Weighted Blankets: How Do They Work And The Science Behind

Many manufacturers are developing sleeping aids to help with sleep problems. From memory foam pillows to smart beds, it seems that the bedroom is getting its fair share of innovation. One of the latest bedroom products making a noise in the market is the weighted blanket. But do weighted blankets work?

Do Weighted Blankets Work? Exploring the Science Behind

Weighted blankets have exploded in popularity in recent years. Once a medical aid exclusively for anxiety, insomnia, and autism patients, manufacturers have been designing weighted blankets available for the general public.

So what is a weighted blanket? How do weighted blankets work? How does a simple weighted blanket improve sleeping quality? Read on as we explain the science behind it, along with how it alleviates stress, insomnia, anxiety, and other psychological issues.

What is a Weighted Blanket?

A weighted blanket, also known as a gravity blanket, resembles a standard blanket. However, unlike the regular blanket, a weighted blanket is filled with small objects to weight it down. The objects inserted, called fillers, vary from pellets, non-toxic polypropylene plastics or glass, to discs. Sometimes, cotton and other soft materials are also added to give the blanket a softer feel. These objects are evenly sewn into the small compartments or pockets of the blanket to weigh it down, thus a “weighted” blanket.

The weight of the blanket depends on the user’s preferences, but generally, it should be around 10 percent to 12 percent of the user’s body weight. For this reason, some companies offer custom-made weighted blankets to ensure that it matches the user.

The size of a weighted blanket also differs from a regular blanket. Weighted blankets are designed to cover the user from chin to toe only. It is wide enough to mold into a person’s body like a tight hug.

How Do Weighted Blankets Work: The Science Explained

So how do weighted blankets work? Simple, weighted blankets make use of the principle behind Deep Touch Pressure, or DTP. To understand how do weighted blankets work, let us first look at what is Deep Touch Pressure.

Deep Touch Pressure

Deep touch pressure is a form of tactile sensory input provided by hugging, cuddling, compression, squeezing, or firm stroking. To understand DTP fully, let’s take a closer look at our autonomic nervous system.

The body has an autonomic nervous system regulates involuntary bodily functions such as heartbeat, blood pressure, digestion, breathing, and metabolism. It is responsible for your body’s response to sensory inputs. Think about when you were sweating and had a fast heartbeat when you were scared.

The autonomic nervous system has three different parts: the parasympathetic, sympathetic, and enteric systems. The systems that are involved with Deep Touch Pressure are the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems.

The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for instigating the fight or flight response of the body. During times of stress, the sympathetic nervous system increases the heart rate, blood pressure, and sweating. Constant activation of the sympathetic nervous system can lead to mental health problems like depression, anxiety, and irregular sleeping patterns.

The parasympathetic nervous system is the opposite of the sympathetic nervous system. It is responsible for calming the body, slowing the heart rate and lowering blood pressure. That’s why it is sometimes referred to as the feed-and-breed or rest-and-digest system.

When deep touch pressure is applied to the body, the autonomic nervous system switches from its sympathetic system to running its parasympathetic system, happy hormones serotonin and dopamine is released, and the stress hormone cortisol decreases, to put it simply, your body relaxes and switch from a “fight or flight” mode to a “rest and digest” mode.

Benefits of Deep Touch Pressure

Over time, when deep touch pressure therapy is continuously applied, some of the observed effects include:

  1.    Increased happiness
  2.    Better sleep
  3.    Improved ability to tolerate stressful environments
  4.    Increased focus
  5.    Sense of calm
  6.    Improved coordination
  7.    Decreased stress
  8.    Reduced anxiety
  9.    Enhanced social interactions
  10.  Lowered chances of seizures

Sources of Deep Touch Pressure

Deep touch stimulation can be achieved through a variety of methods. The oldest and most known machine for deep pressure simulation is the “hug machine” that was invented by Temple Grandin.

Grandin’s hug machine consists of two side boards hinged to form a V-shape. The person positions himself between the two side boards. By utilizing air compressors, the pressure is then applied by the two side boards across the lateral parts of the body. A lever is provided controls the amount of pressure applied. This method is just one of several used in therapy programs across the United States.

Thankfully, through research and innovation, smaller and more portable products are made to provide deep touch pressure. Some of these options are compression jackets, weighted vests, lap weights, hugged backpacks, and even therapy dogs.

Even without any equipment, deep touch pressure can be applied through deep pressure massage and joint compressions. Deep pressure massage works by applying firm pressure using the palm of the hands or by wrapping a blanket tightly around the body.

Joint compression, on the other hand, is done by applying deep pressure to various joints throughout the body. Since performing joint compression can cause harm when not done correctly, it should always be administered by a trained individual.

How Do Weighted Blankets Work with Deep Touch Pressure

The weighted blanket is a popular deep pressure stimulation option. It is readily available, customizable and designed for everyday use. Weighted blankets use weights distributed evenly throughout the sheet to provide deep touch pressure to the user’s body while he sleeps.

Studies found that by applying deep touch pressure, weighted blankets can alleviate symptoms of sleep-related problems like insomnia, stress-related problems like anxiety, depression and even chronic pain conditions. It was also found that weighted blankets benefit those who have autism, restless leg syndrome, and sensory processing disorder.

Weighted Blanket: What Conditions Can It Help?

Now that we answered the question on how do weighted blankets work let us now take a closer look at what conditions it can help. As previously mentioned, weighted blankets do not work only for sleep-related problems. It can also help with a wide variety of mental and physical health issues.

Induce Sleep for People with Insomnia

Good quality sleep is one of the essential elements of good health. Sadly, sleep problems like insomnia have been increasing over the years. Environmental stress and blue light from smartphones are contributing to the decreasing quality of sleep each person has every night.

A survey by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention discovered that 35 percent of the total US population sleep fewer than seven hours per night. These sleepless nights are taking a toll on people’s health. A study from the Institute of Medicine estimates that up to 70 million adults in the US have sleep disorders. Moreover, a study from the Sleep Health Foundation found out that 1 in 3 people in the US has at least mild insomnia.

Insomnia is a sleep disorder that makes a person have difficulty in falling asleep or stay asleep. Its symptoms include waking up often, difficulty falling asleep, and waking up feeling tired. The causes of insomnia can be stress, environmental factors, illness, depression, or anxiety.

So, do weighted blankets work on insomnia? Individuals who have insomnia can benefit from the calming and soothing effect of weighted blankets. Deep touch pressure applied through the weighted blanket helps in the production of serotonin, the happy hormone that can calm the nerves. With the creation of serotonin, melatonin is also produced. This hormone allows individuals to achieve a peaceful night’s sleep.

A study by the Journal of Sleep Medicine and Disorders published in 2015 found that four out of five people that have chronic insomnia benefitted from the use of weighted blankets. With the help of the weighted blanket, they were able to settle down to sleep easier and longer. They also reported getting much better sleep compared to when they were using ordinary blankets.

Soothes Anxiety

Anxiety is a psychiatric disorder that is characterized by intense and excessive worry about everyday situations. Anxiety is persistent and difficult to control, often leading to disruption in the daily activities of the patient. Signs and symptoms of anxiety include feeling nervous and tense, panic, increased heart rate, trouble concentrating, excessive worry and hyperventilation.

In the US alone, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America reported that about 18.1% of the adult population suffers from anxiety. Although it is a treatable disorder, the study cited that only 36.9% receives treatment.

With the calming effect of deep touch pressure on the body, a weighted blanket may help alleviate the symptoms of anxiety. A study published on Occupational Therapy in Mental Health explored the safety and the therapeutic effects of weighted blankets. In the study, they observed the impact of a 30-lb weighted blanket on 32 adults. Data obtained from the study revealed that 63% of the test subjects reported to have low anxiety, and 78% found the weighted blanket to have a calming effect.

Another reason why a weighted blanket can help with anxiety is the grounding effect it induces. Anxiety can make you feel like your body is out of your control. If you find it hard to feel connected or in tune with your body, having a weighted blanket grounding you down can help. The weighted blanket, in this case, serves as an anchor that will ground and connect you back to yourself.

Alleviate Symptoms of Autism

According to the Center for Disease Control, in the United States alone, 1 in 59 children are affected by autism. Autism or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurobehavioral condition characterized by impairment in social skills and sensory processing, nonverbal communication, and repetitive body movements.

Children with autism are sometimes susceptible. They can quickly be troubled by sounds, touches, or sights which can cause them to panic or be overwhelmed. In cases like these, a weighted blanket helps calm them. Merely draping a weighted blanket across the shoulders of the child can calm him. Weighted blankets mimic the sensation the child gets from being held or hugged. This sensation causes the production of the hormone called serotonin that will help regulate the child’s mood.

Sleep problems can also occur for adults and children who have autism. Common sleep problems include trouble sleeping, waking up in the middle of the night, and struggle in getting a night of restful sleep.

Many parents find that using weighted blankets help their children who struggle with these sleep problems. Fortunately, the deep touch pressure triggers the production of serotonin, a calming hormone, and melatonin, the hormone that helps with sleep.

The weight of the blanket also gives limited movement for the child, meaning less tossing and turning during sleep. Using the weighted blanket then can help them to fall asleep quickly and have a longer, more restful sleep.

Autism also causes the child to fidget and quickly lose focus. The calming effect provided by the weighted blanket will help the child settle down and focus on the task at hand.

Alleviates Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or ADHD is one of the most common childhood disorders. However, adults can have ADHD too. In the US, about 4% to 5% of adults have it.

Symptoms of ADHD fall into three categories: inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. An inattentive child is easily distracted, has difficulty following directions, and tends to daydream. Hyperactivity is characterized by often fidgeting or squirming while sitting, restlessness, and excessive talking. Impulsiveness on people with ADHD causes them to have trouble waiting or be impatient and lead them to interrupt others.

Just like with anxiety, the calming effect of weighted blankets can undoubtedly help alleviate these symptoms of ADHD. Increased serotonin production can calm the child or adult to help them focus and reduce their hyperactivity and impulsiveness.

Apply Pressure for Restless Leg Syndrome

Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS), also known as Willis-Ekbom Disease, is a nervous system disorder that causes uncomfortable sensations or creepy crawly in the legs and an irresistible urge to move them. It is estimated that up to 10% of the US population suffer from RLS. It affects both men and women but appears more often on women. It begins at any age, but severely affected age group are the middle-age or older.

The symptoms of RLS usually occur at night while the person is resting or sleeping. Since it disrupts the person’s sleep, it can cause decreased sleep quality and exhaustion. Weighted blankets can help alleviate RLS symptoms by applying even pressure around the legs.

People with restless leg syndrome often have trouble going back to sleep after they are attacked with the syndrome. The calming effect and melatonin increasing effect of weighted blankets can undoubtedly calm the person and help him go back to sleep.  

Release of Serotonin to Alleviate Depression

Depression, also known as major depressive disorder, is a mood disorder characterized by a persistent feeling of sadness and hopelessness. Symptoms observed on people with depression include suicidal thoughts, irritability, emptiness, sleep disorders, lack of appetite, lack of interest, and impaired memory functions. It is one of the most common mental disorders in the world. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that over 6.7% of adults in the US are diagnosed with depression.

One of the causes of depression is brain chemical imbalance. A study found that individuals who suffer from depression have low levels of serotonin. Increasing serotonin levels are found to be effective in healing depression. That is why most medications for depression are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs.

How do weighted blankets work on depression? Just like these medications, a weighted blanket can also increase the level of serotonin and heal depression. The deep pressure stimulation provided by a weighted blanket spurs the body’s production of the happy hormones, serotonin, and dopamine; making the body feel calm and peaceful. The use of weighted blankets can, therefore, be beneficial in alleviating depression.

Therapy for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or OCD is a type of mental illness characterized by obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors. Its symptoms include fear of germs, washing of hands many times in a row, the need for things to be placed accordingly, constant awareness of bodily functions like blinking, and the need to count words.

According to experts, 1 to 3 percent of the US population suffers from OCD. It occurs on both men and women, adult and children. It is highly treatable using therapy alone. However, experts estimate that less than 10 percent of the population who suffer OCD receive treatment.

Like most psychological disorders, OCD is linked to a low level of serotonin. Weighted blankets can help address this by increasing the serotonin level and alleviate the severity of the OCD. OCD is also likely to be present on individuals suffering from depression and anxiety. The use of weighted blanket therapy may lessen the symptoms of OCD.

Lower Cortisol Levels to Help Manage Stress

Stress is the feeling of mental or emotional tension as the body reacts to any demanding situations. Stress is a normal part of life. It is good and is essential for survival. Stress prepares the body’s fight-or-flight response during emergencies. During the fight-or-flight response, heart rate rises, the muscle tightens, and blood pressure increases.

Stress in small doses is tolerable. However, chronic stress that is experienced long-term is detrimental to the overall health of the body. Chronic stress can lead to mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. It can also damage bodily functions resulting in sleep disorders, heart diseases, heart attacks, and even stroke. Women suffering excessive stress can have menstrual problems and men can experience impotence and sexual dysfunction.

Weighted blankets can reduce cortisol, the hormone that regulates stress, to calm and soothe a person that suffers from stress. The deep pressure simulation it provides can switch the fight-or-flight mode to the rest-and-digest mode of the body, lowering blood pressure, decreasing heart rate, and relaxing muscles.

Moreover, with the production of the serotonin, the sleep hormone melatonin is also produced. Thus, a weighted blanket can also help people who suffer from stress-related sleeping disorders.

Weighted Blankets for Pets

Do weighted blankets work for pets? Good news for dog owners, weighted blankets can also be used to calm anxiety in dogs.

Just as humans deal with psychological issues, dogs can also suffer from anxiety, fear, and sensory disorders that can cause behavioral problems. You can tell that your pets suffer from these if you notice behavioral issues from them. It could be that they pant and pace all the time, destroy and tear down the sofa or any household item, unreasonable barking or howling, and even aggression.

Dogs experience anxiety and sensory disorders for several reasons: loud noises like fireworks and thunderstorms, being in a moving car, the presence of a strange or unfamiliar person or animal, or separation issues.

So how do weighted blankets work on dogs? The weighted blanket works the same way on dogs as it is with humans. The pressure exhibited by the blanket also encourages the release of serotonin and dopamine which relaxes and calms the dogs down. This could explain why some pets prefer sleeping under blankets or piece of clothing.

Studies done on dogs suffering from anxiety and thunderstorm phobia found that thunder shirts and weighted vests are effective in calming some of the dogs. They reported decreased heart rate and blood pressure when the dogs were wrapped in thunder shirts and weighted vests during those triggering events.

When using weighted blankets for dogs, there are things that you should consider:

  • Weighted blankets designed for adults can be too heavy for your dog. However, kids weighted blankets can be used on them so long as it is in the right weight and it is small in size.
  • The weight of the blanket should be 10% of the weight of your dog. If your dog weighs 50 pounds, choose a 5-pound blanket for him. They should be able to move freely with the blanket on them.
  • Some dogs may not be comfortable with weighted blankets. It might be too heavy for them that they may experience difficulty getting up or turning around. It can also cause them to have trouble breathing due to the blanket weighing down on their chest. It is better to observe them using the weighted blanket to understand how they react to it.
  • If your pet tends to chew on things, weighted blankets filled with poly pellets or glass beads may be hazardous for them. If they eat on and tear the blanket, it is possible that they will ingest the beads and cause upset stomach or digestion issues.
  • If your dog is uncomfortable with weighted blankets, skip it and explore other options like thunder shirts and weighted vests. These are designed specifically for pets and are proven to reduce their anxiety.
  • Always consult your vet if it is safe to use weighted blankets on your pets. The weighted blanket can pose a threat to dogs with medical issues like asthma.
  • When choosing a weighted blanket for your dog, choose one that is machine washable for easier and convenient cleaning.

Everything You Need to Know Before Buying a Weighted Blanket

After knowing all about do weighted blanket work and its positive benefits on mental health, you might have decided to get one for yourself. Weighted blankets can be enjoyed by all people with or without special needs. Moreover, as weighted blankets have gone mainstream and more and more manufacturers offer customizable and quality weighted blankets, it is now readily available to people wanting to experience the health benefits it provides.

Here are some things you need to know before you click on that check out button:

Health

Some people with medical or psychological issues may feel uncomfortable under the weighted blankets. If you are claustrophobic, have respiratory problems, or temperature regulation problem, a weighted blanket may harm you more than it benefits you. In cases like these, it is better to seek the guidance of occupational therapists and health experts before buying a weighted blanket.

Weight

The weight of the blanket matters. A general rule of the thumb is to get a blanket that weighs 10% of your body weight. Getting a weighted blanket that is so light will defeat the purpose of the blanket. The weighted blanket should give the feeling you get when you are tightly hugged or squeezed, a hug-mimicking effect, for the deep touch simulation to take effect. Going far beyond the weight limit might suffocate and make you uncomfortable.

A word of caution: weighted blankets are unlikely to do any harm to adolescents and adults. But for kids, experts warn the public to proceed with caution.

Experts advise that weighted blankets should never be used with children younger than seven years old unless a therapist recommends. Furthermore, weighted blankets should never be used on infants as their body built is too weak to support the weight.

Size

Unlike a regular blanket, weighted blankets should cover you from chin to toe, so the recommended size for the blanket depends on the user’s height.

A weighted blanket is used for its therapeutic benefits so it should just cover you. Any portion of the blanket that is hanging over the side of your bed is a wasted weight and would only weigh your blanket down to the floor.  

Fabric

“Are weighted blankets hot?” is one of the most common questions asked about weighted blankets because of their heaviness. The weight and especially the type of fabric does play a factor in the temperature control of the weighted blanket.

Weighted blankets are made from a variety of fabric giving you more options. Depending on your preferences and texture sensitivity, you can either get a flannel quilt, cotton, or fleece.

If you want a blanket that can keep you fresh during the summer and is easy to wash, you should choose cotton. The flannel fabric has excellent breathability and does not easily get snagged on your bed. Fleece, on the other hand, gives a soft and cozy warm feeling.

Other weighted blanket fabric types you can consider are chenille, acrylic, and minky to name a few.

Filler

The filler of your weighted blanket also matters. The most common fillers used for weighted blankets are glass beads, poly pellets, and sand.

If you have sound and texture sensitivity, the plastic poly pellets may not sit well with you, better opt for glass beads.

Glass beads are tiny and have the feel similar to sand and would give the blanket a smoother feel compared to the poly pellets.

Other filler options you can consider are steel shot beads, micro glass beads, and discs.

Cover

Because of their weight, weighted blankets can be a pain to wash and dry. But with a cover, you can keep your blanket clean. If you need to wash the blanket, you can take off the cover and toss it in the washing machine. With a cover on your weighted blanket, you don’t need to wash the whole weighted blanket anymore.

Color and Design

Weighted blankets come in dozens of colors for people with different preferences. The design and color are purely aesthetic, but if the weighted blanket is used for children with autism or people with color sensitivities, the wide selection of colors available can help.

Return and Exchange Policy

Sometimes, the weighted blanket you purchased does not suit you. Either it is too light, too heavy, too big, or too cold for you. Some sellers offer trial periods so you can return or exchange the weighted blanket within a specified timeframe. Some companies even offer warranties in case the product comes with defects.

Do-It-Yourself

The price of a weighted blanket can be high and going DIY can save you bucks. Going DIY will also give you the freedom in selecting the fabric color and design, the fabric type, and the filling you like.

If you are feeling creative and is up for the challenge, a quick Google search will give you instructions on how to create your weighted blanket.

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