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Dr. Robert Oexman

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Can a Mattress Really Impact Your Sleep?

Posted: 10/14/2012 10:00 am

Sleepless nights, tossing, turning and exhausted mornings -- we all know the feeling. But did you know that sleeping on the right mattress can help alleviate these problems and remind you what it feels like to be rested? We now know that mattresses really do matter when it comes to getting a good night's sleep!

According to a study by Research Triangle International and Drs. Andy Krystal and Jack Edinger from Duke University, you may not have to be a princess to feel the pea under your mattress. Their four-year study looked at how different support levels of mattresses impacted sleep, pain and daytime functioning. More than 16,000 nights of sleep were evaluated on 128 subjects, making this one of the largest studies ever completed on normal pain-free sleepers and how mattresses impact their health.

Previous Studies Stumble

Very few studies have looked at the effect mattresses have on sleep and pain, and the ones that have been done only looked at small numbers of people or small numbers of mattresses. The small sample sizes often led to the conclusion that "medium-firm" mattresses are the best for sleep. The error in this conclusion is two-fold. First, there is no recognized definition for what a "medium-firm" mattress would feel like. A 250-pound person may describe a mattress as soft while a 125-pound person may describe the same mattress as firm. Second, there were people in the study that slept well on other mattresses. Should they sleep on medium-firm mattresses even though they slept better on a softer or firmer mattress?

Other studies have come to the conclusion that mattresses have no impact on sleep. These studies have typically used small numbers of subjects or have used university students. The use of university students is a poor choice, since this group is often very sleep-deprived. These students, given an opportunity, can sleep just about anywhere -- laying on the floor or sitting in the classroom!

Mattresses Matter

The study by Krystal and Edinger overcame the shortcomings of previous studies by examining a large number of people (128), a large variety of different firmness of mattresses (seven), and a large number of nights on each mattress (four weeks). After evaluating more than 16,000 nights of sleep it was clear that even small differences in mattress support (soft, medium, firm) correlated with changes in sleep and pain. This is a clear indication that mattresses really do matter. However, the study had a second powerful conclusion: We may not be able to determine which mattresses are best for us when we are awake.

Attention Shoppers!

The fact that people are very poor at selecting which mattresses would allow them to sleep pain-free should immediately interest consumers in the midst of mattress shopping. What's the reason for this phenomenon? The answer lies in what happens to our body while sleeping. We pass through different stages of sleep each night. One of those stages called "rapid eye movement" (REM) is the stage of sleep when our most vivid dreams take place. To prevent us from acting out our dreams, we lose skeletal muscle tone. The skeletal muscles that support our back relax and we lose spinal support. So, a mattress that felt supportive while you were awake with the muscles active may perform differently when you are in REM sleep.

It would appear that we can all be a princess (or prince) when we sleep, meaning we really can feel those mattress differences, especially when we're catching some Zzzs.

Disclosure: The Sleep to Live Institute sponsored this research.

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