How To Pick The Best Mattress

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By Laura Newcomer

Sleep matters -- so much so that six in 10 Americans crave sleep over sex. And the key to rest that's good enough to forgo sex just might be the mattress: Nine in 10 respondents in a sleep survey cited their mattress as an important factor in getting that coveted good night's rest. In 2010, Americans spent more than $5.8 billion on mattresses and box springs alone.
But is this expense justified? How important are mattresses, really? Read on for the low-down on how mattresses affect health and sleep quality.

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Mattress Matters -- The Need-To-Know
The first "mattresses" (read: piles of leaves, grass or straw covered in animal skins) were invented by cave men and women. Thousands of years later, the Egyptian pharaohs discovered the luxury of raising the bedding off the ground (though common folk continued to sleep on piles of palm fronds). Today, many Americans enjoy the luxury of mattress-induced sleep.

Even those who aren't up on their mattress history know the value of a good night's sleep. The average person spends about one third of her or his life sleeping. For those who sleep less than that, sleep deprivation can have serious health consequences, including a sour mood (what college student doesn't know this to be truth), slower metabolism and impaired immune function

There are lots of great tips for coping with sleep deprivation, but what if the cause is right under our backs? Low-quality, uncomfortable mattresses have been linked to sleep discomfort and pain, and chronic pain can prevent quality sleep.

Fortunately, it's not all bad news. While mattresses can hinder sleep quality, they can also improve it. Improved “bedding systems” (a fancy way of saying “things you sleep on”) have been linked to decreased pain and discomfort, especially in women. Quality sleep on a good mattress may also help decrease stress. The experts we spoke to said it basically comes down to personal preference. If we're comfortable, we have a better chance of sleeping well, and if we sleep well, we're more likely to stay healthy.

Better Bedding -- Your Action Plan
When it comes to purchasing the perfect mattress, it turns out there are a lot of mixed messages out there. Some research suggests that foam mattresses create backaches; others say foam helps pain. Some studies advocate for regular cotton mattresses while others say coils create backaches and that airbeds are the way to go. There's even controversy over the conventional thinking that a firm mattress is better for lower back pain.

The reason for all this controversy is that sleep quality and comfort are so darn subjective. When buying a mattress, the most important consideration is probably personal comfort. In fact, some people argue that if something else besides a mattress proves more comfortable to sleep on, we should go for it.

If you do find yourself in the market for a new mattress, there are still some useful tips to keep in mind. Follow these guidelines for a better shot at getting that elusive good night's sleep.

  • Replace a mattress approximately every eight years. Keep it longer than that, and the materials might start to degrade, which might make the mattress less comfortable to sleep on. If you're waking up in pain every day, sleeping poorly or feeling disgruntled all the time, consider upgrading sooner.
  • Replace the box spring on a similar time frame. Over time, the compression of the springs (resulting from having a mattress and human bodies on top of it all the time) will start to change the structure of the spring box. Or avoid springy situations and just ditch the box spring altogether.
  • Make comfort your goal. Purchasing a mattress is all about finding the best one for you. Some people like a firm mattress; some like a soft one; others, like Goldilocks, prefer somewhere in between.
  • Try before you buy. Test "sleep" on a mattress for at least 20 minutes in a normal sleep position before making a decision.
  • Look for a mattress that fits your body. Chiropractors advocate finding a mattress that's designed to conform to the spine's natural curve and distribute pressure evenly across the body. This can be tricky, because the surface curve on the mattress doesn't necessarily represent the way your spine will curve while sleeping on it. Everyone's pressure points are different, so the best way to figure out if a mattress correctly supports the body is to bring a friend along to the store. Lie on the mattress in your normal sleeping position and ask your friend to observe whether the spine remains fairly neutral. If the spine is obviously sagging or curved exaggeratedly in any given direction, then keep searching for a mattress that helps maintain neutral spine alignment.
  • Avoid the sag. While researchers are challenging the idea that a firm mattress is essential for anyone with back pain, most experts still agree a saggy mattress isn't the way to go. To determine if a mattress has too much sag, perform the same “spine alignment observation” outlined above.
  • Don't buy vintage. This ruIe's especially important if you're worried about your bed catching on fire. Only mattresses made after July 2007 must meet regulations for fire resistance.
  • Ignore brand names. Virtually all mattress coils are made by the same manufacturer. Likewise, don't be duped by dollar signs: A higher price doesn't necessarily mean better quality.
  • Bigger doesn't necessarily mean better. Thickness is often just a visual ploy designed to get people to think they're buying a comfier mattress. Listen to your body and find the bed that feels the most comfortable (not the one that just looks that way).
  • Beware of allergens. If you have allergies (particularly to dust mites, mold and certain bacteria), read the mattress' label to make sure that the materials don't contain any sneaky allergens -- or, better yet, look for a hypoallergenic mattress (natural latex and wool are both decent options) or a mattress cover. Worried about dust mites, bacteria, and fungi but don't want to pay for an expensive mattress cover? Daily vacuuming might help.
  • Do not disturb… your partner. If you share a bed, look for a mattress that allows two people to adjust the firmness on their respective sides.
  • Give peace a chance. Even if you loved your new mattress in the store, you might not sleep better on it the first night you bring it home. It can take a couple of days to adjust to a new sleeping surface. If the first night on a new mattress doesn't transform your sleep quality, give it a few more nights before giving in to buyer's remorse.
  • Look for a return policy. This way, you won't be stuck with an expensive mattress that doesn't provide the sleep of your dreams.

Have you reaped the benefits of a good night's sleep on a comfortable mattress? Do you sleep better without a mattress? Any mattress horror stories? Share 'em in the comments below!

Thanks to Joyce Walsleben, David M. Rapoport and Nicole Lehman for their help with this article.

For more on sleep, click here.

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