Weighted Blanket Benefits: An Emerging Topic
Often in the pursuit of more effective, less expensive ways to remediate illnesses and other conditions, ideas from the past are seen in a new light. That seems to be the case with weighted blanket benefits.
Weighted blankets are based on old ideas such as swaddling infants and on practices that are physically enjoyable for most people, such as hugs. For centuries, deep muscle stimulation in the form of massage has been known to produce benefits in multiple ways. Calming stress-induced muscle tension is one of the most well-known. And, everyone knows the benefits of petting and stroking cats and dogs for bringing pleasurable sensations to both the one being petted and the one doing the petting.
Contrasted with heavier touch, light touches often bring irritation. Consider a fly landing on your leg. What is the first thing you want to do? Shoo it away, of course. But if your best friend lays a heavy arm across your shoulders, what do you feel? The comfort of that friendship.
Light touching stimulates the body to act. It alerts the nervous system, readying it for action. But heavy touching brings a relaxed and calming effect.
What Are Weighted Blankets?
Weighted blankets are just that: Blankets that are heavier than normal because of the use of plastic poly pellets, like those found in Beany Baby toys. This gives the blankets an evenly-distributed weight that is said to give a calming effect.
The benefits of weighted blankets include improving sleep for those who need it. For kids and adults with a variety of conditions, weight blankets are reported to have a calming effect.
These blankets have traditionally been utilized in occupational therapy efforts for kids who experience sensory disorders, stress, and anxiety.
Initially, the idea for weighted blankets came when the inventor’s daughter placed a long Beanie Baby over his shoulders while he was driving. The effect was so pleasing, he ultimately developed a blanket that would give the same effect over the entire body.
Having this kind of weight distributed over the entire body uses the principles behind deep pressure stimulation to bring about a release of serotonin and dopamine in the brain. These two neurotransmitters exert a calming and relaxing effect when stimulated.
The Science Behind Weighted Blanket Benefits
Much of the information regarding weighted blanket benefits is anecdotal. The science itself is sparse, and some is not particularly rigorous. At least one of the more rigorous studies conducted actually found no significant weighted blanket benefits.
But other studies have found at least enough weighted blanket benefits to justify further studies into the topic. One study examined the safety and efficacy of using weighted blankets for the remediation of anxiety in adults with mental health conditions. Thirty-two adults were involved in this exploratory study. The safety aspects were measured by blood pressure, pulse rate, and pulse oximetry, while the effectiveness was evaluated by using the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory and electrodermal activity. Results indicated the use of weighted blankets to be safe to use in adults. Other results showed a significant decrease in anxiety using the weighted blankets.
These results showed significant weighted blanket benefits and will be used in further research into the clinical use of weighted blankets.
Other research has indicated one of the weighted blanket benefits to be an increase in relaxation through stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system. The deep touch-pressure induced by weighted blankets is transmitted by the dorsal column system to the thalamus and reticular formation and then to sensory areas in the parietal lobe of the cerebral cortex.
Some research has shown the reticular formation to be involved in arousal. This function apparently explains the ability of the deep touch-pressure to bring about calm. There are also connections with the limbic system and the dorsal column through the hypothalamus and the anterolateral system. This redundant functionality in the nervous system provides one explanation of this kind of intervention.
Another explanation for the weighted blanket benefits has to do with deep touch-pressure sending sensory information to Purkinje cells in the cerebellum. Because these Purkinje cells contain large amounts of serotonin, they inhibit motor activity by dampening the stimulation of the reticular formation. This makes possible one of the weighted blanket benefits for children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
Children with ADHD have been found to have lower levels of serotonin in their brains. Thus, an increase in this neurotransmitter would tend to inhibit some of the over-activity found in these children. Naturally increasing the level of serotonin in these children through the use of weighted blankets could be very beneficial.
One small study (with a total of 4 students) measured the practicality, convenience, and efficacy of wearing weighted vests in the classroom. A significant increase in on-task behavior in the classroom with these children was seen. This finding suggests the use of weighted vests in the classroom is potentially beneficial for ADHD children. However, it also suggests the need for continuing research with controls and larger samples.
Another study involving 50 adults investigated the effect of deep touch-pressure through the wearing of weighted vests. Autonomic arousal and performance were studied. Results indicated wearing a weighted vest for even a short time decreased sympathetic arousal and increased parasympathetic arousal at the same time. Significant increases in performance were also seen after wearing the weighted vest. Results strongly suggest that deep-touch pressure brings changes in autonomic arousal. These results also strongly suggest the need for further research to determine the efficacy of this approach in remediation efforts by occupational therapists.
Weighted Blankets and Autism
Proponents of weighted blanket benefits point to the use of these products with children who have autism spectrum disorders. Weighted blankets have been used to calm children with autism for quite some time.
Much of the use of weighted blankets with this population has focused on improving sleep. Children with autism spectrum disorders often have difficulty sleeping. Between forty and eighty percent of both children and adults with one of these disorders report sleep issues.
The research appears to be divided on the use of weighted blankets to help with sleep. One randomized controlled study of 67 children showed no significant difference in ease of going to sleep or sleep quality with the use of weighted blankets. However, the blankets were tolerated well by the children, and both parents and children liked the weighted blankets.
Other research has shown more positive results. One investigation studied the effects of weighted blankets on sleep quality and quantity in adults. Objective and subjective measures were used in the study. Results showed an increase in objective measures of the amount of sleep in the period studied as well as a decrease in movements during sleep. Subjective measures showed the participants enjoyed sleeping with the weighted blanket, reported better sleep, and felt more refreshed upon awakening in the morning.
Researchers concluded the use of weighted blankets could be beneficial in reducing insomnia by changing tactile experiences. This could prove to be a significant non-pharmacological aid to improving sleep for those that typically have difficulty sleeping.
This appears to be the first research project investigating the effects of weighted blankets in insomnia. The results suggest that weighted blankets have potential benefits in dealing with mild to moderate insomnia generally and for mild sleep problems of other kinds. Children with autism spectrum disorder difficulties and elderly people with agitation issues have been calmed with weighted blankets. Therefore, the results of this research suggest that deep touch-pressure can reduce physiological arousal such as seen with autism and other issues.
Weighted Blankets and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
In addition to proponents of weighted blanket benefits for autism spectrum disorder conditions, there are also proponents for these benefits for children with ADHD.
One study investigated the use of weighted vests in the classroom for children with ADHD and associated difficulties in school work. Results showed significant improvement in the ability to stay in their seats, increase in speed of completion of tasks, and increase in ability to stay focused on tasks when wearing weighted vests.
The science supporting the weighted blanket benefits shows using these blankets increases the amount of serotonin available in the brain. Serotonin has a calming effect and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system that also calms the body in general. Research has shown a lower level of serotonin in the systems of children with ADHD. Thus, the increase of this neurotransmitter through the use of weighted blankets should have a beneficial outcome for children with ADHD.
Studies have found the use of weighted blankets or vests to improve the functioning of children with ADHD in the areas of increased focus, more in-seat time, and better task completion. Some studies have found a calming effect in students’ nervous systems with the use of weighted vests in the classroom. Other studies conducted by occupational therapists supported the findings of better attention-focusing and increased on-task behavior.
Research has shown one of the weighted blanket benefits to be increased levels of melatonin, as well. This finding may provide another explanation of why weighted blankets have been found by some researchers to improve both quantity and quality of sleep in children with ADHD and for others.
Other Uses of Weighted Blankets
Another of the weighted blanket benefits in the area of sleep is lowered cortisol levels. Grounding the human body during sleep has been hypothesized to improve sleep and lessen pain and stress by subjective report.
One study tested this hypothesis by measuring cortisol levels following the grounding of the subjects during sleep. Cortisol levels were significantly reduced during sleep, and 24-hour circadian cortisol levels tended toward normal. Changes were most apparent in female subjects.
This finding should suggest benefits in two areas: Using weighted blankets will increase the “grounding” effect on people, and lowered cortisol levels will improve functioning in those who may suffer from adrenal fatigue syndrome (AFS).
The use of deep touch-pressure such as seen with the use of weighted blankets has been reported anecdotally to help with numerous other health conditions. However, rigorous research into these conditions and the use of weighted blankets is sparse. Thus, whether the benefits of weighted blankets in these health conditions can be substantiated is unknown.
Some research has shown weighted blanket benefits in the area of anxiety. Anxiety is probably the most frequently assessed mental health condition in the U.S. Most of the cases of anxiety are remediated with medication and/or psychotherapy. A more natural form of remediation would help not just with the anxiety itself but also would do away with the side effects and potential addictive properties of some medications.
Studies in occupational therapy and psychiatry have shown weighted blankets to reduce the symptoms of anxiety. Subjects in these studies have accepted the weighted blankets with no problem, suggesting they are also safe for use.
Weighted blankets appear to work through increasing oxytocin in the body. This natural hormone brings on soothing feelings subjectively. Serotonin is also increased through the use of weighted blankets. Low levels of serotonin are seen regularly in people who experience both anxiety and depression. Melatonin is also increased, leading to better quality and quantity of sleep.
Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome and Weighted Blankets
Cortisol issues, stress, and anxiety are typical of AFS, a condition that results from unrelenting stress on the body. No matter the source of the stress, the body responds the same way. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is set in motion, bringing on a cascade of hormones and other chemicals. The end result is stimulation of the adrenal glands to produce cortisol to fight the effects of the stress. Continuing stress results in the adrenals becoming depleted and significant symptoms beginning. Over time, these symptoms become debilitating.
A difficulty involved in AFS is comprehensive evaluation and remediation of the condition. Conventionally trained healthcare professionals view the symptoms of AFS from a symptom-specific standpoint. Their attempts at remediation go along this same route.
However, looking at AFS symptoms from the viewpoint of the NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) Stress Response gives a more comprehensive and accurate assessment, leading to more effective remediation. The NEM approach relies on viewing symptoms as interaction among six organ systems. These systems are interrelated in that what affects one, affects others. This approach allows healthcare professionals to determine the root causes of the symptoms being presented.
The benefits of weighted blankets may be extended to those who are very weak, such as those in advanced stages of AFS. People who suffer from AFS often struggle with sleep issues, including not being able to go to sleep, staying asleep, poor quality of sleep, and awakening as tired or more tired as when they went to sleep. Weighted blankets have been shown to significantly lower the length of time required to go to sleep. Also, improvements in quality and quantity of sleep have been found with weighted blankets. People who use these blankets report feeling more rested upon arising. Other research has shown sleeping under weighted blankets to lower cortisol levels. This may help with preserving cortisol for use when stress is encountered.
Overall, weighted blankets lower stress levels through improving sleep and with their calming properties. Lower stress from sleep problems will lower overall stress levels and relieve some of the effects of AFS.
The increased levels of serotonin found with the use of weighted blankets also lead to increased calming and relaxation. Both of these effects help people deal with stress and its effects.
Even though weighted blankets have been shown to be safe for use, there are some precautions to keep in mind. Be certain the person using the blanket can remove it if needed and is comfortable using the blanket. Don’t roll the person up in the blanket and don’t cover the head or face. Make sure the blanket is intact and not leaking pellets. These pellets are non-toxic, but should not be ingested.
© Copyright 2017 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.
Dr. Lam’s Key Question
What are some weighted blanket benefits?
Some weighted blanket benefits include improved quantity and quality of sleep, a calming effect on children with ADHD and ASD, and lowering the amount of anxiety in both children and adults. Research has shown inconclusive results with the use of weighted blankets, so choosing to use them rests more on how they feel for you.