Most of us have a cordial relationship with our mattresses. We’re grateful that they provide support for our bodies at night, giving us a good night’s sleep. For the most part, they blend into the background of our lives, and we hardly consider them. Today we ask the question, is your mattress making you sick?
But recently, disturbing news has been trickling out about them. Mattresses, it seems, are not whiter than white. In fact, they could be harming your health.
The most recent warning comes from the Sleep Council - the International Sleep Products Association's consumer-education arm. It found that mattresses were a breeding ground for all manner of nasties, including mould and the hospital superbug, MRSA.
It’s not the first time mattresses have come under assault from the scientific community. Over the years, researchers have criticized them for their effects on posture and annoying habit of cutting off circulation to the skin. For all their efforts, mattress makers don’t seem to have found a magic formula to deal with these issues, even as technology continues to improve.
Part of the problem has to do with the way manufacturers make mattresses. Because they’re so thick, they’re impossible to clean inside. You can’t take them apart piece by piece and throw the various bits in the wash. Instead, you’re stuck trying to find ways of preventing dirt from infiltrating in the first place. And if you're like most people, you only discover such things years after the fact.
Another issue has to do with the fact that humans have only recently started sleeping on mattresses. For most of history, we slept on bits of vegetation and straw. Later on, we started using animal hides, but they didn’t provide anything like modern bedding's plushness. Springs, coils, and foam are recent inventions - at least on evolutionary times scales.
Nobody did long-term studies on how these products would affect posture and spinal alignment over many years before bringing them to market. Because of this, we’ve been living in a kind of natural experiment to find out what physiological effects modern bedding has on our bodies. And the results still aren't entirely clear.
In this post, we list the surprising ways your mattress could be making you sick. Some involve the materials that comprise the mattress itself. Others have to do with the fact that cleaning standard bedding isn’t easy.
It’s Full Of Hidden Chemicals
When you go to bed at night, you imagine that you’re sleeping on a combination of traditional materials - like cotton - and metal springs. But that’s actually a long way from the truth.
Many mattresses contain fire-retardant chemicals - compounds that are great for keeping you safe if you forget to stub out your cigarette but not so good for keeping you healthy over the long-term.
Research shows that many of these chemicals are dangerous for the body. Boric acid - a standard inclusion in many mattresses - can irritate the skin and damage the eyes. Formaldehyde can cause dermatitis and itching. And polyurethane - a type of plastic - can heighten allergies and, in some cases, lead to organ toxicity.
So what’s the solution? Your best bet is to check to see if the mattress adheres to Oeko-Tex Standard 100. It limits the number of chemicals the product can emit over its lifecycle and certifies that it does not contain flame-retardant chemicals.
You can also buy “organic mattresses” that contain more than 95 per cent organic materials under the Global Organic Textile and Global Organic Latex Standards.
It Traps Bacteria And Allergens
According to the New York University School of Medicine, the average home generates around forty pounds of dust annually. And much of that ends up on and in your mattress.
Dust is a problem. While most of it is harmless dead skin cells, some of it is pollen and even bacteria. And once it gets into the mattress, it is almost impossible to get out.
In 2014, researchers investigated whether rolling from your stomach to your back could release these trapped particles in sufficient quantities to affect your health. Experimental participants turned over as they would naturally, and then investigators measured the number of particles going through their mouths into their lungs. “Resuspension rates,” as they called them, were high, meaning that lots of previously trapped dust came back out of the mattress. And when people moved more vigorously, the contamination got worse.
According to experts, the reason mattresses get so filthy has to do with gravity. Eventually, airborne particles make their way downwards and need somewhere to settle. Mattresses have a large surface area so that they can collect thousands of particles a day. Once they land, there’s nowhere else for them to go.
The problem doesn’t end there, though. When you sleep on your mattress, your body creates friction with the mattress material, and this pushes particles further into the fibres. Eventually, they become trapped, lurking until you disturb them.
Saggy Foam Causes Back And Neck Pain
Manufacturers make modern mattresses in layers. At the bottom, you have a spring system for soaking up big impacts. Then on top, various layers of foam contour to the shape of your body. Some manufacturers use regular polyurethane-based foams while others rely on space-age technologies such as memory foam. At first, these hold their shape quite well, but eventually, they lose their bounce and go flat.
For regular human bodies, this is a problem. Without proper foam, the mattress won’t support your back correctly, and you’ll wind up with neck, joint, and spine pain - not what you want disrupting your sleep cycle.
You can try solving this issue in two ways. Rotating your mattress can make a difference. Usually, the foam near your feet is less fatigued than the foam near your head. If that doesn’t work, you can invest in a brand new mattress or buy a new foam layer and place it on top.
It’s Brimming With Bed Bugs
Bed bugs - also known as dust mites - are tiny insects that feed on flaking skin. These little creatures make their home in your bedding, waiting for the opportunity to chow down on any tasty morsels you send their way. Once a meal arrives, they begin feasting on it, pooping out waste pellets you later breathe in during the night.
It sounds gross - and it is. Over ten years, mattresses can double in weight thanks to dust mites, according to the National Pest Management Association in the US. But you can fight back.
No mattresses are wholly resistant to dust mites and other critters. But if you use a mattress protector - an impermeable sheet - you can cut down on their numbers massively.
Failing that, you can vacuum regularly. Doing this will remove any dust and critters before they get a chance to move deeper into the bedding.
It Harbors Fungi
Humans produce about 26 gallons of sweat every year. And because we spend around a third of our lives in bed, a lot of it gets into our bedding, providing a moist environment for fungi to thrive.
Studies show that more than 47 types of fungi live in mattresses with the average pillow containing between four and eight species. The combination of body heat, sweat, and fabric fibres provide the perfect medium for mould to thrive.
Breathing in mould spores is no laughing matter. These particles can lead to allergies, difficulties breathing, and worse asthma attacks.
According to the data, synthetic pillows are the worst offenders, harbouring the most species. Natural pillows may provide some protection because of the natural antimicrobial effects of duck down.
Some reactions to mould buildup can be severe. For instance, aspergillus fumigatus is a relatively common fungus that spreads throughout bedding and causes aspergillosis. The disease is unpleasant by itself, but it can lead to fatalities in people with leukemia.
If you’re worried about fungi buildup, you can try lowering the temperature in your bedroom at night to avoid excess sweating. You can also buy natural bedding materials that seem more resistant to mould growth.
It Can Affect Sleep Quality
Poorly designed or old mattresses can also affect sleep quality - something that has massive ramifications for the rest of your health.
Sleep, for instance, plays a vital role in the physical healing and repair of your heart and blood vessels. If you don't get enough of it for several days in a row, it can lead to a host of conditions, including heart disease, kidney disease, stroke, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Lack of sleep may even be a driving force behind the recent increase in obesity rates.
Not all modern sleep issues have to do with mattresses, but many do. As they age, they tend to become malformed and, eventually, they lose their capacity to conform to your body at all - a process that leads to diminished sleep quality.
Humans go through four sleep stages during the night. Stage one or n-REM sleep is when you’re kind of half-awake, just nodding off. Often during this stage, you’re able to “catch” yourself falling unconscious and snap yourself out of it.
n-REM stage two is where you’re actually asleep, but somebody wouldn’t have much trouble waking you. It usually sets in several minutes after you start to lose consciousness.
n-REM stage three is perhaps the most critical stage of sleep. Both your brain and body become completely relaxed, and your temperature falls, allowing your cells to carry out vital repair work to prepare you for the next day. You don't dream.
REM stage four sleep (or rapid eye movement sleep) is a deep kind of sleep in which you dream. Researchers believe it’s essential for processing what happened during the day and consolidating memories.
Ideally, you want to be flipping between n-REM stage three sleep and REM stage four sleep throughout the night, getting between seven and eight hours of rest before your alarm goes off. When your mattress is sub-par, though, it can prevent this from happening. Your body never feels comfortable enough to go into a deep sleep, and so vital repair work doesn’t get done.
You can often tell you’ve missed out on stages three and four when you wake up in the morning. Even if you’ve been in bed for hours, you still feel groggy.
Lack of mattress support is the main problem here. If the springs or foam become worn, it can lead to tension and joint pain during the night. And these signals then travel to the brain, indicating a problem, reducing your ability to get a thorough night’s rest.
Sometimes, your mattress will even cut off the supply of blood to your skin entirely. When this happens, it activates the natural “tossing and turning” response. This, in turn, activates the brain in such a way that forces it to exit stage three and four, fragmenting your sleep and undermining your body’s ability to get the rest it needs.
It Could Be Causing Muscle Pain
Lastly, if you ever wake up in the morning and notice that your muscles ache, it could be an indication of mattress problems.
Mattress manufacturers make their products according to a scale that runs from very firm to very soft. When you lie on a firm mattress, it barely deforms at all. Instead, your body perches on top of it. By contrast, when you choose a soft mattress, you sink into it.
Both types of mattresses come with costs and benefits. Firm mattresses, for instance, are great for people who are overweight because they provide extra support. Soft mattresses are useful for people with chronic pain because they distribute your body weight over a larger area, reducing pressure points.
However, if your mattress is too soft, it can lead to pain and stiffness in the morning. Muscles remain activated throughout the night to hold your body in the correct position. And eventually, they become fatigued, causing pain, cramps and knots.
We should point out that mattresses themselves aren’t bad. But you do need to be careful with them. Regular cleaning and replacement are essential. Avoid cheap mattresses where possible.