How comfortable is your mattress? Too hard, too soft, or just right? Maybe it’s time to think about investing in a new one.
Old mattresses: a haven for dust mites
I used to think that the 'change your mattress every seven years' slogan was just the incredibly clever marketing strategy of Dreams, that vast chain of soulless warehouses filled with mattresses that have sprung up all over Britain. But having read the science, there's a far more persuasive reason for changing it even more frequently. The fact is that every 5 years your mattress doubles in weight, entirely as a result of your body shedding minuscule skin flakes and the huge quantity of dust mites that feed on them. Yuck. Apparently there are up to 10 million of the horrible things in an average mattress. Not something you want to continue sleeping on for the rest of your life. And probably well worth a weekly mattress hoover in the meantime to reduce their numbers.
We spend approximately a third of our lives in bed, so it’s important to ensure your sleep experience is as rejuvenative as possible. If you are shifting uncomfortably and waking up through the night, try rotating your mattress every few weeks to prevent sagging, or put wooden boards underneath it to support your back.
More than likely, though, it's probably time for a change. We change our clothes, our cars and even our partners more regularly than we change our mattresses. It never seems to be something that occurs to many of us to do at all. 'A mattress is for life, not just for Christmas' seems to be a belief that’s surprisingly widespread. 'If it ain't broke, why fix it?' is another.
But brace yourself for a shock: the information on what most mattresses are made of should signal a red flag for you. It may well be one of the most important changes you can make to benefit your health.
Bed bugs and mould
After I’d discovered the revolting dust mite fact, I decided to delve further into the subject. The news got no better. Bed bugs are on the rise, and many of us live with mould in our mattresses for years without realising it. Is your bedroom even slightly damp? Do you wake up tired, with itchy eyes, eczema or a cough? You may be one of the people who react severely to the presence of mould. Not much to do here except get rid of your mattress and dehumidify your room.
I am afraid it gets even worse.
Chemicals in memory foam mattresses
Do you have any idea what your mattress is actually made of? The scientific reports on the chemical contents of your mattress make scary reading. If it is a memory foam mattress then it's almost certain that it is made from petroleum products and is full of chemicals and toxins that can affect your brain. Even non memory foam mattresses are regularly sprayed with chemicals as an anti-fire retardant measure, and if your mattress is older than 2000, the chemicals used in their production are now classified as toxic and banned in the EU. The 'brain fog' you have been experiencing may well be down to the fumes you are taking in through your skin. If you sleep with your face in or on your pillow think about what you are actually breathing in. What is inside the pillow and what material is it covered with?
Mattress springs: Electro-magnetic fields
Then there are the springs inside your mattress. The vast majority of beds are made with metal springs and/or frames. The mattresses themselves also have metal springs inside them. What no-one has written about until fairly recently is the fact that these springs resonate with, and amplify, the electro magnetic fields that surround us. We live in a soup of electro-magnetic fields - emanating from the electrical wiring in our bedroom walls and floors, from the clock radio that sits by your bedside, the electric blanket you use to keep toasty in winter and the lamp that sits beside your head all night. If you suffer from broken sleep, depression, fatigue or nightmares it's worth a quick test to see if that could be your problem. Take a compass, and pull it gently across your mattress in a straight line. If the needle moves more than 5 degrees you are being exposed to an electromagnetic field. Ultimately these fields weaken your immune, eventually triggering illness, or exacerbating symptoms you may already have.
The healthy mattress challenge
I went on a hunt for an organic mattress option, presuming there would be many of them, but the more I looked, the less I found. All those top brand names, Hypnos, Vispring, Kluft and Savoir can charge up to 5 figures for their luxury mattresses, but the fundamental health problems remain the same, however comfortable their claims. None of this may affect you, and some peoples’ immune system are strong and not likely to be disturbed, but if you have health problems it's well worth a look to see if you notice changes when you swap what you are sleeping on.
Recommended Organic Mattress Companies:
In the UK, Abaca, based in Wales, seems to make the most truly chemical free mattresses. They have a varied range, but focus on using organic wool and cotton, and you can choose a no springs option. They will make to any size, and the mattresses are very heavy as the wool is so dense. Probably worth zipping two singles together if you need a large mattress. That way you can design each half to support the weight of you and your partner. No more rolling into the centre of the bed.
When I asked around internationally, all roads seemed to lead to the Essentia mattress, made in Canada. Jack, the founder, developed the mattresses because a member of his family was diagnosed with cancer and he couldn't find a mattress anywhere that was free of chemicals and toxins. In the end he had to make it himself.
Essentia mattresses are made of natural latex. They mix Hevea milk, the milky white sap of the rubber tree, with essential oils like grapefruit seed, cone flower essence and jasmine essence. Plant extracts and water are added to help achieve the texture and feel of the mattresses. The end result is the only natural memory foam in the world. It supports the body firmly, relieves pressure points and has a natural cooling system that enables you to sleep better, with no more overheated tossing and turning in the middle of the night. What's more, it's dust mite free and never sags - they guarantee them for 20 years. So effectively, you save money in the end, (depending on the cost of the one you buy!) by not having to replace your mattress 3 times in the same period!
I managed to track one down, and spent two nights sleeping on it. It was amazingly comfortable, moulding itself to my body, and I had a great night’s sleep. I wasn't so keen on the pillows though. They are heavy and dense - good to read a book against but too bulky for me overnight. The company will ship all over the world and for a top end product they are fairly competitive, though definitely not cheap.
Small(er) changes, big difference
A slightly cheaper alternative may be a buckwheat pillow (did you even know there was such a thing?!), though these average about £35. They are popular in Asia, but less well known here, and are filled with buckwheat hulls, which are the small hard husks that protect the kernel. Some people swear by them for support and prevention of neck pain – I think they are too hard, too noisy and too heavy, but that’s just my view. Brow Farm is an enterprising UK company producing the pillow, so worth investigating.
And if you don’t want to spend all this money replacing your mattress, what then? I would suggest, start saving. The chemical problems are real, and should not be ignored, and there are very few ways to stop the off-gassing. You might presume that a dust mite allergy cover, or organic mattress pad would work, but they don’t. Plastic sheeting gives off gasses of its own, and the best compromise I have found is low density, food-grade polyethylene, which is safe and non-toxic.
When I tried to find a less costly alternative to a new mattress, it was tricky. Babesafe mattresses from New Zealand make a mattress cover product that has been tested and confirmed to block the gasses, but they sadly don’t make them in adult mattress sizes. They are inexpensive, so the best bet may be to cut and tape two or three together to create a safe barrier you can sleep on.
An organic topper, to create a barrier of some sort so that the layer closest to your skin is natural, is an additional option. Natural Mat is a UK company, based in Devon, that makes organic mattresses and toppers from all natural fibres, including lambswool, cashmere, mohair, coir and latex.
Changing your mattress is an expensive option, but the right choice could quite literally transform your sleep experience. Make sure you have done your research thoroughly before you buy a new one. The decision may affect your health in more ways than you could have imagined.
Watch our one-minute video introducing the Essentia organic mattress: