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THE BALANCED LIFE | Weighted blankets— a way to better sleep?

W ho doesn’t love the feeling, those very few seconds precisely before you fall asleep, when your lungs exhale and your brain relaxes as the weight of your world lifts from your shoulders? Apparently for many, the opposite is true.

Who doesn’t love the feeling, those very few seconds precisely before you fall asleep, when your lungs exhale and your brain relaxes as the weight of your world lifts from your shoulders?

Apparently for many, the opposite is true. It’s only when the weight of the world, or at least that of a weighted blanket, envelops them, snuggles them tight, that they sleep comfortably.

Weighted blankets, a relatively new wellness product, had worldwide sales of $399 million dollars US in 2019. This significant sales number, projected to reach $1.2 billion by 2026, is mostly a First World phenomenon because of the blankets’ cost.

It is claimed that weighted blankets help to reduce anxiety and improve sleep by encouraging the production and release of melatonin, a hormone that promotes sleep. Melatonin production by the pineal gland is usually triggered automatically by darkness, but stress and anxiety can override nature’s circadian clock, making rest difficult to achieve.

Weighted blankets reduce anxiety by simulating Deep Pressure Stimulation (DPS). DPS is a gentle, but firm pressure applied by hands or massage devices that replicate human hugs, squeezes or full-body holding, which calms the nervous system. Studies suggest that we release melatonin while experiencing this warm, safe feeling, and that weighted blankets produce similar results.

In promotional material, experts also claim weighted blankets impact the release of other hormones—increasing production of dopamine and serotonin, which encourage happiness, and reducing production of cortisol, which is linked to increased stress levels.

The blankets are manufactured with weights of some sort, glass beads, metal balls, metal chains or other components sewn into their traditional stuffing, and were originally used as a humane alternative to physical restraints. As a rule of thumb, it’s recommended that people use blankets that weight no more than ten percent of their own body weight.

Although we usually associate warmth and cosiness with any type of heavy blanket or comforter, there are weighted blankets manufactured of cooling, breathable fabrics similar to those used in sports apparel that allow comfortable use year round while still producing the desired Deep Pressure Stimulation.

Are there additional benefits to weighted blankets? Although comments will follow which discuss the legitimacy of the studies and science behind these claims, it remains an interesting list.

A medically reviewed article in Healthline, an online journal, authored by Eleesha Lockett, MS states, “Researchers have studied the effectiveness of weighted blankets in the alleviation of physical and emotional symptoms. Although more research is needed, results have so far indicated there may be benefits for a number of conditions.”

The piece goes on to expand the definition of anxiety to include increased heart rate, palpitation, hyperventilation, nausea, increased perception of pain, and depression, then, within the “more research is needed” caveat, claims weighted blankets can treat these conditions.

Based on a small study in 2017, Lockett suggest researchers have found that DPS has positive benefits for some of those with autism, and that the benefits may extend to weighted blankets as well.

In a 2014 study of subjects with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), researchers found links between participants wearing weighted vests and improved attention/reduced hyperactive moments. The participants were less likely to fall off task, fidget or leave their seats. Researchers speculated that the same results might apply if they had been sleeping with weighted blankets.

The article also reports a possible link between improved quality of life for those suffering from osteoarthritis and weighted blankets, drawn from a study with 18 participants who received massage therapy for knee pain. The link is drawn between massage therapy using deep pressure on joints and weighted blankets’ simulation of DPS.

A 2021 study measuring 94 chronic pain sufferers by researchers at University of California, San Diego, was designed to compare the use of both light-weight and weighted blankets on reducing the perception of pain. They found, “Those in the weighted blanket group found relief, particularly if they also lived with anxiety.”

Experiments go back to 1965 when autistic 18-year-old Temple Grandin (later to become Dr.Temple Grandin) invented a hug machine

There is also the suggestion of potential benefit from using weighted blankets during medical procedures, based on a 2016 study. Results found that adult participants who wore weighted blankets during wisdom tooth extraction, and adolescents who similarly wore weighted blankets during molar extraction, were less anxious than those without.

What does the science actually say? Experiments go back to 1965 when autistic 18-year-old Temple Grandin (later to become Dr.Temple Grandin) invented a hug machine. Grandin enjoyed the feelings generated when she was hugged, but couldn’t tolerate the personal contact required. She devised a large plywood sandwich, lined with a thin mattress, which she could crawl into like a hotdog in a bun to simulate hugs. Dr. Grandin’s fake hugs would now be referred to as deep pressure stimulation.

There are definitely studies that have shown links between weighted blanket use and reduced anxiety, but they are generally small and anecdotal. Although they suggest relationships and some causality, proving definitively why the results occur has been more difficult. Studies associating weighted blankets with reduced chronic pain or osteoarthritis improvements are rare and tenuous.

A recent Washington Post article noted a study by Christian Benedict, Associate Professor of Pharmacology at Uppsala University in Sweden. Although still small, this study was rigorous and proved why weighted blankets were causing the benefits others were noting.

The study was comprised of 26 young men and women with no known sleep problems. For the study, they slept with a normal blanket one night, then a weighted blanket the next. Saliva samples were taken from them every 20 minutes between 10 and 11 PM. The results showed that, on average, sleeping with a weighted blanket produced a 32 percent greater rise in melatonin than when sleeping with a normal blanket. Benedict concluded, “Body sensations, including gentle pressure on the skin, can activate brain regions that can influence the release of melatonin.”

Another 2020 study by the Department of Clinical Neuroscience, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, included 120 participants who suffered from major depressive disorders, bipolar disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and ADHD. Researchers found that after using weighted blankets for four weeks, participants “had less insomnia and reduced fatigue, depression or anxiety during the day.”

Did Linus of Peanuts fame almost have it right by always keeping a comforting blanket by his side?

You, and your doctor, will ultimately decide if using a weighted blanket regularly or on occasion, might offer any benefits to you. Blanket cost is between $50 and $400 or more, and average blanket weight for an adult is between seven and eleven kilos (15 and 25 pounds). Consider the malleability of the blanket, because its ability to fit snugly may be more important than the weight ratio alone.

Most information suggests downsides for adults are few. Blanket weight should be considered, because those with low blood pressure, asthma or Type 2 diabetes may be at risk from the extra weight. Those with mobility issues or claustrophobia might find the blankets too restricting. As long as the ten percent ratio of blanket weight to body weight is maintained, weighted blankets are generally considered safe for children over three.

Be careful—stressing-out over buying a weighted blanket might create a self-fulfilling result.


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John Swart

About the Author: John Swart

After three decades co-owning various southern Ontario small businesses with his wife, Els, John Swart has enjoyed 15 years in retirement volunteering, bicycling the world, and feature writing.
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