Heavy blankets may help you sleep and reduce anxiety symptoms

This is why blankets feel so good.
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This is why blankets feel so good.

Have you ever curled up with a thick, heavy blanket and felt a near-instant sense of relief? Perhaps it's been your duvet you've hidden under after a particularly bad day at work, or a quilt you pull out of the closet specifically for wrapping around you during weekend hot chocolates during winter. 

There's some research that explains why heavy or even weighted blankets are beneficial for sleep and overall mental health. They're an often-used tool by occupational therapists – especially with children – but can be incorporated in anybody's home to help you relax and encourage feelings of calm.

DEEP PRESSURE TOUCH STIMULATION

The science behind why heavy blankets work is called deep pressure touch stimulation (DPTS). While from a clinical occupational therapy standpoint it has been found that light touch on a person's body can increase tension or alert the system, the opposite can be said for heavy touch. This therapy involves firm pressure, holding, stoking, petting (e.g. of animals).

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Most of us would have actually received a form of DPTS when we were babies by way of swaddling, which is the practice of wrapping a child tightly in a blanket to restrict movement. This, in turn, can make a baby feel safe and secure, and may help them sleep.

The pressure from DPTS works to relax your nervous system, hence being useful for sleep and those that struggling with the symptoms of anxiety at night. Pressure on the body helps generate serotonin which then converts to melatonin, the chemical that tells your system its time to rest.

HEAVY VS. WEIGHTED BLANKETS

There is actually a difference between a heavy blanket and a weighted blanket, the latter which is usually used in a clinical setting.

A heavy blanket may simply be one with a high down or wool content. Think one of those very expensive down duvet inners (they run up to about $900) or, conversely, one of your grandma's ultra-thick war-era woolen blankets.

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A weighted blanket, available online or you can sew your own, has pellets sewn into quilted pockets to evenly distribute weight. To receive the benefits of a heavy or weighted blanket, it's suggested you seek something that weighs between six and 12 kilograms – generally you want it to be about 10 per cent of your body weight.

ARE WEIGHTED BLANKETS REALLY SUITABLE FOR CHILDREN?

A review of research by the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology found that weighted blankets can benefit children with behavioural or sensory processing disorders. Children with ADHD and disorders on the autism spectrum have seen detectable levels of calming during DPTS.

If you have a neurotypical child, however, they may still benefit. The reports are primarily anecdotal (rather than scientific) but heavy blankets weighing 5-10 per cent of a child's body weight can provide better sleep.

IS IT SAFE?

According to a paper published in Occupational Therapy and Mental Health, a 12 kilogram blanket when used lying down is safe by all vital sign metrics. This study also found that electrodermal activity (the variation of electrical characteristics on the skin) is reduced by 33 per cent, while 63 percent of users report lower anxiety levels and 78 per cent preferred the blanket as a "calming modality". Other studies have found similar results.

DO THEY REALLY WORK?

However, weighted blankets can't be considered revolutionary from insomnia and anxiety sufferers. The company Gravity, which raised US$3 million on its Kickstarter page to manufacture its weighted blanket, got into hot water last week after making statements about the benefits of the product that fell out of line with health claims policies.

The website, which has since been changed, claimed "the science behind Gravity reveals that it can be used to treat a variety of ailments, including insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, as well as circumstantial stress and prolonged anxiety." 

This, of course, is an overstatement and blankets have not been shown in studies to "treat" any of these problems, but rather just aid in their symptoms for some people.

Lee Suckling has a master's degree specialising in personal-health reporting. Do you have a health topic you'd like Lee to investigate? Send us an email life.style@fairfaxmedia.co.nz with Dear Lee in the subject line. 

 - Stuff

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