that we sleep like a Disney Princess, calm and serenely laid out on a bed with hands demurely placed on top of our torso. When in reality most of us are more likely to resemble a Tasmanian Devil, sprawled with limbs akimbo and having wedged ourselves into some sort of contorted yoga-esque position that Houdini would be proud of.
For those of us who resemble the latter, we can make every effort to begin sleeping in our dedicated prescribed posture, but we are most likely going to return to our crazed contorted Picasso positions throughout the night. I constantly prescribe using pillows or bolsters as a means to try and influence our sleeping postures and benefit from a ‘supported position’ that will have less of an impact on our waking bodies.
THE BACK SLEEPER
This person is the one who is capable of resembling the serene and regal. Typically the ideal position for sleeping long and sound, this position requires a thinner pillow to support the neck as the neck curve is not required to be too accentuated by a thick fluffy pillow. You want a neutral curvature through the back, ribcage and neck. A firm mattress is also advised for this person as the neutral curves of the spine do not require too much support or adjustment from their normal posture.
Issues with this posture may come about with lower back sufferers. If this is the case, a pillow under the knees can help with those who may have injured or have issues with lower back pain. Sometimes too, holding a pillow under your arms can assist with thoracic or upper back issues. If you are a person who ends up moving from this position, a wedge shaped support of 2 pillows can also help with reinforcing this position and stopping you from rolling around too much.
THE SIDE SLEEPER
This is perhaps the most commonly assumed position for many. The side sleeper ordinarily needs a thicker pillow to support the neck as you lie on your shoulder. The distance from ear to shoulder tip needs to be supported here so a thicker pillow (or two pillows together) is ideal for this posture. The mattress is usually a little more plush and soft to gently allow for the side curvatures of the hips, shoulders and neck and support these lateral curves of the body.
Issues with this posture come about through spinal rotation and hips. If you are suffering from injury or pain here, this posture is going to give some trouble as often, the body will rotate at the main joint articulations (hips, shoulders, neck, knee) and place rotational torsion on these body parts. Those suffering from shoulder issues know all about the difficulty of this position. Being unable to sleep either on the affected shoulder, or on the opposite side due to chronic pain waking them in the night.
Here the ‘body pillow’ comes into it’s own. Far from being something just for pregnant women, the body pillow can provide a wonderful support for the side sleeper, supporting the articulations of the appendicular skeleton (arms and legs) and reducing the rotational tendency of this posture. Particularly relevant for those suffering from shoulder and hip pain, a pillow under the arm or between the knees can really help to alleviate issues with this posture. I would ordinarily recommend that people try to adopt the ‘recovery postion’ in this posture with one knee drawn up and the underneath leg extended. Pillows to support this not only help with posture, but they can also help with keeping warmth in the body that can also help with those that ‘feel the cold’. Everyone loves a ‘hug pillow’.
THE FACE DOWN SLEEPER
Oh dear! This is perhaps the worst possible position to be in for anyone. Unfortunately, if you are this sleeper, you do resemble the Tasmanian Devil. You toss and turn and flip and flop your way through the evening. The rotational pressure on your neck will result in you waking in the morning feeling like you’ve done a guest appearance with Linda Blair in the Exorcist! The compression on the rib cage as well as the restricted breathing from being prone all evening is not ideal. Basically – pillows are going to be useless for you – you will cast them off in the early hours as they become obstructions to your snoozing. You are also more likely to sleep with limbs underneath your body, and will automatically turn and realign your posture as your body attempts to free itself from ‘death by constriction’.
With this posture, it’s a negotiation. You can start adopting new postures but you will most likely end up here. Using the side sleepers body pillow would be a good idea to restrict the tendency, or you could purchase a massage table that has a hole in it that you can keep your head! Small flat pillows are good for you and try using these underneath your chest or abdominal region to help keep the posture of the neutral curve reinforced. But it’s a tough ask. You have the hardest job of all.
THE INTERIOR DESIGNER
And then we come to the decision of assorted bedroom accessories. Very dear friends of mine have a regular jousting match with the bedroom paraphernalia as the ‘interior designer’ always selects rather sumptuous, textural, cushions with deeply evocative fabrics and shades in various colours, configurations, and pillows (both European and Conventional) with any array of pieces that evoke a luxurious decadence of delight on the duvet! The more practical partner, is constantly discarding and throwing these accoutrement to the floor and bemoans the issue of how his bed is being used as an Art Gallery and he only requires one sleeping pillow.
Using thick blankets and throws can create issues as it gets colder because believe it or not, thick throws on the foot of the bed can result in some pronation of the feet if you are a back sleeper. This can contribute to cramping in the calves and feet if you are already prone to this condition. Even the extra weight of that ‘winter duvet’ can also make an impact on this posture. If you are too warm in the bed as well, you will often interrupt your sleep as you begin to cast off the throws and blankets in the evening. Your body temperature is supposed to drop a little in sleep and the blood ‘descends’ into the organs and internal systems at this time to nourish the body and feed the organs and immune system. Too many blankets can be detrimental to your temperature, SO beware your inner designer and be sensible with the ‘frou frou’.
Ideally, sleeping patterns are individual. We all have our own patterns and positions with sleep and we all create our own havens to sleep within. If you’re having trouble with positions, it’s worth playing around with pillows and supports to try and make your sleep better. Avoiding exercise or stimulating activities or foodstuffs just before sleep time is also a good way to prepare for sleep. Having a routine that winds you down and gradually brings you to a quiet state is also a great way to bring yourself a good restive sleep. As like so many things each of us has our own way. But its important that all of us get our shut eye so our waking hours are the most productive we can make them.