How a weighted blanket fixed my sleep

Research shows using a weighted blanket can help reduce insomnia and anxiety. Photo / Supplied
Research shows using a weighted blanket can help reduce insomnia and anxiety. Photo / Supplied
Whether it's worry about the global pandemic, anxiety about our jobs, or just general exhaustion, it's safe to say we haven't been getting enough sleep this year - I know I haven't, writes Bethany Reitsma.

But could a weighted blanket filled with tiny glass beads be the answer to getting a better night's sleep? With nothing to lose, I decided to give one a go to try and fix my broken sleep schedule.

The background

Weighted blankets were originally invented to comfort kids with autism, special needs or sensory processing disorders. They're also regularly used by people with chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, or other conditions that prevent them from sleeping.

Paediatric occupational therapist Jamie Blank has been prescribing weighted blankets at her Kāpiti practice for a long time and says it's "cool to see them becoming mainstream".

She explains that they work by putting pressure on the body, otherwise known as deep pressure stimulation.

"When you're worked up or stressed, it prevents you from sleeping," Blank says. "Deep pressure stimulation releases serotonin, the happy chemical, to the brain.

"For young people on the spectrum, or with ADHD, it can help calm them down or manage an anxious moment – if you sit with the blanket for 20 minutes it can have up to two hours of benefits for your body."

The effect of deep pressure stimulation is to trigger the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms the body down after stress has occurred.

Blank says the blanket creates a fairly quick response, but there are no rules when it comes to how long you should use them for.

"Some people find it comforting enough to just pull it on for a few minutes while others like to sleep with it all night - it's really about your personal preference."

"Weighted blankets help reduce anxiety and insomnia, although of course, they're not a cure on their own."

And while there are varying studies on it, Blank's simple conclusion is that "We see it working. It works."

Research also shows that one of the reasons we find weighted blankets so soothing is that they mimic the feeling of a nice firm hug.

Writing for blog Primal Musings, nutritional therapy practitioner Kathryn Kos writes that "many of the anxiety reduction and relaxation benefits of hugging can be mimicked by weighted blankets.

"Like hugs, weighted blankets promote oxytocin release in the body, a hormone that lowers heart rate, calms nerves, reduces cortisol levels, decreases blood pressure, and boosts mood."

Kos also noted that using a weighted blanket is an option for anyone who needs a little extra support when it isn't available elsewhere to get you through periods of feeling low.

The test

When my Sleep Heavy blanket arrived - all 6.8 kilos of it - I felt sorry for the poor postie who'd had to lug it all the way up the stairs to the front door of my flat to deliver it. Putting the mink cover on was a time-consuming process, at the end of which I felt like I'd just done a weight training session at the gym.

But I pushed through, telling myself it would all be worth it in the end - and it was.

It was like a comforting hug or like lying under several wheat bags descending on my tired muscles and gently but firmly rendering me immobile. My flatmates arrived home later that evening to find me happily engulfed in the blanket on the couch like a cocoon.

The second time I tried it, I was at home with a killer migraine and decided to have a nap. About five minutes later I was fast asleep in what might have been the deepest slumber I've had all year - the kind of sleep that makes you forget who, where, and even when you are in time and space when you wake up.

Since then I've used it most nights, as it helps me wind down and settle into sleep quickly. The only drawback is that it's difficult to get out of bed in the morning, both logistically and just because I would spend the rest of my days under that blanket if it were socially acceptable.

The verdict

Not only does the weighted blanket help me get to sleep faster, it improves the quality of the sleep I do get. As we head into summer, I'd recommend using it with a cotton cover instead of the mink - but keep it on standby for next winter's hibernation.

It's the perfect way to treat yourself this Christmas, or to gift to a loved one who deserves to relax and unwind after a hectic year.

Growing up I was never that kid who's perpetually attached to their favourite blanket, but as an adult I just might be.

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