Just like CBD oil, weighted blankets have become very popular in recent years. And same as with CBD oil, you might be wondering if weighted blankets are just another health craze or if they can really improve your sleep.
Interestingly, while weighted blankets are a relatively new trend, the method of how they work is not so new: Deep pressure therapy (DPT) or Deep Pressure Stimulation (DPS) has been used quite some time to calm and relax people with autism or sensory processing disorders.
In this article, we want to talk about what deep pressure therapy is, what effect it has on your body and whether it can help with sleep disorders such as insomnia. And lastly, can deep pressure therapy when applied in the form of a weighted blanket really improve your sleep?
What is deep pressure therapy?
Deep pressure therapy (DPT), also called deep touch pressure therapy (DTP), is a kind of tactile sensory input, in any form of firm but gentle pressure that is evenly applied to the body. This pressure can be exerted with the hands or by firm stroking, cuddling, swaddling, or hugging. Another way is to use special massage tools or products that you can apply to your body or wrap around yourself to provide gently pressure.
Done correctly, the pressure has a calming effect on the whole body. You may have experienced this yourself. Have you ever woken up on a cold morning under the weight of heavy winter blankets and felt incredibly calm and relaxed? If yes, then you had a taste of what deep pressure stimulation can do for your nervous system.
Research of physiological effects of deep touch pressure
Over the years, there have been several studies dealing with the effects of deep pressure therapy and a growing number of people advocating it. The scientist and autism spokesperson Dr. Temple Grandin is a pioneer in this field. Being diagnosed with autism herself, she began to realize how vital deep proprioceptive input was for her daily life. She even built her own “hug machine” to exert deep pressure to relieve symptoms of her anxiety.
Several therapy programs now use hug machines to achieve calming effects among both children and adults with autism. Besides, there are now a variety of newer products available like weighted blankets, or weighted vests, but they’re all based on the same type of sensory input of deep touch pressure.
A study published in the Journal of Medical and Biological Engineering found that the physiological effects of deep touch pressure (medical data such as heart rate, blood pressure, etc.) were consistent with the participants’ supposedly lower anxiety states after using a weighted blanket.
How your body processes information
To understand how deep pressure therapy exactly works, it is crucial to know how our body’s sensory system works.
Sensory integration is the process when your central nervous system picks up and processes information from your environment through the different senses of your body and then initiates a response.
The central nervous system (CNS) therefore is the control center for the sensory system as a whole. All body sensations and changes in our external environment are transmitted and interpreted by receptors and sensory organs to the CNS.
Our body uses seven senses to interpret the world around us. Besides the well known five senses sound, sight, smell, touch, and taste, we also have a sense of movement (vestibular) and a sense of body awareness (proprioception). It is this last proprioceptive system that plays a crucial role in deep pressure therapy.
Deep pressure therapy to gain better body awareness
To illustrate how your proprioceptive system works, try this: Close your eyes, stretch your arms outwards and try to touch your two index fingers. You may succeed in the first attempt. If not, your body will correct itself, and in most cases, on the second try, you will b able to touch your fingers.
This is your proprioceptive system at work. It informs our body of its position in space by guiding the muscles on how to respond to external stimuli, an essential factor for building body awareness.
Deep pressure therapy is a form of proprioceptive input. The extra weight exerts pressure on your joints and muscles and gives your brain a better sense of where your body is in relation to space.
The autonomous nervous system (ANS) is responsible for the quality of your response
Body awareness is one thing, but how can deep pressure therapy help to calm your mind? To answer this question, we need to look at your autonomous nervous system (ANS), which is responsible for how your body reacts to sensory information and which emotions are triggered.
The ANS consists of the parasympathetic, the sympathetic, and the enteric system, which is the intrinsic nervous system of the gastrointestinal tract. Depending on the sensory information your ANS processes, these systems work together to control the many different functions of your various organs and to respond appropriately to stimuli.
What’s the difference between the sympathetic system and the parasympathetic system?
Concerning deep pressure therapy, the two main systems we are dealing with are the sympathetic system (SNS), and the parasympathetic system (PSNS).
The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is the “alarm system” in the body. It stimulates or speeds up activity to prepare the body for intense or stressful situations. The SNS is therefore often referred to as a “fight-or-flight” system.
And it doesn’t have to be an accident or an attack from a wild predator. We all know that when we are suddenly facing a stressful situation at work, driving through heavy traffic in a storm, or receiving an unexpected bill in the mail. We feel tense, our palms get sweaty, the heartbeat increases, our breathing becomes faster and may feel “butterflies” in our stomach. That’s when our sympathetic system is in action.
If the SNS takes the lead too long, you will feel anxious, nervous, and irritable, and often, you don’t sleep well.
The parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) works almost exactly the opposite, slowing down those energy-rich functions for emergencies, which is why it’s also called the “rest and relax” system. When the PSNS takes over, your muscles relax, blood circulation improves, and your mind becomes calm and peaceful.
Deep pressure therapy (DPT) and your ANS
To feel more relaxed and to respond in a more balanced manner, it’s helpful to reduce the high-energy sympathetic activities and to increases the parasympathetic activities of your ANS.
And this is where deep pressure therapy (DPT) comes in. When you gently apply pressure to your body, the level of the stress hormone cortisol decreases, and your brain can switch from “‘fight or flight” mode to “rest and relax” mode.
Deep touch pressure also leads to an increased endorphin level and the release of the “happiness hormones” serotonin and dopamine. While dopamine controls your brain’s reward or pleasure center, serotonin helps to regulate major brain functions and your mood. Plus, it is also known to stimulate those parts of the brain responsible for the production of the #1 sleep hormone melatonin.
In a nutshell, deep pressure therapy (DPT) helps the two major systems in the autonomic nervous system to balance each other out, and it increases the production of dopamine, serotonin, and melatonin. All these factors are highly beneficial for your physical and emotional response regulation.
What are the effects of deep pressure therapy?
As with many forms of therapy, every person reacts differently to deep pressure therapy. However, the potential positive effects of deep pressure therapy are:
- Improved body awareness
- Improved focus and attention
- Improved coordination
- Reduced stress and anxiety
- Enhanced social interactions
- Increased communication skills
- Better sleep
- Reduced incidence of seizures
- Reduced hypersensitivity to touch
- Reduced self-injury
Although not everyone will experience all the possible benefits of deep pressure therapy, many generally feel more “grounded” and calm, which can last for several hours after treatment. And if deep pressure therapy is done regularly, it often has a lasting positive influence on your physical and mental state.
Who can benefit from deep pressure therapy?
Deep pressure therapy has been proven effective when a person’s central nervous system has difficulties processing the sensory information appropriately. This can be the case, for example, with children with autism spectrum or an attention deficit disorder (ADHD). They are often overwhelmed by the sensory impressions of their environment, leading to anxiety or hyperactivity. Gentle pressure exerted on their bodies usually calms and relaxes the children.
Other conditions where DPT can be beneficial are post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD) or any form of psychiatric disorder, including depression, anxiety, or dementia.
In short, any condition where you have – whether as a child or as an adult – difficulty switching from your sympathetic nervous system to your parasympathetic nervous system can benefit from deep pressure therapy (DPT).
Why helps deep pressure therapy to sleep better?
Think of how your body prepares itself for sleep: Your heart rate decreases, your breathing slows down, and your muscles relax. And most importantly, your thoughts stop racing and you feel calmer and more peaceful. All these physiological reactions come from a functioning “rest and relax” parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) of your ANS.
So anything which helps to activate the PSNS is highly effective to induce sleep. The regulating and relaxing effect of deep pressure therapy (DPT) is particularly helpful here because it lowers cortisol levels and increases your melatonin production, making it easier to fall and stay asleep.
What are examples of activities with deep pressure?
Examples of peep pressure therapy activities include the following:
- Deep-pressure massage
- Wrapping a child tightly into a blanket
- Pressing a pillow or cushion over your body or squeezing (“sandwiching”) a child between two soft pillows
- Firmly rolling a therapy ball or foam roll on a person’s torso, legs and arms
- Deep vibrations for the whole body
- Wearing weighted vests or compression garments
- bear hugs
- joint compressions
Deep touch pressure therapy with dogs or cats
If you have a dog or a cat, you may know how they can help you to relax. The rhythmically calm breathing of a pet lying next to you is very calming and can help you to wind down and fall asleep. Therefore, the idea of using your dog or cat as deep touch pressure therapy is not that far-fetched.
There are now even special service dogs, which are trained exactly for this. The use of a deep touch pressure service dog helps people with a variety of psychiatric conditions, including depression, anxiety disorder, dementia, and post-traumatic stress disorder. These service dogs use their body weight to put pressure on their owner’s body, e.g., during panic attacks, to decrease the severity and duration of such attacks.
So be grateful next time you wake up in the middle of the night with your cat laying on your chest. She is putting some healthy pressure on you, helping you to relax.
How does deep pressure therapy with a weighted blanket work?
Since we all feel stressed and overwhelmed from time to time, everyone can benefit and enjoy the positive qualities that a deep touch can give them. This is why weighted blankets are growing in popularity.
Weighted blankets act as a form of deep touch pressure to stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system with all the beneficial, relaxing effects described above. In a study published in Occupational Therapy in Mental Health, the use of a 30-pound blanket resulted in 78% of adult participants reporting an overall positive calming effect, and 63% had less anxiety.
So weighted blankets are a type of at-home deep pressure therapy that can be used by everyone who needs a little more relaxation.
Are there any risks using a weighted blanket?
Due to the risk of suffocation weighted blankets should not be used for infants under 2 years of age. So always consult your pediatrician before trying a weighted blanket for your child.
A weighted blanket may also be unsuitable for people with the following conditions:
- Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), which causes the airway to become blocked during sleep
- Asthma, which can cause breathing difficulties at night
- Claustrophobia that can be caused by the tightness of a weighted blanket
Buyers Guide: How to choose the right weighted blanket?
Weighted blankets are not cheap and almost always cost over $70 and can even exceed $300. So you want to make sure that you choose a solution that meets your needs. Let’s take a look at what you need to consider when purchasing a weighted blanket.
How heavy should a weighted blanket be?
Most weighted blankets weigh between five and 30 pounds. As a rule of thumb, an adult blanket should be 10% of your body weight, plus one or two pounds. For example, if you weigh 150 pounds, you will most likely want a blanket that weighs 16 to 17 pounds. If you buy a weighted blanket for an infant that weighs 30 pounds, then a 4 to 5-pound blanket is probably the right choice.
Alternatively, you can choose a one-weight-fits-all model that can be folded in specific ways to distribute more or less weight so that they are suitable for most users regardless of their size.
What size should the weighted blanket have?
In general, weighted blankets are available in sizes that match standard mattress dimensions, such as 60 inches wide and 80 inches long (equivalent to a Queen size). However, heavier blankets are often longer and wider than lighter ones. Keep in mind that a weighted blanket shouldn’t be bigger than the size of your bed. It is designed to lie on the bed so that it does not slip to the side.
What is the best material for weighted blankets?
Weighted blankets are made from a variety of fabrics such as cotton, linen, bamboo-viscose, flannel, fleece, minky, satin, polyester, or velvet.
The choice of fabric strongly depends on your temperature preference or the climatic conditions you’re living in. In warmer, more humid regions or during the summer months you may want to have a more cooling, breathable blanket like the YnM Cooling Weighted Blanket made of bamboo-viscose; whereas in cold winter months you probably feel more comfortable in a warm, flannel or fleece blanket like a plush, warm Gravity weighted blanket.
Some weighted blankets are also waterproof or water-repellent and have a layer of moisture-wicking material included in the fabric.
Another aspect to think about is your touch and texture preferences. For people with sensory problems, cotton or satin fabrics are often preferred, but you might prefer more smooth and soft textured fabric like flannel.
Keep in mind that you can always use a duvet cover that fits over the weighted blanket if your preferred material is not available.
What are weighted blankets filled with?
Most weighted blankets are filled with plastic poly pellets, micro-glass, or steel shot beads that are evenly distributed to ensure correct weight distribution. Some blankets do not contain beads and contain other weighted fillings such as sand or pebbles or even food, including rice or beans. You can find a good overview of the different filling options in this post.
If you have allergies or sensitivities, make sure to choose a blanket that has a more neutral filling. A good choice would be Harkla Adult Weighted Blanket, which uses part cotton and part glass beads as filling. Glass microbeads are an environmentally friendly alternative to poly pellets and are usually completely hypoallergenic.
Another factor to look for is that the blanket is evenly divided into sections, so you don’t have to worry about the weight sliding sideways.
How to clean a weighted blanket?
Make sure that the blanket you get is machine washable. Many weighted blankets also have a separate cover that can be removed to wash it separately in a washing machine without washing the actual blanket.
In general, the blankets should be washed with cold water in a gentle cycle. Make sure to set the washer’s setting to the one for a large or extra-large load. You can also wash a weighted blanket by hand in a tub with a mild detergent.
Finally, tumble dry the blanket on low heat or, especially if it is a heavier model, hang the blanket and allow it to air-dry.
Where can you get weighted blankets?
Weighted blankets can be purchased from many different companies or on Amazon. They are also made by independent craftspeople and sold on websites such as Etsy.com.
Weighted blankets that are manufactured and sold through companies are usually of higher quality and typically offer product warranties against defects and decent return policies. For example, the Gravity Blanket, which is one of the most popular weighted blankets, comes with a 30-day return policy. That leaves you enough time to find out if the blanket fits your needs.
Another budget-friendly, although time-consuming option is to make your own weighted blanket. Check this post if you’re interested in DIY-ing a weighted blanket.
The root cause of insomnia is almost always a mental problem such as anxiety, stress, and depression, which is why addressing these underlying causes is the most effective way to cure it. You will probably not be able to successfully treating chronic insomnia just by using a weighted blanket.
However, deep pressure therapy in the form of a weighted blanket can be a good addition to an existing treatment plan. These comfortable therapeutic blankets generate an even pressure on your body that helps create a hug-like feeling that stimulates the production of serotonin and dopamine, the naturally occurring chemicals that make our body feel calm, relaxed, and happy. Your body then converts these chemicals into melatonin, making you sleepy.