Other than anxiety, one of the main reasons people flock to weighted blankets is for the alleged claims that weighted blankets reduce sleep issues. Overall, we are all stressed and of course, the pandemic is not helping with that. It seems that more and more Americans report difficulty with brain fuzziness and grogginess during the day as a result of a poor night’s sleep. Then as soon as your head hits the pillow, it’s like your mind suddenly wakes up and has the energy to ruminate on EVERYTHING. Sleep issues are a vicious cycle that plays a major part in general life dysfunction and mental health conditions. To date, there has been one study that addresses insomnia and weighted blankets directly in an adult population, but there are flaws with the study which we addressed in a previous article. It’s hard to make blanket –pun intended– claims about weighted blankets improving insomnia for all adults based on one study, and one study which did not run long-term. I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this.
Research on Weighted Blankets and Sleep Issues
Recently, a few researchers looped back to conduct a study on weighted blankets and insomnia, but this time they recruited participants who suffer the most from insomnia symptoms due to their diagnoses of bipolar, ADHD, and/or other affective disorders. Wait! Even if you don’t struggle with those specific diagnoses this article is still relevant to you! Stress is one of the primary causes of sleep issues and it can evolve into a mood disorder. Essentially, if weighted blankets can improve insomnia symptoms in people with these diagnoses, then they will likely work for people who don’t necessarily have a mental health diagnosis but are stressed and struggling with sleep issues as a result.
Though it is not explicitly stated in the study, I am hypothesizing that a sample size of people diagnosed with bipolar and ADHD were chosen due to the high prevalence of sleep issues found within these specific disorders. Insomnia is also prevalent in anxiety and depression, but these are syndromes that are commonly associated with ADHD and bipolar as well. Basically, a lot of mental health conditions overlap, thus why researchers are moving towards a more transdiagnostic approach rather than singling out a specific disorder within a study.
This study had one of the largest sample sizes we have seen in weighted blanket research with 199 participants involved.
Most of the participants were on medications throughout the duration of data collection. Medications were prescribed for both the mental health disorder with which they were diagnosed and insomnia. We do not have a breakdown of this information.
The participants could choose from two different types of weighted blankets, a chain blanket, or a ball blanket. A chain-weighted blanket has chains embedded into the fabric that run up and down the blanket length-wise. The ball blanket is most similar to the standard bead-filled weighted blankets that most of us are used to. Participants were also given a choice on weight. The chain blankets had 6 kg or 8kg options and the ball blanket had 6.5 kg or 7 kg options. For our American readers, this translates to a range of 13.2 to 17.6 pounds in options. We are not given any further demographic information or what weight was most popular, so we are not able to confirm if the weights chosen were appropriate for the participants. However, spoiler, all participants still used the weighted blanket they were provided for this study a year later when the researchers checked back in. Participants appeared to have favored the chain blanket as 139 chain blankets and 79 ball blankets were given to participants; this could be due to the chain blankets having a higher weight option.
The researchers were bound to a visual analog scale to measure the effectiveness of the weighted blanket, as this was a required measure when prescribing weighted blankets. Each scale was 65 mm long and asked participants to rate the severity of symptoms during the day and night. Below is an example of a visual analog scale with the questions asked during this study.
Participants also recorded approximately how many minutes they believed it took to fall asleep. All of these data were collected before the weighted blankets were distributed, again at four weeks, and in one year.
Do Weighted Blankets Help with Sleep Issues after a Full Year of use?
Mean Visual Analog Data for all Diagnoses
Note, there were no significant differences found between the different diagnoses.
Sleep Onset Changes (Reported in Minutes)
What Can We Infer From this Study?
Although the methodology was a bit unconventional in that it was purely subjective data while other studies have utilized actigraphs to collect physiological data, there is still an abundance of information that can be inferred from these findings. As I stated at the beginning of this article, comorbidity, and overlap in mental health diagnoses are common. For example, someone who has debilitating ADHD may also struggle with anxiety and depression from the challenges associated with performing day-to-day functions and tasks. Bipolar disorder also has depression as a main component of the disorder, and anxiety as a “side-effect” condition. Therefore, the results from this article may very well be applicable to anxiety, depression, bipolar, and ADHD, as well as the general population who experiences bouts of stress which prevents them from falling asleep at night.
It appears as though the weighted blankets were both liked and effective in treating sleep issues, as evidenced by the positive results reported a year after the initial data collection. We can see in the graph that the ratings from the 4-week mark did fall a small bit, but also remained higher than at the start of the study. The researchers stated that they did not remind participants of their initial and subsequent responses at the one-year mark, and thus I believe we can count on the data as an accurate representation of weighted blankets’ effectiveness. I don’t know about you, but I struggle to remember specific details from a week ago, let alone a year ago!
Sleep is essential to everyone, it is literally a matter between life and death, and thus it’s essential that everyone gets enough restful sleep. Lack of sleep can maintain disruptive mental health symptoms and can create even more detrimental symptoms. The prognosis in treatment for mental health disorders, such as those studied within this research, may be improved if sleep disturbances can be mitigated by something as simple as a weighted blanket. For example, in bipolar a common symptom of a manic episode is staying awake for long periods of time; if a weighted blanket improves a person’s ability to fall asleep during that episode then there will be harm reduction and an overall leap in managing the disorder as a whole.
Though the evidence is anecdotal, there does appear to be a connection between the areas of brain involved with sleep and those triggered when weighted blankets are used. The NIH provides a summary of the areas of the brain involved in sleep and of those areas the amygdala, thalamus, and hypothalamus are included. These areas of the brain are associated with emotional responses and are proposed to be activated when weighted blankets are used as well. The amino acid responsible for slowing us down enough to fall asleep is called GABA, and I can’t help but wonder if weighted blankets play a role in the production of GABA as the minutes that it took to fall asleep greatly decreased when a weighted blanket was used in this study and others. This would be a topic that I would like to see in future research on weighted blankets and sleep issues, as well as the inclusion of physiological measures.