How to break the sleep code

Why a Japanese buckwheat pillow is the secret tool for a better night’s sleep
Last updated
August 27, 2020
A Japanese buckwheat pillow

Getting a good night’s sleep is like winning an epic battle.

Once you experience it, replicating victories are like trying to code-break Enigma, the Nazi’s encryption device during WWII. If we crack the code, we protect this highly sensitive secret for as long as possible.

Why? The next eight hours depends on it.

And when you lose this secret sleep code—as well all do—you start to grasp for new levers: the time you go to bed, the thread count of your sheets, the sound of your white noise fan, the temperature of your room, your sleep monitoring device, or that new glow lamp that gently brightens the room at 6 AM.

Even if you push and pull the levers into the right order, once you put head-to-pillow, the fate of the next eight hours is mostly up to your sleep position.

And most people get it wrong. Instead of feathers, a small seed known as buckwheat is the secret to a supportive night’s sleep.

The seed that helps you sleep better

A handful of buckwheat seeds
A handful of buckwheat seeds

A pillow is rather straightforward. If you can stuff something in a pillowcase, you can call it a pillow. Technically, you could make a pillow out of shredded sneakers, but most are stuffed with down, feather, polyester fiberfill, shredded memory foam, shredded latex, wool, kapok, or any other synthetic material you can imagine.

Buckwheat is a unique little seed. It takes hundreds of buckwheat husks to fill a pillow. It’s the opposite of a down feather, which you might find in an elegant hotel. Imagine a photo of a gentle, fluffy down feather compared to a small, hard shell-like seed, and I expect nothing less than an exaggerated eye-roll.

Even more confusing, buckwheat isn’t even a type of wheat. It’s a fruit seed, one of the world’s first domesticated crops, and originated in Southeast Asia more than five thousand years ago.

The seed isn’t what’s used in a buckwheat pillow. It’s the outer casing; the husk, or hull. And a single buckwheat husk is small, smooth, and triangular in shape. Its shape is cupped with thousands of tiny air pockets between them, great for airflow, support, and cooler sleep.

Because buckwheat husks are hard and durable and replaceable, a buckwheat pillow can last up to ten years with care.

It’s like a bean bag for your head—and it’s really comfortable

How is it that hundreds of tiny buckwheat husks might be more comfortable than soft, cushy feathers?

In a 1986 study observing sleep positions, eleven subjects were monitored, changing positions on average 13 times. They also averaged 299 leg kicks.

Leg kicks!

Many of the kicks occurred before and after the body changes position, leading them to hypothesize that it was due to small torsions of the spine and back. Simply, your body needs to relieve the stress from your spine and the only way it knows how is to kick, forcing a change of position.

A study on sleeping positions
1986, Association of Professional Sleep Societies

What’s different about the buckwheat pillow? It’s designed to hold your head and spine in a supportive position for as long as possible. The husks nestle in around your head and neck area—like a bean bag—giving you much more support than feathers are capable of.

When the pillow is properly customized for your body position, you don’t need to ‘kick’ as much. In the same way that you need correct posture when sitting upright, your spine needs the same support when lying flat.

Sleep more with less

Wabi-sabi is a Japanese aesthetic. It embodies asymmetry, imperfection, and authenticity to its core premise for being.

In contrast, the pride of the West is excess. Large SUV’s mask our insecurities, massive 64oz containers let us endlessly slurp soda without fear of finishing, and overconsumption has left many of us overweight.

Here in the West, most pillows market themselves on their aesthetic beauty, their perfect symmetry, and their monstrous fluffy size. The bigger the better. Rooms are filled with pillows, manipulating our minds with ideas that more equals comfort.

The Japanese buckwheat pillow is the antithesis of this entire concept. Its construction is built on the idea that just enough is necessary. The hulls themselves are imperfect, but they work together in harmony to provide the support your body needs. The pillows are small in size, only needing to cup your head and neck.

Nothing more; nothing less. Wabi-sabi.

The benefits of a buckwheat pillow

Unlike fillers such as feathers or synthetics, buckwheat pillows offer much more support due to the fact that the hulls are naturally harder and able to adapt to your head, spine, and shoulders.

Because the husks are shell-like, they don’t absorb heat like most materials, and you’ll find that if you run hot, this pillow won’t.

Buckwheat is also considered a hypoallergenic which helps keep those allergies at bay.

If you’re like me, you don’t like to think about investing in your sheets, comforter, or pillows unless you're forced to. But, this pillow can last you 10 years if you take care of it. In other words, keep it dry.

How to customize your pillow

The reason why so many people have headaches, soreness, or tightness from their sleep, is because they have never taken the time to customize their pillow. It takes less than five minutes.

Customize your buckwheat pillow
Measure your head's position

One of the first things you should do when receiving your pillow is to lay down and have someone make sure that your head lies parallel to the bed. If your head is at an upwards angle, you will need to remove some of the husks from the pillow.

The perfect position—as a comparison—is to stand straight up with your arms at your side. Notice how your head naturally rests. This position is what you want to replicate when you lay down.

If your head slopes downward towards the mattress, you may need to add more filling. Typically this isn’t the case as most buckwheat pillows come overstuffed to compensate for this issue.

We all have different mattresses, and so you’re measuring the position of your head and spine as much as you're measuring the firmness of your mattress.

Removing unnecessary fill

Now that you measured your head's position, you need to remove enough of the husks so that when you lay down, it matches your standing position.

Most buckwheat pillows come overfilled so that you can remove enough to nestle into the perfect position. People who complain about these pillows usually forget this step, and again, it only takes 5 min.

For instance, if you’re a side sleeper, make sure that you’re mimicking your primary sleeping position so that you don’t accidentally end up with a sore neck. While huge fluffy pillows offer more give, the buckwheat pillow is aimed to create consistent nightly perfection.

If you’re a back sleeper, you should measure it in the same way. Lay down on your back and make sure your head sits exactly straight without any flex in your spine.

If you sleep in multiple positions, tailor it for your primary and the number of husks left should closely mirror your general body type.  

And If you sleep on your stomach, God help you.

It’s worked for over 600 years

More than 70 million Japanese use it today. Here in the United States, we stubbornly search for the tech-enabled silver bullet to solve our woes.

But, hiding in plain sight, this pillow solves back pains, snoring, sinus, and migraine issues for many people. My neck is rarely sore from being propped up perfectly each night.

Sleep is our Enigma device. The closest thing to breaking the sleep code has been a consistent, simple Japanese pillow made of buckwheat.

Resources:
Get the pillow and pillowcase I’ve used for the past six years.

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