Rest Easy: The Magic of Weighted Blankets Explained.

Do you ever long for the cozy, secure feeling of being cuddled as a child? Weighted blankets can come remarkably close to replicating that sensation.

Weighted blankets have surged in popularity over the past few years, especially among those looking for non-pharmaceutical ways to tackle sleep disorders, anxiety, and other conditions.

These blankets, filled with materials like glass beads or plastic pellets, provide gentle, even pressure across the body—a concept known as deep pressure stimulation (DPS) or deep pressure touch (DPT). But what exactly is the science behind these comforting covers, and what do the research findings say about their effectiveness?

Deep Pressure Stimulation: The Mechanism

Deep pressure stimulation (DPS) is a therapeutic technique that involves applying firm but gentle pressure to the body. This type of pressure can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the ‘rest and digest’ functions.

When the parasympathetic system is activated, it can help reduce the heart rate, lower blood pressure, and promote a sense of calm and relaxation.

This calming effect is often attributed to the release of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, which are associated with mood regulation. Additionally, DPS can reduce the level of cortisol, the stress hormone, in the body. The overall effect is a feeling of security and tranquility, akin to the sensation of being hugged or swaddled.

Research on Weighted Blankets

Several studies have investigated the benefits of weighted blankets, particularly in relation to anxiety, sleep disorders, and sensory processing disorders. Here are some key findings from formal research:

  1. Anxiety and Stress ReductionA study published in the “Journal of Sleep Medicine & Disorders” in 2015 explored the effects of weighted blankets on adults. The study involved 31 participants who used a 30-pound weighted blanket. The results indicated that 63% of participants reported lower anxiety levels, and 78% preferred the weighted blanket as a calming modality.
  2. Insomnia and Sleep QualityResearch conducted at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden examined the use of weighted blankets for individuals with insomnia. The study, published in the “Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine” in 2020, involved 120 participants who were randomly assigned to sleep with either a weighted blanket or a regular blanket. After four weeks, those using weighted blankets reported significantly better sleep quality, reduced insomnia severity, and improved daytime functioning.
  3. Sensory Processing DisordersWeighted blankets are particularly popular among individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). A study published in “The American Journal of Occupational Therapy” in 2011 investigated the use of weighted vests (similar in concept to weighted blankets) on children with ASD. The results showed improvements in attention and decreased self-stimulatory behaviors. While the study focused on vests, similar principles apply to weighted blankets.
  4. Physiological ResponsesA study published in “Occupational Therapy in Mental Health” in 2008 measured the physiological effects of weighted blankets on adults. Participants’ blood pressure, pulse rate, and pulse oximetry were monitored while using a 30-pound blanket. The results showed a decrease in physiological signs of stress and an increase in subjective feelings of calmness and security.

Statistics and Findings

The growing body of research provides a compelling case for the benefits of weighted blankets. Some pertinent statistics from various studies include:

  • Reduction in Anxiety: Up to 63% of users report a significant reduction in anxiety levels when using weighted blankets.
  • Improved Sleep Quality: Approximately 78% of individuals with sleep disorders prefer weighted blankets for improved sleep.
  • Enhanced Focus in ASD/ADHD: Weighted blankets and similar DPS tools can enhance focus and reduce disruptive behaviors in children with sensory processing challenges.

Neurochemical Impact

The science behind the effectiveness of weighted blankets can be partially explained by their impact on neurochemistry. Here’s how they influence neurotransmitter levels:

  1. Serotonin: Deep pressure touch can stimulate the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of well-being and happiness. Increased serotonin levels can lead to improved mood and reduced anxiety.
  2. Dopamine: This neurotransmitter plays a crucial role in reward and motivation pathways. The calming effect of a weighted blanket can enhance dopamine release, contributing to a sense of pleasure and relaxation.
  3. Cortisol: Weighted blankets have been shown to reduce cortisol levels. Cortisol is known as the stress hormone, and high levels can lead to anxiety, insomnia, and various health issues. By lowering cortisol, weighted blankets can help mitigate stress and its adverse effects.

Practical Considerations and Usage

Weighted blankets are generally considered safe for adults and older children. However, they may not be suitable for very young children or individuals with certain medical conditions, such as respiratory or circulatory issues. Consulting with a healthcare professional before using a weighted blanket is advisable, especially for those with underlying health concerns.

Conclusion

Weighted blankets offer a scientifically backed, non-pharmaceutical option for individuals struggling with anxiety, sleep disorders, and sensory processing issues. The deep pressure stimulation provided by these blankets can lead to the release of serotonin and dopamine, reduce cortisol levels, and activate the parasympathetic nervous system, promoting a state of calm and relaxation.

With a growing body of research supporting their efficacy, weighted blankets are becoming an increasingly popular tool for improving mental health and well-being.

Whether for managing anxiety, enhancing sleep quality, or supporting individuals with sensory processing challenges, weighted blankets provide a comforting and effective solution backed by science.

References

  1. Ackerley, R., Badre, G., & Olausson, H. (2015). Positive effects of a weighted blanket on insomnia. Journal of Sleep Medicine & Disorders.
  2. Ekholm, B., & Uvnäs-Moberg, K. (2020). Effects of weighted blankets on insomnia in psychiatric disorders. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.
  3. Fertel, K., Berg, J., & Grandin, T. (2011). The use of weighted vests in autism: A study of behavioral and physiological effects. The American Journal of Occupational Therapy.
  4. Mullen, B., Champagne, T., Krishnamurty, S., Dickson, D., & Gao, R. X. (2008). Exploring the safety and therapeutic effects of deep pressure stimulation using a weighted blanket. Occupational Therapy in Mental Health.

These references and studies underscore the growing recognition of weighted blankets as a therapeutic tool, providing both empirical evidence and practical insights into their benefits and applications.

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