Can The Right Mattress Change Your Life?

01/25/2016 11:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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Photo: Pond5

By Sara Gaynes Levy for Life by Daily Burn

Maybe you've heard, but we spend a full one-third of our lives asleep. "A mattress is so important since it's the one thing that is closer to us than anything else when we are sleeping, during that one-third of our lifetime," says Dr. Neil Kline, a board certified sleep physician and a spokesperson for the American Sleep Association. "During the day, we can [consciously] adjust our positions and change our behavior, but at night we cannot. We really depend on our mattress," says Bart Haex, a professor of biomechanics at the University of Leuven in Belgium and author of Back and Bed: Ergonomic Aspects of Sleeping. Here's what you need to know to be sure you can count on yours to give you the best night's sleep possible.

Why Your Mattress Is So Important

Simply put, "an uncomfortable mattress can negatively affect sleep," says Kline. And we already know that poor quality sleep has major consequences. If you're waking up sweating or with neck, back or shoulder pain, your mattress could be the culprit.

Keeping your spine aligned in bed is helpful in reducing muscle and joint pain, says Adam Tishman, co-founder of Helix Sleep, a personalized mattress brand. What's more, though, is that your mattress plays a role in regulating your body temperature overnight due to the stifled airflow caused when you snooze. So its fabric matters, too.

"Our thermoregulation is less functional during REM sleep," says Kline, so it becomes more important that our environment -- mattress included -- help keep you cool and comfortable. Furthermore, if your mattress isn't a good fit, as in your spine isn't entirely aligned, research has shown that you'll spend up to 49 percent less time in your critical REM sleep stage. (Reminder: REM sleep is the really deep, restorative kind you definitely want.)

How to Assess Your Current Sleep Situation

First up, think back to when you purchased your bed. If it's been around 12 years, your mattress is probably starting to break down, says Dr. Kline. And if you have a spring-loaded mattress, even just a little bit of wear and tear can have a big impact, so you may want to replace those even sooner. If your mattress has 60 springs in its length and just three or four are out of whack, it becomes harder for the mattress to compensate, says Luke Sherwin, co-founder of Casper, a delivery mattress company. However, foam mattresses are more forgiving, Sherwin explains, because there are thousands of tiny air bubbles in the layers that can adjust to the pressure of your body, whether you stay in one position or move around all night.

Next, lie down on your bed and really take notice of how you're really feeling. Does the bed feel more like a wooden board? Haex says that if it feels firm, you're likely only supported under your shoulders and hips, leaving your spine unsupported and unaligned. "Alternately, if it's too soft, it's like sleeping in a hammock," he adds. And while that may sound lovely, having a sunken spine and unsupported shoulders and hips makes for a far less enjoyable snooze. Whether your bed is too firm or too soft, both instances can lead to discomfort and interrupted sleep -- and may also mean it's time for you to buy a new mattress.

Your Buy-a-New-Bed Checklist

1. Learn the cardinal rule. It's important to know that there isn't one make or model that will lessen everyone's back pains, regulate everyone's temperatures and support everyone's spines. "There is no one perfect mattress for everyone -- every body is different," says Kline. So keep that in mind before you buy something because of a smaller price tag or trendy packaging.

2. Pinpoint your sleep style. Then, take stock of your own situation, determining what kind of sleeper you are. Stomach sleepers, for example, need more support than back or side sleepers so their lower back doesn't arch, which can cause pain, says Tishman. And side sleepers should avoid extra-firm mattresses, says Haex, since their bodies will unconsciously start rotating into a prone position in order to get sufficient support.

3. Assess your chill factor. You should note whether you're someone who gets very warm while sleeping. If you are, you'll want to avoid memory foam and latex, which retain a lot of heat. Spring mattresses are the coolest because they allow for the most airflow. "Good support of the back can be obtained from all different types of materials," says Haex. "The choice of material depends more on whether you sweat a lot," as well as how warm you get at night.

4. Look outside the box spring. Still can't find the perfect fit? Customizable companies like Helix start with a questionnaire to help you determine your preferences and needs, then build a custom mattress based on your responses. For fit-minded folks, startup Bear Mattress created a bed that contains celliant, a mineral "helps with increasing oxygenation in your blood," explains Bear Mattress founder Scott Paladini. "Increased oxygenation increases blood flow which helps you recover faster and gives you more energy in the morning."

5. Rest assured. At the end of the day, always, always go with what feels good when you lay on it. (Always lay down on the floor model first.) That way, you're ensuring yourself some solid rest. "If you sleep on a good mattress, you'll see [fewer] interruptions [in your rest]," says Haex. "There is most definitely a relationship between good mattress support and good quality of sleep."

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