If you’re anything like me, you believe purchasing the perfect mattress is the magical step to solving any and all sleep issues. But will it?
Everything is worse without enough sleep. “Without sleep, you’re not recovering from the damage you do to your body during the day,” explains Mark Thompson, DPTLAC, LaC, doctor of physical therapy and licensed acupuncturist in New York City. “It affects your immune system. Pain levels are higher if you’re not sleeping. Your nervous system is in a different state if you’re not sleeping. You’re experiencing things more intensely.”
In other words, moderate pain becomes more severe.
Can a mattress solve these problems?
According to Hästens, a high-end Swedish mattress company that makes beds and bedding for the royal court, it can — but it’ll cost you. Running between $8,000 and over $150,000, Hästens mattresses are guaranteed for at least 25 years, but can last for a lifetime. These mattresses are made from flexible and springy horse hair.
“Every hair is like a hollow tube,” explains Kristofer Eriksson, a Hästens sleep consultant in Santa Monica, CA. “It’s nature’s own A/C system. It channels away moisture and lets fresh air in, so you feel like you’re sleeping on a cushion of air.”
The beds also have individually pocketed coils, which, Eriksson explains, adjust to your body no matter your body type. “Since the springs are not interconnected, if it starts to dip in the middle, other springs won’t follow.” So if your partner is getting in and out of bed (or tossing and turning), you won’t feel anything.
According to Thompson, much of mattress marketing isn’t worth falling for — especially since most of us can’t spend the equivalent of a down payment on a house on a mattress. He uses the Casper Wave as an example, which boasts curves that match yours. “How can you make a mattress that matches everybody’s curve?” Thompson asks. “That can’t be right, but people will fall for it.” Thompson says it’s the same with the Sleep Number beds. They can be great for some people, but not for others.
Studies agree with this. One report from 2011 found that when test subjects were given seven beds of different firmness to try out for a month, there was absolutely no consensus which was the best bed.
“Patients come in and say they bought a memory foam mattress and that it took all their pain away,” says Thompson. “And another patient will come in the same day, and say they bought the same bed, and it’s the worst thing ever and they hate it!”
If there’s no baseline, where do you start? So much of this depends on your anatomy and your particular needs.
“If you’re 20 years old, you can sleep on anything!” Thompson says. (Recall all those times in college when you slept on a futon and you felt perfectly happy in the morning.) “But as the body ages, it’s less forgiving. It needs support in places and softness in other places.” Here are a few general guidelines.
1. Try out the bed — for a while
This is perhaps painfully obvious, but just because a mattress feels great for five minutes in the showroom — or, worse, looks good online — doesn’t mean that you’ll be comfortable in it for eight hours a night for years. In fact, the 2011 study found that people who test drove a mattress quickly in a showroom “appear to choose mattresses that do not optimize their sleep.”
Most companies will give you a certain number of months to try out the bed. Use them. All of them. And make sure to return the bed if you’re not fully satisfied.
2. Know your body
Are you hyperflexible? Are you stiff? Do you have a shoulder or back injury? Do you have wide hips? All of this will impact what kind of mattress you should be sleeping on.
Thompson explains that, if for instance you have a bad shoulder and you want to sleep on that side, a firm mattress won’t be forgiving enough, and the pain in your shoulder will wake you up. If you have very wide hips and like to sleep on your side, a firm mattress will distort your spine.
“Does the mattress give enough to allow your spine to be straight?” Thompson asks.
“Or does it lift your pelvis up?” If you’re hypermobile, a soft mattress probably won’t provide you with enough support. The irony, Thompson says, is that a stiff person can usually sleep on almost anything.
One study done on older adults found that medium-firm mattresses helped with musculoskeletal pain, and there’s been some evidence that medium-firm mattresses can help with lower back pain, too.
3. How do you want to feel in the bed?
“Do you want to feel that you’re deep in [the] mattress?” Eriksson asks. “Or floating on top of [the] bed? Do you want to feel that you’re in the bed?” You should feel comfortable and supported — but people have different senses of what that experience might be.
4. Do you get hot?
One of the biggest complaints from people who sleep on memory foam beds is that they overheat. This is because the foam structure is so dense that there’s nowhere for the heat to escape. “The faster your body temperature can drop, the faster you will fall asleep,” explains Eriksson. This is why Hästens’ horse hair is so effective — it keeps clients cool.
Obviously, there are ways to work with this if you love everything else about the bed: wear light pajamas, take a cold shower, use a light duvet, or open a window. But if it all fails, you might want another mattress.
5. Consult an expert
Higher-end mattresses are generally sold by more experienced consultants. Hästens’ sleep consultants have a bachelor’s degree and get at least a week’s worth of training on anatomy, alignment, and how the body functions during sleep. Each consultant spends an hour or more with clients before they purchase the bed (these cannot be returned).
“We work by trial and error in the showroom,” Eriksson explains. “Just by seeing you walk in the door, I can tell what you’ll like the most. It’s a science. How is your weight distributed over body? What do you weigh? Someone with curves needs one that will shape to them.”
Unless you have a Hästens bed, you probably need a new mattress every 10 years. According to researchers at Casper, this is because natural fibers accumulate in the mattress and weaken it. If they sag before 8-10 years, you have a crappy mattress.
Eriksson adds that the problem with sleeping on most foam or latex mattresses is that it’s like sleeping on a sponge that you can’t ring out. “It becomes a growing ground for bacteria, microbes, dust mites, and mold,” Eriksson says, “and starts to break down.”
It’s wise to avoid falling for the hype that one particular mattress will solve everyone’s sleep woes, but there is a perfect mattress for you. That being said, you’ll only find it if you invest the time — and perhaps the money — to get it right. This means doing a lot of test driving (or sleeping) and rethinking what your sleep is worth.
Eriksson, who grew up in Sweden, has a different approach to sleep than most Americans. “Most Swedes spend more on their first bed than on their first car,” he explains, “and I still sleep 9-10 hours a night. I prioritize it. I don’t brag about not sleeping.”
Perhaps we should all do the same?
Abigail Rasminsky has written for the New York Times, O: The Oprah Magazine, The Cut, Lenny Letter, Longreads, and The Washington Post, among other publications. A graduate of Columbia’s MFA program, she lives in Los Angeles with her family. You can find her on her website and on Twitter.