Health Notes

Our mattress obsession

By Emily Spacek

Shopping therapy may (or may not) cure your sleep woes

In young adulthood, when we first move out on our own and most of our possessions can fit in our cars, a mattress is a weighty investment. By design, it is large and bulky. It’s burdensome to move. A mattress signifies a commitment to a place and, sometimes, even a commitment to a person.

To claim a mattress is to declare a personal, intimate space. It is a privilege that we know not everyone has. On days when the outside world feels threatening and oppressive, our mattress provides a temporary refuge. Pets, lovers, friends—we can be selective regarding who we let into this most personal of spaces.

For practical reasons, a good mattress is important. But the idea of what a good mattress is seems to be drastically changing.

In an age where modern habits eat up our downtime, sleep is both more elusive and more valuable than ever before. Getting the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep per night is difficult and many of us fall short.

On top of economic and social pressures that prioritize a superhuman-like work ethic, our sedentary lifestyles, late-night screen usage and the growing collective stress (symptomatic of the current environmental and political climate) mean less time is allotted for a relaxed, quality sleep. The less time, then, that we devote to our sleep, the more we demand that the sleep we do get is perfect.

To cope with our unwillingness to commit to lifestyle changes that directly lead to better sleep hygiene and improved sleep, we turn to the place with all of the promises: the marketplace.

Capitalizing on our sleep struggles and the risks associated with them, the marketplace has exploded with a wide array of products, drugs and services that promise consumers the deepest, most genuine, sleep of their lives. Billboards advertise specialized mattresses and upgraded pillows. Social media ads promote over-the-counter supplements and apps that promise to have users asleep in three seconds.

Nowadays you can get a factory-fresh mattress delivered to your door with just a click— perhaps from the Utah-based “bed in a box” retailer, Purple. While Tempur-Pedic was once known for having the finest mattress tech, today, Utah company Intellibed claims their patented “intelli-Gel,” which does not break down or compress over time, far surpasses.

Across all brands and price tag numbers, ads claim their mattress will help alleviate neck and back pain, snoring, insomnia and any night movements made by your partner. We now can choose innerspring/memory foam/plant-based/ all-organic/zero emissions wonders of the sleep universe complete with state-of-the-art zoned support technology.

Some of us are likely lying awake in complete comfort.

I can relate to sleep trouble and the need for self-care to make up for our predominant burn-the-candle-at-both-ends lifestyle. But in the noble quest to find activities or relaxation techniques to help us prioritize our mental and physical health, marketed self-care tells us that the miracle solutions come out of a box.

The mattress obsession is fueled by a strategic marketing reinvention to turn straightforward, low-cost items into trendy, pricy new gadgets. For better sleep, drop thousands on this 18-in.-thick, temperature-resistant, firm and soft, all-organic (but shipped in layers of plastic) California king that you will likely replace in nine years.

In Thailand, where I lived for four months, a thin, extremely firm mattress is the norm. In Norway, mattresses are thick and squishy. These cultures based their sleep medium on what was most appropriate for the weather and people simply adjusted to it.

If your current mattress still feels comfortable enough, you might try  my go-to sleep aid:  picking up a good book instead. Reading can reduce stress by 68%, according to a University of Sussex study. It allows muscles to relax and calms breathing. Reading is a fabulous bedtime ritual, with a far cheaper price tag.  Maybe it will work for you.

The truth is, your mattress may have very little to do with getting a good night’s sleep, or it may have a lot. In the end, only you will be able to decide if that new mattress is worth it.


— Emily Spacek

This article was originally published on December 1, 2019.