Not Feeling Rested? Don’t Blame the Mattress
“If you spend $20,000 on a mattress, it’s not necessarily better than a $500 mattress,” says one sleep expert.
By ALINA TUGEND
Published: October 21, 2011
MY older son asked for an iPhone for his bar mitzvah. My younger son, Gabriel, will be celebrating his in about a month and wants a Tempur-Pedic mattress.
This may not be as odd as it sounds. Gabriel has been interested in mattresses for a long time, and we bought him a new one a few years ago when he complained his old one was lumpy and he couldn’t sleep.
But somehow, it wasn’t enough. Although to me he seems to sleep just fine, he is convinced that the perfect mattress will make his nights blissful.
In this, he is not alone. Judging just by the many commercials and advertisements, there are a lot of Americans out there looking to buy a great night’s sleep. Companies offer a heady array of mattresses, sleeping pills and even soothing noise machines to usher us into the land of nod.
But is this a case, like losing weight, where the quick and easy (if not necessarily cheap) option is not a solution?
According to James Wyatt, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Rush University Medical Center, people who have sleep problems actually need to be divided into two broad categories — those who have sleep disorders and those who don’t sleep enough.
“There are over 70 different types of sleep disorders,” Mr. Wyatt said, including problems with breathing, like sleep apnea, insomnia, sleep terrors and nightmares and sleepwalking.
For those kinds of disorders, it can be helpful to go to a sleep disorders clinic and unlearn patterns and behavior that may be causing these problems, Mr. Wyatt said.
What about, to go back to my original question, a new mattress? Can that help?
“There’s not a lot of science in the mattress area,” Mr. Wyatt said. “I’ve treated people for insomnia for 20 years and if a patient asks me what mattress he should buy, I can’t tell him. If you spend $20,000 on a mattress, it’s not necessarily better than a $500 mattress.”
While few sleep experts will recommend a particular mattress brand, Howard Levy, an assistant professor at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, said the best mattress for people suffering from lower back pain was a mattress with a soft pillow top and a firm mattress underneath.
“You want something on top that doesn’t put a lot of pressure on the shoulders and sacrum,” Dr. Levy said. But you don’t want a mattress too soft, he added, “where your shoulders fold up like a pretzel.”
It’s hard to test a bed in a store. After all, how many of us lie down fully clothed in front of passing strangers when we go to bed? So if you feel you need a new mattress, try one overnight.
Helene A. Emsellem, a clinical professor of neurology at George Washington University and director of the Center for Sleep and Wake Disorders in Chevy Chase, Md., said many hotels advertised what types of mattresses they offered.
“Check in for one night,” she said. “It’s cheaper than investing in a mattress.”
Dr. Levy agreed.
“I get a lot of patients who are miserable, but fine when they travel,” he said. “I tell them to check out the mattress in the hotel.”
There are plenty of testimonials out there from people who swear that high-priced mattresses have changed their lives — and maybe they have. Or maybe they need to justify the expense, which can work just as well.
“I’m all for a robust placebo effect,” Mr. Wyatt said. “If they convince themselves that by buying a mattress, they sleep better, fine.”
You don’t need to invest in a whole new mattress, however. Dr. Emsellem suggested just buying a topper — filled with memory or latex foam, feather or wool — to put over the existing mattress.
“Even for a king-size bed, it’s not going to bankrupt you,” she said.
One sleep aid I did buy years ago is a white noise machine, and I’ve found it invaluable. I purchased it when we lived in London and our apartment shared a wall with a noisy neighbor. The machine is straightforward — it has two settings, so basically it sounds either like a quiet vacuum cleaner or a slightly noisier one.
“The brain is always monitoring even while we sleep,” Mr. Wyatt said. “A car alarm, a dog barking, traffic, will disrupt sleep. If that’s the case, it may be a good time to make a modest investment in a noise generator. You don’t need eight different sounds with a rainforest, whales and waterfalls.”
Is it ever a good idea to resort to a sleeping pill?
“For short-term insomnia, such as one to two weeks, it’s perfectly appropriate to consider sleeping pills,” he said. But if insomnia is going on for months, you need to look deeper, he added.
All this advice is helpful for people who sleep poorly. The real problem, however, for most of us, is not that we can’t sleep, but we don’t.
Despite tales of high-powered executives who sleep only four hours a night, most adults need seven to nine hours, Dr. Emsellem said.
“Clinically, we see very few who sleep eight and a half to nine, but we do see an enormous number of exhausted people who sleep six hours or less,” she said.
Arianna Huffington, co-founder of the Web news site The Huffington Post, has made getting more sleep into a campaign.
Several years ago, she said, sleep deprivation caused her to faint, hit her head on her desk and break her cheekbone.
“I began on a journey reacquainting myself with sleep,” she said. Last year, along with Glamour magazine’s editor Cindi Leive, she pledged to get eight hours sleep a night for a month — a promise she continues to keep.
“When I’ve had a good night’s sleep, I feel more creative and enjoy life more,” she said.
The Huffington Post offices even have two nap rooms with couches and headphones.
“They’re called Napquest 1 and Napquest 2, and people use them endlessly,” she said.
Research shows that lack of sleep can contribute to stress, depression, weight gain and poor decision-making. And the country’s philosophy about sleep is slowly shifting away from the macho one of the past, with the mistaken attitude that successful men and women should spend no more than five hours in bed a night.
Getting enough sleep is as easy — and as difficult — as getting into bed at a time that allows you at least seven hours sleep, Dr. Emsellem said. And learning to wind down before bed. It can help to dim the lights, she said, and plug into music.
If you do watch television before sleep, use a timer so it disconnects for you and you don’t stay up late watching one more sit-com.
“Most of the things we can do to improve our sleep take time,” she said. “But they tend to be more productive than spending a lot of money on the adventure.”
If sleeping more catches on, my husband, and I, for once, will be on the cutting edge of a trend. For years we sheepishly admitted — and only to close family and friends — that we loved sleeping. While friends were out exercising early Sunday mornings, we were snoozing away.
It’s now nice to know it’s not that we’re lazy. We’re just healthy.