Increasingly popular weighted blankets are more than just another wellness fad, a study has found.
The blankets – which cost anywhere from $20 to $700 – boost the production of a sleep hormone responsible for deep, restful slumber.
Swedish researchers found melatonin levels were a third higher at night than those who used a normal blanket.
Sales of weighted blankets reached an estimated $600million in 2021, after earning rave reviews from sleep specialists and celebrities like Kourtney Kardashian.
Researchers found a 32% increase in melatonin production when people slept with a weighted blanket (blue) instead of normal bed sheets (black)
Melatonin is naturally released by the brain each night to make a person tired and regulate the circadian rhythm.
Weighted blankets are said to put the nervous system into ‘rest’ mode, reducing some anxiety symptoms, such as a quickened heart rate or breathing.
When you’re stressed, your heart beats too quickly, which blocks the production of melatonin.
The success of weighted blankets comes amid fears among experts that popular melatonin supplements increase the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia later in life.
Researchers at Uppsala University, in Sweden, monitored 26 participants for two nights.
On night one, participants slept with a weighted blanket. On night two, they used a regular bed sheet.
Blankets used for the study, published in the Journal of Sleep Research, were matched to participants by their weight.
Weighted blankets were 12.2 percent of the person’s overall body weight, while regular sheets were 2.2 percent.
Participants went to sleep at around 10pm and had a saliva sample gathered every 20 minutes until 11pm.
Results showed that by the end of the hour, sleeping with a weighted blanket generated 32 percent higher levels of melatonin.
The brain’s pineal gland naturally secretes the hormone. It is a natural reaction to a dark environment and induces drowsiness, telling the brain that it is time to go to bed soon.
Many Americans even use supplements to boost melatonin in their brain and help them fall and stay asleep each night.
Long term effects of melatonin supplements are not known, though. The National Institutes of Health fears that it could increase a person’s risk of developing dementia and other brain problems down the line.
This is because many other sleep enhancers are known to slightly increase users’ likelihood of the devastating brain condition in older age.
Using a weighted blanket to boost melatonin production avoids the danger of these supplements, though.
Dr Tracy Marks, a psychologist from Atlanta, Georgia who was not a part of the research, explained to DailyMail.com that weighted blankets have long been known to be sleep enhancers – but not through increased melatonin production.
Weighted blankets have become a trendy product in recent years, and studies have tied them to better sleep, less symptoms of anxiety and other mental and sleep health benefits (file photo)
Dr Tracy Marks (pictured) told DailyMail.com that she recommends anxiety patients use weighted blankets to better their sleep and aleive their mental health symptoms.
She said that the blankets activate a person’s Vagus Nerve – the body’s longest nerve that runs from the stomach to the cranium.
The deep touch pressure, as she describes it, activates the body’s Parasympathetic nervous system.
This system helps ‘slow down’ the body, cutting the production of cortisol and increasing the secretion of serotonin.
‘When you feel the weight of a blanket, or are held tightly, it stimulates serotonin and dopamine production in the brain,’ Dr Marks said.
She compared the feeling of a weighted blanket to slowing a person’s breathing or splashing water on their face to calm them down.
‘[You are] manipulating your nervous system to calm you down,’ she said.
A person who is calm and less anxious is more likely to easily go asleep – which was believed to be the reason why weighted blankets help fight insomnia and other sleep issues.
The Swedish study introduces a new theory, though. While the blankets have shown an ability to treat anxiety in studies – they may also impact the pineal gland as well.
Dr Marks said activation of the Vagus Nerve would not affect secretion of melatonin from the pineal gland.
This means that there is another mechanism at play that causes a person to experience higher levels of melatonin while swaddled in a weighted blanket.
Swedish researchers did not identify a mechanism in the study, either.
Weighted blankets have become a popular wellness trend in recent years, but unlike many other items and supplements pushed by influencers and celebrities – they are backed by doctors as well.
Dr Marks said that she recommends anxiety patients to use the blankets to help relieve their symptoms and get more restful sleep. She also recommends them in her new book Why Am I So Anxious?
A 360 Market Updates report found the $625million worth of weighted blanket products were sold in the US in 2021 – up from $529million a year earlier.
The figure is expected to reach $1.7billion by 2027.
WHAT IS MELATONIN?
Melatonin is a hormone which controls how asleep or awake people feel.
The hormone is produced in the pineal gland in the brain and its release into the body is controlled by light.
During the day, when the eye absorbs light, melatonin levels in the body are low and, as a result, we feel awake.
But when darkness settles and the amount of light being absorbed by the eye reduces (although this is disrupted in modern societies because of artificial light), more melatonin circulates round the body.
Melatonin prepares the body for sleep by slowing the heart rate, reducing blood pressure, and changing how heat is stored in the body – the body’s core temperature drops while the outside of the body and the limbs become warmer.
The hormone also makes people feel sleepy.
Melatonin supplements can be taken to aid sleep in people who have problems with it, as well as for certain medical conditions such as tinnitus or Alzheimer’s disease.
Sources: Medical News Today and Journal of Applied Physics