A wide variety of memory foam pillows and mattresses, various fabrics for bed linen, eye masks and lights imitating dawn — which has not appeared on the market for sleep products in recent years. But weighted blankets are a breakthrough in sleep technology. In the USA, such blankets have already entered the top 10 best gifts and “inventions of the year”, their manufacturers are becoming dollar millionaires, and sales are growing every day. What’s the secret? Is it true that a heavier blanket solves problems with insomnia and restless nights? Healthyinfo understands the “hard” issue. Spoiler: yes, apparently, these blankets really work as well as sleeping pills!
What is a weighted blanket?
In fact, weighted blankets are not a super new invention, this year it is exactly 20 years old. It was at least in 1999 that occupational therapist Tina Champagne began to use this non-standard version of calming for patients with mental disorders. And it worked.
Later, Champagne’s experience began to be used in neurological and psychiatric clinics, and in the first decade of the 21st century, such blankets appeared in recommendations for improving sleep in ASD, an autism spectrum disorder in children. And also with restless sleep, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), neurological features. Then they were made to order.
In those years, blankets were filled with buckwheat husks or roasted groats, stitched several times so that the weight did not shift to one side. In some cases, filling pockets were attached to ordinary blankets: the children grew up, and the mass of the blanket had to be increased.
The required weight of the blanket is 10% of the person’s body weight. That is, a blanket of 8 kg is suitable for an 80-kilogram adult.
For children, the calculation is the same, but such blankets are contraindicated for infants for safety reasons.
Today, most often you can buy a ready-made blanket filled with plastic balls. Sometimes it is mixed with cotton fibers. But the cheapest, at least in the Russian market, are still duvets with husks. The goal for all options is the same: to exert soft and even pressure on the body. If you did an x‑ray, for example, at the dentist, this is exactly the pressure that a special protective apron exerts. And today, this sensation is not only becoming popular among healthy people, but it has also been proven to have a therapeutic effect on the body and psyche.
In Russia, such blankets are not yet popular. But you can buy different options — from children’s to adult sizes
Stimulation of the nervous system by pressure: how does it work?
Imagine that relaxing feeling of being hugged, long hugs are soothing, right? Think about how quiet a baby is when swaddled, or how an older child nestles comfortably in the lap of a parent. Remember what relaxation and drowsiness come after a massage. Touch and gentle pressure have a powerful psychological and physical effect. It is on these effects that the action of weighted blankets is based.
The evenly distributed weight of the blanket has an effect known as “Deep Sensory Pressure Stimulation” or GSD. Studies have shown that such stimulation reduces arousal by affecting the activity of the body’s sympathetic nervous system—it is this system that increases vigilance and anxiety, and also responds to stressful stimuli. This is the section of the nervous system with fight-or-flight responses.
In addition, sensory pressure increases the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system, which maintains homeostasis. It is also called the “rest and digestion” system. When it is active, heart rate and blood pressure decrease, and relaxation and a sense of calm increase.
In 2015, researchers studied the effects of GDM from weighted blankets and found a 33% reduction in stress symptoms as measured by the Physiological Signs of Arousal Test. Among the participants in the experiment, 63% reported a decrease in anxiety levels, and 78% said they found using a weighted blanket the best way to calm down. How do doctors explain all this?
What is good for heaviness in bed: five benefits of extra pounds
Changes in the activity of the nervous system that occur as a result of deep pressure stimulation are accompanied by the release of hormones, which also help reduce anxiety and induce a feeling of calm. And they are useful for deep and long sleep.
Uniform pressure stimulates the production of oxytocin. This hormone is involved in the formation of attachment and intimacy, and plays an important role in love. It can also evoke a deep sense of calm. Oxytocin is a fairly versatile hormone with functions that scientists are still scratching their heads over. It has many roles, from sexual arousal to encouraging social bonding with friends and parent-child attachment.
Oxytocin is one of those involved in regulating our sleep-wake cycles. The level of this hormone increases during the night’s rest, especially during the stages of the REM phase, a period of deep sleep. A 2017 study showed that administering this hormone to patients can lengthen and improve sleep quality, as well as reduce the symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea.
GDM can lower cortisol levels, which play a major role in the body’s response to stress. The stimulating effect of cortisol makes it difficult to fall asleep and disrupts sleep throughout the night. The evening drop in cortisol levels is part of the body’s natural process of preparing for sleep. But stress, anxiety, and arousal can interfere with this natural evening drop in cortisol levels. The gentle pressure of a weighted blanket can help the body reduce arousal by influencing the production of this hormone.
GDM also increases levels of serotonin, the hormone that makes you feel good, the “pleasure hormone.” Serotonin stabilizes mood and increases energy levels, and helps regulate sleep-wake cycles. A lack of serotonin can lead to depression and anxiety, as well as disruption of circadian rhythms. Maintaining normal serotonin levels is one way to return to a healthy, restful sleep pattern.
Serotonin is known as a precursor to melatonin, a key hormone that promotes nighttime sleep. The body produces melatonin from serotonin through a chemical process. When there is not enough serotonin, melatonin production decreases.
Comfort and safety
According to several studies, the deep sensory pressure of a weighted blanket “gives subjects a sense of security, relaxation, and comfort.” Given the above changes in hormonal balance (more oxytocin and serotonin and less cortisol), this is not at all surprising.
Help with neurological and psychiatric disorders
Weighted blankets can also relieve symptoms for people with insomnia, chronic pain syndrome, or restless leg syndrome. They are also good for more serious disorders, such as those who suffer from depression and, as mentioned earlier, autism.
Up to 80% of children with autism spectrum disorders have sleep problems, often associated with sensory hypersensitivity. According to Lindsey Biel, author of Sensory Perception Problems: Effective Clinical Work with Children and Adolescents, weighted blankets reduce the urge to move, thereby reducing the friction of skin on fabric. The brain receives fewer impulses and reacts less to stimuli. Many people with special needs also tend to experience nervous system overexertion, and in recent years blankets have been used in many ways, such as helping people with PTSD symptoms. For PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder, the extra pressure helps you sleep through the night without panic attacks or nightmares.
Michael B. Bruce, Clinical Psychologist, Sleep Disorders Expert
Anxiety is the main problem for sleep. There is a huge amount of research that demonstrates the connection between anxiety and sleep. I see how anxiety ruins the sleep of my patients, and I hear from many of you how stress, anxiety, and a “tired and tired” mind interfere with the ability to fall asleep and get proper rest at night. Anxiety can disrupt sleep at any age; children also face such problems. They can occur for a variety of reasons, from external and indirect factors to physical and psychological conditions.
I recommend weighted blankets to my patients. And they often ask: what is it like to sleep under a heavy blanket?
Many people describe the feeling of such a sheltering heaviness, as if they were being held in a gentle embrace. Gentle and even pressure helps reduce overexcitation, provides a soothing sense of relaxation and calmness, making it easier to fall asleep—and may help you sleep more soundly, with fewer restless awakenings during the night.
Weighted blankets have an inner lining that is filled with evenly distributed filling. Blankets come in different weights, ranging from 2 to 12 kg. In our research, we determined that approximately 5.4kg of evenly distributed weight is ideal for sleep and relaxation—without too much pressure or generating too much heat (which can get in the way).
How to use a weighted blanket? Just like any other! All it needs is a gentle, even pressure. And you may find it more acceptable to sleep under such a blanket without underwear and pajamas. Follow your desire! I am a supporter of sleeping naked. Remove excess clothing and let the blanket do its job.
The last point, and this is very important: do not relax about the rest of the aspects of sleep hygiene. A weighted blanket can help relieve stress, relax, fall asleep faster, and sleep better throughout the night. But you still need to pay attention to the key factors of healthy rest.
Stick to a consistent sleep schedule, with regular bedtime and wakeup times.
Avoid too much light at night, including from various gadgets.
Don’t eat too much in the evening and before bed.
Drink alcohol only in moderation, and ideally abstain from it for a few hours before bed.
Get regular exercise.
Manage stress and maintain a good mood with relaxation practices, including meditation.