On average, we spend around one third of our lives asleep. That’s twice the amount of time we spend listening to music, three times the amount of time we spend in front of the tele, and more than 20 times the stretch of hours we devote to exercise (see here for more lifetime activity breakdowns, including laughing, crying and social media). Given the act of sleeping takes up so much of our time, it’s important to get it right - not just for the sake of feeling spiritedly every morning and avoiding under-eye bags, but for all those other scientific benefits of a restful night, such as weight loss, improved memory and longer lifespan.
While some of our sleep quality can be attributed to physical and psychological factors like pain and anxiety, a lot of it comes down to our mattress. Here’s how.
Mattress can affect body positioning
Because we can’t consciously change our position while we sleep, a comfortable, supportive mattress is paramount. Spend a night on a mattress without these qualities and you’ll either sleep poorly or wake up with aches, pains and an immediate need to see your physio. While we’ve probably all suffered this fate at one time or another through stays at hotels, Airbnbs or our child’s first home, it’s when our own mattresses aren’t up to scratch that we see the most damage.
Sleeping on an-supportive mattress night after night can result in chronic back pain, thanks to large chunks of time spent with a misaligned spine. Over time, the pain itself can make it harder to both fall and stay asleep, creating a vicious cycle of discomfort and exhaustion. Research has also shown that sleeping on a poor quality mattress results in up to 49% less time in the REM (rapid eye movement, if you’ve ever wondered) sleep stage. REM sleep is critical because it’s the most restorative part of the sleep cycle. During REM, our body produces increased amounts of proteins and our brain makes sense of the day’s information and experiences. Ipso facto, without sufficient REM sleep, we’re less likely to function well, both physically and mentally.
If you are finding yourself struggling to find a comfortable position on your mattress or are waking up with aches and pains, you can try placing a pillow under or between your knees to help you find a more comfortable alignment. This is just a short-term fix: ultimately, it’s time to get a new mattress.
Another way our mattress can get in the way of a good night’s shut eye is if it hinders our body’s temperature regulation. Good airflow is critical to a comfortable night’s sleep, given our bodies are busily trying to keep us cool as we catch our sleep. If we’re sleeping in fabrics that don’t breathe, chances are we’ll wake up hot and sweaty in the middle of the night, which is never a nice feeling. While much of our temperature regulation is impacted by what we put on top of our beds and what we’re sleeping on also has an effect.
Try adding a breathable layer between your body and the springs with a mattress topper or mattress protector and, when it’s time to make a new purchase, look for mattress fabrications and structures that promote airflow.
Mattresses can save you from allergens
Mattresses can be a haven for dust mites, with experts suggesting the average one houses around 10 million of the little critters. Luckily, they’re microscopic and - for most of us - don't cause any problems. However, if you suffer from allergies or asthma, chances are these teeny tiny bedfellows are causing you a range of issues, from itchy skin to watery eyes, runny noses and chest tightness.
To minimise the number of mites living in your mattress, opt for an allergen-proof mattress protector and wash your sheets regularly.
Signs you need a new mattress
If some of the things you've read here are ringing true, it might be time for a new mattress. Other signs you need an upgrade are finding you sleep better on nights you’re away from home, realising there’s a permanent sag near the middle of the mattress, or simply that it’s been more than eight years since you bought your current model.
If you’re feeling pretty happy with your current mattress, remember that there are things you can do to help extend its lifespan. Most importantly, rotate your mattress every few months to slow down the inevitable process of wear and tear. You should also ensure your bed frame is one that provides support through the centre of the mattress to reduce the likelihood of sag (and that gravitational roll to the middle of the bed). Finally, don’t let your kids, grand-kids or large, excitable pets use it as a trampoline: repeated jumping will wear out the springs or other support structures long before their time.