Mattresses are arguably one of the most influential factors in the quality of sleep. We spend nearly one-third of our lives on mattresses yet rarely do we consider them from a scientific perspective. This article details some of the science behind the mattresses to give those searching for the perfect mattress better insight into the attributes and features on which they should be most focused.
Before we start, let’s take a moment to reflect on the mattress industry as a whole. There is a lot of money floating around in this market which comes with a proportional amount of marketing and advertising. When such great amounts of money are involved there will always be a potential for conflicts of interest.
As a general rule, one should never attribute to much credence to what a mattress company says about their products—other than the return policies, shipping fees, and warranty. Aside from these attributes mattresses don’t differ that much.
Sure, a waterbed is going to be different than a natural latex mattress, but most latex mattresses aren’t going to differ in any Earth-shattering ways, other than the mattress sizes of course! Keep these thoughts in mind as we discuss some of the less marketing-centric information about mattresses.
The Ideal Firmness
What We’ve Seen
Mattress firmness is one of the most important factors affecting one’s experience while sleeping. Those that like firm mattresses won’t settle for a plush featherlike sleep while those that wish to feel as if they were sleeping on clouds don’t want something that won’t let them sink in. In our Better Sleep Survey, we found that the firmness of a mattress didn’t seem to have much impact on people’s reported quality of sleep. What seems important in this equation is that, before buying a mattress, one has experienced different levels of mattress firmness and can ensure they’ve gotten the one they like best.
What Science Says
One study conducted in 2015 sought to describe the impact that a medium-firm mattress would have on alleviating musculoskeletal pain. Researchers separated participants of this study into two groups, those sleeping on Medium Firm Mattresses (MFM) and those sleeping on Very Firm Mattresses (VFM).
To gauge the impact of these different types of mattresses on levels of pain, participants were asked to complete the Pittsburg Sleep Quality Index (PSQI) and the Pain Visual Analog Scale (P-VAS). These two testing methods can take a person’s opinion of how much pain they are feeling and convert it into a number (not their Sleep Number.) Researchers found the medium-firm mattress to significantly-reduce report pain regardless of age, body mass index (BMI), or the use of sleep aids .
Addressing Lower Back Pain
What We’ve Seen
Lower back pain is a plague of misery for those unable to effectively address it. This type of chronic pain comes in many shapes and sizes and may be caused by many different things. Poor quality of sleep is one thing common to many of those experiencing chronic back pain.
Even in cases where a low-quality mattress doesn’t cause back pain, it can often be exacerbated. That’s to say; if you are sleeping on a low-quality mattress your back pain is only going to get worse! That’s easy enough to believe, but it doesn’t offer much insight into how to find the best mattress for back pain.
Remembering that everyone will respond differently to different types of mattresses; we generally believe that medium-firm memory foam mattresses hold the highest promise for those suffering from back pain. Memory foam has a unique ability to conform closely to the contours of the human body while still offering quality weight distribution. Most hybrid mattresses fall into this category as well since their topmost layers are often memory foam.
What Science Says
This consideration is closely related to the research just mentioned finding the ideal firmness. However, that study’s focus was on whole-body pain and didn’t isolate many concerns specific to the lower back. Another 2005 study, much smaller in scope, sought to investigate the dynamics of how different types of weight support affect lower back health.
Researchers designed this investigation under the assumption that lumbar support while laying down is likely as important as lumbar support while in a seated position (a theory with ample scientific support.) To investigate, researchers used an inflatable device to place added contact pressure on the lumbar area and measured the impact on weight distribution in the lumbar, pelvic, and thoracic regions.
Researchers found that, when the added pressure was applied to the lumbar area, better weight distribution was seen on the body as a whole. This was noted by a decreased pressure seen in both the thoracic and pelvic regions. Simply put; lumbar support takes the stress off the rest of the body.
Considerations for Allergies
What We’ve Seen
Allergies have become rampant in the recent generation, and science is at somewhat of a loss in describing the prevalence of allergic symptoms among younger people. There are arguments for over-sanitization, the overuse of antibiotics, and even the misuse of vaccines. It’s a mess—no one has any straight answers.
Fortunately, the impact that mattresses have on allergies are limited to traditional allergic responses to household compounds like dust mites. Common sense says that washing your sheets regularly and utilizing a mattress topper can help prevent the accumulation of dust mites to such a degree that one might wake up sneezing or overly groggy for no apparent reason.
What Science Says
A 1991 study published in the journal Clinical and Experimental Allergy investigated whether or not the type of mattress one slept on had any notable impact on the rate dust mites accumulated. They investigated this difference across waterbeds, traditional spring mattresses, and foam mattresses.
The results described that regardless of mattress type, the same accumulation of dust mites was noted. Waterbeds did seem to have a slightly larger number, but the study wasn’t large enough to make any conclusive statements based on the statistical significance of that difference. What this study did find, however, was that the biggest factor was the types of sheets and room conditions.
Synthetic sheets produced fewer amounts of dust mite concentration as did rooms with higher temperatures and lower humidity. So, if you wake up sneezing and wheezing in the mornings don’t start blaming your mattress until you’ve washed your sheets!
Mattress shopping can be a minefield of conflicting advertisements and outrageous claims of health benefits. There is enough evidence to suggest that certain mattress types, such as hybrids and memory foam mattresses, may offer better overall support for musculoskeletal concerns.
These types of mattresses are commonly reported as beneficial by those sleeping on them and are generally regarded as the best option for those seeking to support spinal health. Regardless of the science and our personal experiences with mattresses we still maintain that the most important factor to consider when shopping for mattresses is the return policy.
- Ancuelle, Victor, et al. “Effects of an Adapted Mattress in Musculoskeletal Pain and Sleep Quality in Institutionalized Elders.” Advances in Pediatrics., U.S. National Library of Medicine, Nov. 2015, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4688575/.
- Normand, Martin C, et al. “Biomechanical Effects of a Lumbar Support in a Mattress.” Advances in Pediatrics., U.S. National Library of Medicine, June 2005, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1840018/.
- MOSBECH, H., et al. “House Dust Mite Allergens on Different Types of Mattresses.” Clinical & Experimental Allergy, Wiley/Blackwell (10.1111), 27 Apr. 2006, onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1365-2222.1991.tb01667.x.