They don’t come cheap but do weighted blankets really reduce anxiety and improve sleep?

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  • Weighted blankets, also known as anxiety blankets, are purported to have therapeutic effects. 
  • The theory is that they may work by applying firm, deep pressure touch (DPT) stimulation.
  • However, robust evidence supporting its use for anxiety and insomnia is currently lacking, although anecdotal evidence suggests otherwise.

The saying goes that by the time you’re in your 30s, there are three things you should have in your life: an air fryer, a humidifier, and a weighted blanket. The last one on that list is particularly intriguing, considering its claims to ease stress and insomnia.

Also known as a gravity blanket or anxiety blanket, they can weigh up to 10 kg. Advertisements claim that its heavy weight will provide you with the relaxing pressure that mimics a comfortable hug, ultimately reducing your stress and anxiety and improving your overall sleep. 

But these widely popular blankets don’t come cheap: a quick search will yield numerous results ranging from R900 to R2 000. So, are they worth it, and is there enough evidence to support these claims? We take a look.

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Not a new concept

The concept of weighted blankets is not exactly new: weighted vests were first used by occupational therapists for sensory integration therapy in adults, children with autism, or those with sensory processing disorders.

Unfortunately, despite initial promising results, later research showed the therapeutic value was ineffective in this context.

However, Elizabeth Hanes, a registered nurse in the US and award-winning writer, explains that anecdotal evidence and positive feedback from those who wore the vests led to the development of weighted blankets.

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How are they supposed to work to provide comfort?

Hanes says that these blankets activate the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) - which controls bodily functions when we are at rest - by applying deep touch pressure (DTP) stimulation to the body. 

DTP stimulation can be described as applying firm but gentle pressure to the body to relax the nervous system. Think about the effects of receiving a hug: that warm embrace releases the "cuddle hormone" called oxytocin, which is a natural stress reliever.

Similarly, weighted blankets are considered to mimic the technique of DTP and consequently activate the PNS. However, existing research is not enough to confirm claims that they can reduce anxiety or improve insomnia in adults, says Hanes.

Have you ever used a weighted blanket and had a good experience? Tell us about it here.

What does science say?

Several studies have been conducted to determine whether weighted blankets have any real value.

A 2020 Swedish study found that the blankets improved sleep in participants with generalised anxiety disorder and ADHD. The participants were divided into two groups: half received a light blanket and the other a weighted one. Four weeks later, those who used the weighted blanket reported having less insomnia and reduced fatigue or anxiety.

A separate 2020 study concluded that participants who had trouble falling and staying asleep had self-reported improvements, from sleeping through the night to falling asleep quicker, after six weeks of sleeping with a weighted blanket. 

Another study found that a weighted blanket helped participants with their chronic insomnia, and the majority of the study group felt like it led them to feel more refreshed each morning. 

The problem with these studies is that the sample sizes were too small - from as little as 31 participants to just over 100 participants - to make any conclusive statements about the benefits of weighted blankets. 

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So should you add to cart?

Weighted blankets may be endorsed by many who’ve tried them and in certain parts of the medical community as a tool for encouraging relaxation among people with ADHD and autism. But unfortunately, reliable evidence supporting its true effectiveness remains a bit blurry. 

It’s also important to remember that weighted blankets are not a 'cure-all', and it may be better to seek professional help if you’re struggling with anxiety and insomnia. 

That said, if you’re eager to give it a try, here are some tips to consider before buying one:

  • Buy a weighted blanket that weighs approximately 10% of your body weight.
  • When using it, ensure that your weight is evenly distributed throughout the blanket.
  • If you have health concerns, such as breathing difficulties or circulatory problems, chat to your doctor before purchasing one. 

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