Weighted blankets may lead to more melatonin, the sleep hornone



The weighted blanket has grown in popularity in recent years, with manufacturers and users touting its benefits, including help with sleep and anxiety issues. A recent study suggests a mechanism that could explain why weighted blankets seem to help some people sleep better.

Using a weighted blanket may increase the release of melatonin – a sleep-promoting hormone produced by the brain, the study shows. Melatonin reduces alertness and makes sleep more inviting. During the day, light entering the eyes sends a signal to the brain’s “master circadian clock” — a region of the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus — which then blocks the production of melatonin by the pineal gland, an organ the size of a pea in the brain. After the sun goes down, the suprachiasmatic nucleus releases its hold on the pineal gland, allowing melatonin to put the body to sleep. The core body temperature drops and drowsiness ensues.

“I’ve met many pediatricians and occupational therapists who tell me about the magical effects of the weighted blanket, but we don’t know if it works like a placebo or what,” said study co-author Christian Benedict, an associate professor of pharmacology at Uppsala University. in Sweden. “This was one of the reasons why I decided to do this study.”

In the study, 26 young men and women with no sleep problems or other medical conditions were asked to sleep in the lab with a weighted blanket one night and a light blanket the next. None of the participants had a history of using weighted blankets. The weighted and light blankets corresponded to 12.2 percent and 2.4 percent of each person’s body weight, respectively.

The researchers took saliva samples every 20 minutes between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. to measure changes in hormone levels. On average, the increase in melatonin was 32 percent greater on the night that the participants slept with a weighted blanket.

“Body sensations, including light pressure on the skin, can activate areas of the brain that can affect melatonin release,” said Benedict. “We believe that a similar mechanism is responsible for the observed rise in melatonin with the use of a weighted blanket.”

Weighted blankets have weights such as metal chains or glass beads sewn into them, along with traditional stuffing, to apply even, deep pressure to the body. Occupational therapists discovered in the 1990s that weight vests and blankets had a calming effect on children and adolescents with developmental and sensory impairments. Later they were used in adult psychiatric facilities as a humane alternative to restraint and seclusion, known to cause physical and psychological harm to patients.

The concept of deep pressure stimulation goes back even further, most notably explored in the 1980s by American scientist Temple Grandin, who has autism and designed a hugging machine as a way to ease her anxiety. It worked by gently squeezing her with padded boards. Other examples include swaddles for babies and anxiety vests for dogs, both of which are used in the same way as cuddles to induce calmness.

Applying light pressure to large areas of the body activates the autonomic nervous system, which regulates heart rate, digestion, breathing, and other functions. Specifically, deep pressure stimulation is associated with decreased sympathetic arousal, or fight-or-flight response, and increased parasympathetic arousal, or rest-and-digestion response.

Research has suggested that deep pressure stimulation from weighted blankets, in particular, can improve sleep. In 2020, Håkan Olausson, a neuroscientist at Linköping University in Sweden, and his colleagues conducted a randomized controlled trial in 120 patients with psychiatric disorders, where they were given a weighted blanket every night for two weeks. The patients reported less severe insomnia, reduced daytime fatigue, and better sleep retention through the night when they slept with a weighted blanket versus a light blanket.

A 2015 study tested weighted blankets on 33 people with chronic insomnia, reporting that they slept longer, relaxed more easily, and felt refreshed in the morning. And a study in two children with autism spectrum disorders showed improved sleep quality with weighted blankets.

“The use of weighted blankets has increased dramatically in recent years, but most studies have limited sample sizes,” says Cara Koscinski, occupational therapist and co-author of “The Weighted Blanket Guide.” “We can’t draw big conclusions,” she said of the latest study, but the observed increase in melatonin “provides another piece of the puzzle.”

“This is a very interesting study, but it would be nice to repeat it in a second cohort, because it’s not obvious that melatonin should increase with a weighted blanket,” Olausson said.

Benedict supported the need for larger studies, including, he said, “an investigation into whether the observed effects of a weighted blanket on melatonin persist over extended periods.”

Although the study observed an increase in melatonin, no difference was observed in participants’ sleep duration or feeling sleepy when using a weighted blanket. The researchers also measured oxytocin, a hormone released in response to physical touch and known to induce feelings of well-being and calmness, but saw no increase for the weighted blanket.

Users, such as Aimee Walker Baker, say that weighted blankets have helped with their health problems.

“I feel like I’m in a safe cocoon,” says Baker, 50, of Bay Minette, Ala., who sleeps with a weighted blanket every night. A car accident in 2016 left her with serious injuries and nightmares due to post-traumatic stress disorder. “It took a few nights to get used to [the weight], but once I did, I actually slept. Like, for the first time in over a year! It felt like a win,” she says.

DeAndra Chapman, 38, of Stockton, Ala., received a weighted blanket as a gift from her husband to ease her anxiety and restlessness during the night. “The weighted blanket helps me sleep because it’s like a constant hug,” she said. “I use my blanket when I sleep, including during naps. He even goes on vacation.”

Keri Leach, 55, of Westerville, Ohio, uses her weighted blanket for insomnia. “My problem is waking up in the night and not being able to go back to sleep, and it’s helped,” she said. “It’s harder to use in the summer because it can get very hot.”

Along with people with sleep disorders, says Koscinski, people with autism, anxiety, arthritis, chronic pain, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder also use weighted blankets. She adds that they can work very well for some people and not at all for others. A general rule is to choose a blanket that weighs less than 10 percent of your body weight, and they should never be used on individuals who can’t remove the blanket themselves, such as infants, says Koscinski.

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The Valley Voice
The Valley Voicehttp://thevalleyvoice.org
Christopher Brito is a social media producer and trending writer for The Valley Voice, with a focus on sports and stories related to race and culture.


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