“I’ve met many pediatricians and occupational therapists who have told me about the magical effects of the weighted blanket, but we don’t know if it acts like a placebo or what,” said study author Christian Benedict. , Associate Professor of Pharmacology at Uppsala University. in Sweden. “That’s one of the reasons I decided to do this study.”
In the study, 26 young men and women with no sleep problems or other medical conditions were asked to sleep in the lab with a weighted blanket one night and a light blanket another night. None of the participants had a history of using weighted blankets. The weighted and lightweight blankets accounted for 12.2% and 2.4% of each person’s body weight, respectively.
The researchers took saliva samples every 20 minutes between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. to measure changes in hormone levels. On average, the increase in melatonin was 32% greater at night when participants slept with a weighted blanket.
“Body sensations, including gentle pressure on the skin, can activate brain regions that can influence melatonin release,” Benedict said. “We believe a similar mechanism explains the observed increase in melatonin when using a weighted blanket.”
Weighted blankets have weights such as metal chains or sewn-on glass beads, along with traditional padding, to apply even, deep pressure to the body. Occupational therapists in the 1990s discovered that weighted vests and blankets had a calming effect on children and adolescents with developmental and sensory disabilities. They were later used in adult mental health facilities as a humane alternative to restraint and seclusion, which are known to cause physical and psychological harm to patients.
The concept of deep pressure stimulation goes back even further, notably explored in the 1980s by American scientist Temple Grandin, who has autism and designed a Hug Machine as a way to relieve her anxiety. It worked by squeezing her gently with padded boards. Other examples include baby swaddles and dog anxiety vests, both of which are used in a manner similar to hugs to induce calm.
Applying light pressure to large areas of the body activates the autonomic nervous system, which regulates heart rate, digestion, breathing rate, and other functions. Specifically, deep pressure stimulation is associated with reduced sympathetic arousal, or a fight-or-flight response, and increased parasympathetic arousal, or a rest-and-digest response.
Research has suggested that the deep pressure stimulation of weighted blankets, in particular, can improve sleep. In 2020, Håkan Olausson, a neuroscientist at Linköping University in Sweden, and his colleagues performed a randomized controlled trial on 120 patients with psychiatric disorders, giving them a weighted blanket every night for two weeks. Patients reported less severe insomnia, reduced daytime fatigue, and better sleep retention throughout the night when they slept with a weighted blanket compared to a light blanket.
A 2015 study tested weighted blankets on 33 people with chronic insomnia, reporting that they slept longer, found it easier to settle in, and felt more refreshed in the morning. And a study of two children with autism spectrum disorders demonstrated improved sleep quality with weighted blankets.
“Use of weighted blankets has increased dramatically in recent years, but most studies have limited sample sizes,” said Cara Koscinski, occupational therapist and co-author of “The Weighted Blanket Guide.” “We can’t draw big conclusions,” she said, of the latest study, but the observed increase in melatonin “provides another piece of the puzzle.”
“This is a very interesting study, but it would be nice to see it replicated in a second cohort because it’s not clear that melatonin should be increased with a weighted blanket,” Olausson said.
Benedict supported the need for larger trials, including, he said, “investigation of whether the observed effects of a weighted blanket on melatonin hold up over longer periods of time.”
Although the study observed an increase in melatonin, it found no difference in how long participants slept or felt sleepy with the use of a weighted blanket. The researchers also measured oxytocin, a hormone released in response to physical touch that is known to induce feelings of well-being and calm, but found no increase for the weighted blanket condition.
Users like Aimee Walker Baker say weighted blankets have helped with their health issues.
“I feel like I’m in a safe cocoon,” said Baker, 50, of Bay Minette, Ala., who sleeps with a weighted blanket every night. A car accident in 2016 left her with serious injuries, as well as nightmares from post-traumatic stress disorder. “It took a few nights to get used to [the weight], but once I did, I really slept. Like, for the first time in over a year! It felt like a win,” she said.
DeAndra Chapman, 38, of Stockton, Ala., received a weighted blanket as a gift from her husband to relieve her anxiety and restlessness during the night. “The weighted blanket helps me sleep because it’s like a constant hug,” she said. “I use my blanket every time I sleep, including naps. He even goes on vacation with me.
Keri Leach, 55, of Westerville, Ohio, uses her weighted blanket for insomnia. “My problem was waking up at night and not being able to go back to sleep, and that helped,” she said. “It is more difficult to use in the summer because it can get very hot.”
In addition to people with sleep disorders, Koscinski says, those with autism, anxiety, arthritis, chronic pain and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder also use weighted blankets. She adds that they can work very well for some people and not at all for others. A general rule is to choose a blanket that weighs less than 10% of your body weight, and they should never be used on people who cannot remove the blanket on their own, such as infants, Koscinski says.
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