Do Weighted Blankets Work for Insomnia or Anxiety?

I prepared to fall into the deepest slumber I’d ever had. This is what happened instead.

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Mar 7 2018, 5:59pm

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I used to be a good sleeper, but starting a few years ago, I became “that person" who once mystified me. I can’t sleep in past 7 AM, even on the weekends, I toss and turn every few hours, and I’ve developed this annoying habit of waking up around 4 AM and not falling asleep again until two minutes before my alarm goes off.

It’s not a total mystery as to why. I have anxiety and it takes awhile for my thoughts to settle down. It doesn’t help that the last thing I usually look at is my phone or computer. I don’t drink coffee, so I’m not over-caffeinated—but my brain seems to be able to produce a similar mind-racing effect all on its own.

The Gravity Blanket, a weighted blanket that recently hit the market, promises to help people like me go to sleep and stay asleep. Weighted blankets, which are usually 20 or 30 pounds, have been occasionally used in medical contexts, but Gravity Blanket didn't look like something you'd see lying around a hospital. Repackaged as a "wellness" product, it was styled in attractive neutral tones and cozy fabrics; when they raised money on Kickstarter, they made way more than their $21,500 goal, earning $4,729,263 by the time the campaign ended last May.

I knew immediately that I wanted to be a weighted blanket guinea pig for Tonic. Gravity Blanket wasn’t available yet, so I went with BlanQuil, one of the many copycat blankets that have popped up since Gravity Blanket's Kickstarter success. Other reviews, written by I assumed similarly sleepless journalists, were raving about it. I too wanted to have a night where I “slept so deeply that I woke up unnerved,” as New Yorker staff writer Jia Tolentino wrote. Blanquil provided me their blanket for free to try; it normally costs $169, a bit less that Gravity Blanket's $249.

After the box arrived at the office, I brought it home in an Uber (it’s heavy!), and opened it right away. BlanQuil did a great job with aesthetics. It’s wonderfully soft and looked chic draped on my bed. Most weighted blankets are filled with some kind of bead to give it weight, and Blanquil's didn't shift too much to one side; it looked like a normal blanket, not a duvet filled with pebbles. It was a bit cumbersome to move around, so later that night—just like Tolentino did—I had my partner drape it evenly over me and turn off the lights, as I prepared to fall into the deepest slumber I’d ever had.

One hour later, I woke up. I shifted uncomfortably under the blanket’s weight, and felt a little wave of panic; now it didn’t feel wonderful, it felt crushing. I turned on our bedroom fan and repositioned it on top of me. Maybe I was just hot.

An hour later and I was up again. I stuck one leg out from the blanket, and it felt amazing to not have any weight on top it. Begrudgingly bringing my leg back in, I tried to fall asleep again. My normal tossing and turning ensued, but now underneath what felt like a giant hand pushing me into the bed. Eventually I threw the blanket off of me and onto the ground. Ahhh… now I felt as light as a cloud, and my sheets were soft and fluffy once more, not saran wrap sticking around my body.

When I woke up a few hours later, unrested and grumpy, at 5 AM, I looked at the BlanQuil down on the floor, crumpled and rejected. Where was my transcendent sleep experience? I looked over at my partner, who is an impeccable sleeper. He falls asleep the second his head hits the pillow, easily sleeps through blenders, construction, babies crying in the stairwell, and always gets his 8 to 10 hours a night. Before I left the house, I put the BlanQuil on him, texting him jokingly that I had “dosed” him with it.

Hours later, he responded: He LOVED the blanket. He said he couldn’t explain it, but it had led to him sleeping even deeper than he already does; it was like “being dropped into a dark black hole,” he said. Weeks later, he still won't sleep without it.

Now, the Blanquil’s presence in my bed was just mocking me. Why didn’t it work on me?

I was the perfect candidate for a weighted blanket according to the companies making them , which recommends them for people with insomnia, OCD, anxiety; I had all the boxes checked. But Gravity Blanket had already been called out for its claims, by STAT News’ Megan Thielking, and they had to change their Kickstarter description so they wouldn’t be going against FDA recommendations.

Their campaign used to say: “The science behind Gravity reveals that it can be used to treat a variety of ailments, including insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, as well as circumstantial stress and prolonged anxiety.” After the STAT article came out, they changed it to say it could only be “used” for those conditions, not treat them.

BlanQuil either hasn’t been similarly called out, or hasn’t faced resistance for what they claim on their website:

1520363200392-Blanquil-conditions
MyBlanquil.com

I hadn’t read BlanQuil’s website in detail before trying the blanket, but now that I was, I was alarmed at the wide variety of conditions it was claiming it could "treat" and provide “immediate” relief for.

BlanQuil says that their blankets work by using deep touch pressure stimulation, “a well regarded therapeutic method that stimulates pressure points on the body.” It’s true that weighted blankets have been used for kids with autism, and in some cases with elderly dementia. BlanQuil’s cites these applications, saying:

1520363273239-Screen-Shot-2018-03-05-at-113012-AM
MyBlanQuil.com

But there have been only a handful of small studies that I read, none I would call "incredible." One small study looked at how a weighted blanket affected 32 healthy people, with no pre-existing health conditions. They found that it helped 63 percent of them sleep better, but they had no control group, and no placebo—limitations that they and other authors mention in their papers.

Another study was done in a psychiatric inpatient “sensory room,” where a weighted blanket was one of many tools patients could use. But as STAT reported, while people who used the blanket had decreased anxiety or distress, so did people who didn’t use the blanket. Because the study wasn’t blinded, “people might’ve reported positive effects because they were led to expect the blanket would have a positive effect,” STAT wrote.

Granted, it’s hard to design a placebo, double-blind weighted blanket study (how could you not know that you received the weighted blanket?) but not impossible, and until one of those is performed, I would hesitate to use the word incredible. I decided to talk to some sleep experts, because I was realizing that I probably wasn’t going to get the full story from BlanQuil’s site.

"I hope I'm not being too forward when I say to you: Shayla, do you like to be hugged?"

Philip Muskin, a psychiatrist and sleep specialist at Columbia University Medical Center, is asking me this question, and before I respond, I pause. The honest answer is, honestly, not so much. It depends who is doing the hugging. I don’t mind it, but I’m not inherently affectionate in that way.

“Some people really like very close contact with others,” Muskin tells. “There are even those full-length body pillows, and what do they sell them for? Because there are people who like that feeling of someone to hold onto. Then there are people who like to be in a king size bed with no one near them. We don't consider the people who like the body pillows bad or wrong, nor the ones who say to their partners: Kiss me goodnight and go away.”

“You’re not bad or weird,” he assures me. It's just that some people don’t like that sensation. Those same people, he points out, may not like a weighted blanket.

We humans have a lot going on, he continues. Some people have insomnia, some people have anxiety, some people are autistic, some people have PTSD, some people have chronic pain, and some people have none or a combination of all of these issues. Of those people, some of them will like the feeling of a weighted blanket, and some won’t. But there’s no proven correlation between having anxiety or insomnia and liking the feeling of a weighted blanket, Muskin says.

As my partner shows, some people with no anxiety and no insomnia can still love BlanQuil, while I—a person supposedly primed to enjoy it—found no benefit. Claiming a correlation between any of these disorders, liking the blanket, and the treatment of said disorders is going too far, he says. In reality, all these things are not inherently connected.

But this treatment element that bugged me is not what riled up Muskin the most about BlanQuil’s claims. What he says he found more upsetting was a sentence I had skipped over, because it was just pseudo-sciencey enough for me to take as truth. In fact, it has little merit at all. BlanQuil says on their site that their blanket can change people's neurotransmitter levels.

1520364086541-Blanquil-neurotransmitters
MyBlanQuil.com. Emphasis added by author.

“First off, let me tell you, it's not easy to get measures of serotonin and melatonin,” Muskin says. “What we typically do is use a proxy of cerebral spinal fluid, so we can see the breakdown products of serotonin. If there's a higher concentration of something called homovanillic acid, you can say there's probably more serotonin. Do you think they did spinal taps on people who wore their blanket? Would you let somebody do a spinal tap on you if they gave you a free blanket?”

Lois Krahn, a sleep specialist and a professor of psychiatry at the Mayo Clinic, was also particularly troubled by the neurotransmitter claims. She said that even if a study measured serotonin in the blood, that wouldn’t necessarily reflect what’s going on in the brain, behind the blood brain barrier. Measuring melatonin from blood might be a bit more reliable, but you could only do so by “creeping into someone's bedroom and drawing blood in the middle of the night,” she says. “Really the best measures would be from having a shunt in a person's brain that goes into the ventricle, and I can't believe they've done that. It just seems like proposing a theory with no data. I'd be very skeptical and cautious about that.”

When I asked BlanQuil about the neurotransmitters, a PR rep speaking on behalf of David Fuchs, the President of Blanquil, said: “Those claims were published by studies done and by no means are we making that claim.” (Again, this is what their website says: “increases serotonin and melatonin levels and decreases cortisol levels, while promoting restful sleep at the same time.”) When I followed up, they provided me with several links to those same few studies I looked at, none of which measured neurotransmitter levels.

“As you know BlanQuil is Weighted Blanket to 'HELP' you with Sleep, Stress and Anxiety,” BlanQuil's representative wrote to me in an email, in an attempt at the same distancing that Gravity Blanket was forced to do. “The message we are offering is comfort and making you sleep better.... it is a personal preference to use a weighted blanket," they said. Ok, I agree with that. But then, somewhat confusingly, they continued: "To be clear the BlanQuil Blanket is for everyone to sleep better. It’s a lifestyle. We are trying to change sleep one person at a time.”

Why the need to take it so far, with the neurotransmitters and the "incredible" studies, and treatment of a wide variety of very different illness? Perhaps I’m bitter because the blanket didn’t work on me. If my experience had been as good as that of my partner, would I have cared that BlanQuil says they can immediately relieve all emotional illnesses and raise serotonin levels?

I’m asking myself this seriously, because my honest answer represents a larger problem in the wellness market. It’s not enough to present a product as a “maybe,” something with preliminary data, that you might as well give a shot to. Everything is marketed as THE fix, a sure thing; the one powder or one supplement to rule them all. If you voice concern or hesitation around any claims to a believer or a company, you’re met with denial, and sometimes hostility. Trust me, don’t even try to bring up the placebo effect.


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I’ve written about other wellness trends before. I’ve covered food intolerance tests, telomere measuring tests, and Goop. I never set out to be a debunker, and I don’t actually enjoy discovering that something promising to be helpful isn’t what it says it is. (Do you know how much I really wanted a good night’s sleep?)

The weighted blanket isn’t the most egregious health or wellness product out there, nor the most dangerous. The worst it could do is lose you a couple hundred bucks (though Krahn warns to not use it with young children or anyone who can't take it off if they want to). But the reason I find the blanket so frustrating is that there is some data to back it up. These companies didn't have to make extreme declarations to cover up the fact that there was nothing to it at all. It has been shown to be helpful in some, not-perfectly-proven contexts, and instead of being honest about that, they still went big, saying it was a cure-all. I’m tired, literally so, but also of everything being presented as magical solution, and using “science” to do it. It oversimplifies complicated issues, like insomnia, anxiety, PTSD, and autism, gives people false hopes, and wastes people’s money.

I find it ironic that these products co-opt scientific terminology and research, given that many wellness consumers are driven by a desire to turn away from western medicine in the first place. They don't trust doctors or big pharma, but are duped by that kind of language for products that are equally problematic. “Right now there is a lot of desire to not use controlled substances and to find natural things, so I can see the appeal,” Krahn says. On BlanQuil’s website, they say that you can have all the benefits they advertise, “All without ever filling a prescription.”

“This is bullshit,” Muskin says. “I'm not going to beat around the bush. I'm not saying that somebody might not really enjoy this blanket. But they make these kinds of claims that sound scientific. They seize on real data on autistic kids who do find themselves comforted, or some babies that should be swaddled, and they go on to say there is scientific evidence, rather than this is personal preference. I don’t think this is bullshit in the sense that no one benefits from it, but I do think that they’re really tweaking the way they use the science.”

Sleeping pills come with their own host of issues. I get it. But people still want a pill, just a non-pharmacological one: an easy, one-step fix that requires no effort. I’m implicating myself too; instead of just turning off my iPhone, changing my nighttime habits, and trying to meditate like everyone always tells you to do, I wanted a blanket to solve my problems for me.

Products that say they can solve all your complicated multi-faceted health problems are almost always taking it too far. They’re also the products that seem to sell the best. I worry that it’s our fault: the consumers. Would we buy something that wasn’t marketed in this way? Something that hedged about its results? Or did we end up with the weighted blanket that we deserve?

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