Judging by social media and other chatter, one of the impactful talks at TED 2019—held in Vancouver in April—was Matthew Walker’s “You’re Not Getting Enough Sleep—and it’s Killing You.”
Walker, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Berkeley, has been encouraging people to take sleep more seriously for a few years now, arguing that, short-term, a lack of sleep messes with our memory, appetite and immune systems, and, long-term, could make us more vulnerable to depression, anxiety, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and cancer. That got people’s attention.
Shouldn’t we already know that sleep is an important thing, though? We all know the joy of a solid, uninterrupted eight hours, right? And, on the flip side, anyone who’s ever experienced a sleep disorder—roughly 40 per cent of Canadians, including me—is keenly aware that it’s not just the frustration in the middle of the night that’s a problem, it’s the fact that the next day’s largely a write-off, thanks to a haze of brain fog.
What is it that keeps people like me up? Anxiety? Stress? Depression? It might be a complex interplay of things, explains Dr. Christine Purdon, Director of Clinical Training of the PhD program in Clinical Psychology at the University of Waterloo and co-director of the Anxiety Studies Division, who says that insomnia is characteristic of a number of mental health problems.
“Some people have trouble sleeping because their thoughts race and they’re worried that they’re not going to be able to manage the challenges of the next day,” says Purdon. “So, they’re trying to problem-solve, but they can’t do anything about it at two in the morning in their bed, so the thoughts keep racing and then they get anxious. And you can’t sleep when you’re anxious because you’ve got cortisol running through your body.”
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Cortisol is a steroid hormone that jacks up our blood sugar, suppresses our immune system and gets us ready to run away from predators—a built-in alarm, starting at the amygdala, a part of the brain that sends distress signals to other parts of the brain. Although our modern anxiety is more likely to be about deadlines or office politics than sabre-tooth tigers, we still make cortisol when the amygdala senses danger.
Purdon’s description is exactly how I feel at 5 a.m., hopelessly trying to get back to sleep with Jedi mind tricks. I should say, though, that I’ve been pretty lucky to have fewer (and shorter) bouts of insomnia over the past several years. Whereas, I once had torturous two- or three-week spells a few times a year, it’s down to a sporadic few nights a month. I attribute a lot of that to keeping more regular hours and paying attention to the quality of mattresses and light “noise” in the room.
I’d like to get it down to zero, though, so I’m always on the look-out for new strategies for better sleep. As such, when Sleep Country Canada offered to send me a Snuggable Weighted Blanket ($199 plus tax) to try out, I took them up on it.
Day One: The package tells me this 230-thread count, 15-pound blanket will “create a feeling of being hugged,” as well as “reduce chronic stress and high levels of anxiety” and “may increase serotonin and melatonin levels and decrease cortisol levels…to promote a better sleep.” The key word here is “may.” There really isn’t a lot of peer-reviewed research confirming the many anecdotal stories circulating that it’s helpful for anxiety and/or sensory processing disorders.
First night: Even if you think you have a pretty good idea as to what 15 pounds feels like, picking up this blanket produces cognitive dissonance—it’s way heavier than it looks. It’s also only five feet long, so you have to choose between covering your chest or your feet. Initially, I thought it was a non-starter, since it felt less like “hugging” and more like being trapped. Despite my concerns, I slept well.
Week Two: The weird thing is, you adjust to the weight pretty quickly—for me, I was actually looking forward to the sensation of added weight by the end of the first week. I was sleeping more on my back and moving around less, which is obviously a good thing
Week Three: Insomnia strikes. For me, it’s never about getting to sleep but, rather, staying asleep. I’ll wake up at 4 a.m. and that’s when the thoughts start racing. This generally lasts several hours, but, all four nights that it happened to me that week I was able to get back to sleep in under 15 minutes.
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Month’s End: After a month with no insomnia, I’m a convert. I still have some trepidation, since I’ve had a lot of vivid dreams—sometimes too vivid. I’m also worried about whether or not it’ll be too hot in, say, mid-July.
I’m also worried it might not last. What if my good sleeps are just a placebo effect? As Dr. Purdon points out, without more studies, we can’t know. She can, however, imagine a theory for how a weighted blanket might work to alleviate some symptoms of anxiety.
“I have heard of people using weighted blankets and enjoying them,” she says. “I think that if it gives a safety signal—like that kind of warm sense of being bundled—I think it’s possible that sensation can make somebody feel safer and down-regulate the amygdala and get rid of the anxiety, which could help you get back to sleep.”
Still, Purdon warns that people shouldn’t get their hopes up that a blanket, no matter how good, will be life-transforming, even if future research does support the theory.
“I do have a fair bit of skepticism about things that come onto the market making big claims,” she says. “I don’t think there are quick fixes for anything. I think it’s great if some people try something and it helps them. But I don’t think something like that is going to cure anybody’s anxiety problems, that’s for sure.”
Christine Sismondo is a Toronto-based writer and contributor to the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @sismondo