After years of taking pills for anxiety, depression and insomnia, Lisa van de Geyn wonders if a non-pharmacological sleeping aid will do the trick—or at least help.
When you've taken as many different antidepressants, anti-anxiety meds and sleeping pills as I have over the years, at some point you start considering other alternatives. I've taken an embarrassing number of cognitive behaviour therapy and mindfulness classes, but I'm not great when it comes to the practice. Keeping stress at bay is key, but hard to do with kids, work, a husband, constant worrying. Sleep hygiene reigns supreme, but the only thing that keeps my mind off that aforementioned constant worrying (until pills kick in) is scrolling Twitter. And speaking of sleep, I don't think there's anyone who doesn't know that getting a good night's rest is vital for pretty much everything—our physical and mental health included. Weaning off sleeping meds would be a huge win, so I'm open to trying other things. Ads for weighted blankets kept popping up in my social media feeds (I must complain about sleep a lot), and I figured it was worth investigating.
How they work
Weight is distributed throughout the blanket with wee poly pellets, glass beads or grains (depending on the brand). How much weight you use depends on your size and preference—most adults use 15 to 30-pound blankets. (You should check with your doctor if you have circulatory or respiratory issues.) The claim is the deep-touch pressure stimulation the blankets create (the feeling of a hug, gentle squeezing, holding) relaxes the nervous system and helps produce serotonin, which turns into melatonin (the hormone that regulates our sleep). Using a weighted blanket is like swaddling a baby—it's calming and promotes deep sleep.
Not only are they said to treat or help insomnia, they're also used for people with mental health issues (depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder) and other diseases and disorders (restless leg syndrome, Alzheimer's, Cerebral Palsy).
What the research says
There's some research on the effect of weighted blankets on insomnia, and according to one small study in the Journal of Sleep Medicine & Disorders, they can increase sleep time, help insomniacs settle down easier and users report feeling more refreshed in the morning. When researchers looked at the effects on anxiety, a study in the journal Occupational Therapy in Mental Health found 63 percent of people said their anxiety was lower after using it, and 78 percent preferred using it as a way to calm themselves.
What I experienced
I brought it up with my psychiatrist and she mentioned the benefits weighted blankets have shown in some research but wasn't familiar with the science when it comes to helping depression and anxiety. Still, she was all for it—if something natural could help me sleep, it may mean weaning off sleeping meds and could boost my mood.
The only thing I was hesitant about before ordering was whether I'd sweat my rear end off when using it (I run super hot). I researched and decided to go with the Nirvana bamboo cooling blanket to ease my overheating worries. (Bamboo is totally breathable, and I liked the promise of no heat getting "trapped in uncomfortable areas.") Nirvana is a Canadian company and the blankets are handmade in Quebec, which also appealed to me.
The first night covered with my 20-pounder wasn't the solid, restful sleep I imagined. I had just broken my toe and had a stomach bug, and the weight felt uncomfortable, so I tried again a few weeks later with much better results. I didn't think I'd like feeling cocooned (claustrophobia?), but the blanket felt one of those X-ray aprons you wear at the dentist, except from head to toe. The weight was distributed pretty evenly across my body. After about a week or so, I felt more relaxed before bed (the time of day my mind really spirals). It didn't take me as long to get to sleep, and I even felt better in the morning than I do on sleeping meds alone. My husband reported less jumping around (who knew?), so even he knew I was sleeping more soundly. Oh, and no sweating. Well, no more than usual, anyway.
Though the 20-pound blanket is the one recommended for my size, I find myself wanting to pile on the weight, so I've been folding it or throwing my duvet overtop. So far I can tell that it's helped my sleep, and although I don't have a ton of evidence to support the blanket helping my anxiety and depression, I have had fewer really, really terrible anxiety/depression days. I'm still taking pharmacological sleep aids, but the dose has been dropped drastically, and maybe within the next few months I won't be relying on them at all.