Weight and see: Can heavier blankets cure insomnia?

August 20, 2018

A growing number of people who cannot seem to get enough shuteye are looking for a better night’s sleep under a weighted blanket. These trendy blankets are filled with pellets, balls, or chains, which give them their heft. Fans of the blankets say the pressure feels like a firm hug, giving new meaning to the word “comforter,” according to an August 17 report by Psychology Today.

The idea has intuitive appeal. It could explain why some people prefer to sleep under a heavy blanket even in warm weather. Scientific research on weighted blankets is limited, however. Here’s what is known—and what isn’t—about how well the blankets work for easing insomnia in adults.

Perhaps the best evidence to date comes from a Swedish study published in 2015 in the Journal of Sleep Medicine and Disorders. Thirty-one adults with chronic insomnia were recruited by the academic researchers to participate in monthlong investigation. Their sleep was tracked for one week with their usual bedding, then two weeks with a weighted blanket, and then one more week with their usual bedding again.

A full 80% of the subjects said they liked the weighted blanket. Those in this group slept longer and spent less time awake in the middle of the night while using the weighted blanket, sleep testing showed. Study participants also said they found it easier to settle down to sleep with the weighted blanket. What’s more, they reported getting better sleep and feeling more refreshed the next morning.

The theory behind weighted blankets is that they may work, in part, by providing firm, deep pressure stimulation. “The pressure provides a reassuring and cocooning feeling,” says study coauthor Gaby Badre, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor at the University of Gothenburg and medical director of the sleep SDS Kliniken (sleep disorder clinic), also in Gothenburg, Sweden.

In addition, Badre says that the weighting material inside the blanket produces a lighter, stroking-like tactile sensation when you move. “This tactile stimulation, amplified by movements, even if small, may be the equivalent of a caress,” says Badre. It may stimulate the release of neurotransmitters and affect nervous system activity in ways that decrease overarousal and anxiety.

Further evidence on weighted blankets comes from research in kids with various mental health concerns. One study performed in Denmark looked at 42 children (ages 8 to 13)—half of whom had attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The children’s sleep was tracked by sleep testing and parent diaries for four weeks, including two weeks of using a weighted blanket. For kids with ADHD, the weighted blanket reduced the time it took to fall asleep and the number of middle-of-the-night awakenings to a level comparable to children without ADHD.

Other research, conducted in the United Kingdom, among 73 young people (ages 5 to 16) with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and severe sleep problems compared a weighted blanket to an identical blanket without the extra weight. Based on sleep testing and parent diaries, the weighted blanket didn’t improve their sleep. Yet kids and parents preferred the weighted blanket. They may have been picking up on a benefit the researchers didn’t measure. But because they could tell which blanket was heavier, they may also have been swayed by stories on social media and in the press touting weighted blankets for kids with ASD.

For now, Psychology Today reports, there are no clear answers about the benefits of weighted blankets for people with sleep issues. “There is much more research needed in this regard,” says Courtney Golding, Ph.D., a sleep psychologist at Spectrum Health Sleep Medicine in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Still, a blanket that hugs you all night long sounds awfully nice. And some experts say it’s plausible that weighted blankets could help fend off sleeplessness. “Given that insomnia is frustrating, it can lead toanxiety related to sleep (or lack thereof) even in individuals who are not typically anxious,” says Golding.

If you’re thinking about buying a weighted blanket for yourself or another adult, Badre says it should generally be a bit more than 10% of your body weight. He notes that people vary in exactly how heavy they like the blanket to be. If possible, try before you buy to find what’s comfortable for you.

Of course, the blanket should never be so heavy that it restricts your movement or is difficult for you to manage. To be on the safe side, elderly individuals and those with health concerns should talk with their health care provider before trying a weighted blanket. This type of blanket may not be appropriate for people with breathing difficulties, circulatory problems, or temperature regulation issues.

Make sure the weight is evenly distributed throughout the whole blanket. Badre adds, “It is important that the blanket does not increase the temperature of the bedding. The fabric should dissipate heat easily.”

Research contact: @lindawandrews

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