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    Apr 13, 2020

    So How Does A Weighted Blanket Actually Work?

    Exploring the science of a hug, because yes, that’s a thing.

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    You might have heard that hugging is good for your health. Not just because it feels nice, but also because science.

    Ryan Pattie / BuzzFeed

    The soothing powers of physical connection have long been a topic of study, underscored in recent years by a prevailing narrative involving a molecule called oxytocin — also known as the “hug hormone” or — *shudders* — the “love hormone.”

    Walt Disney Company / Via giphy.com

    Here’s the gist in theory: Bodily contact releases this so-called “hug hormone,” which can make you a happier human by helping your body regulate stress. It’s been billed as a molecule that can single-handedly turn your day around. In a 2011 TEDGlobal talk, neuroeconomist Paul Zak even posited that spraying oxytocin up one’s nose could make a person kinder and more moral.

    By association, weighted blankets are touted for having similar effects on users. In fact, it seems to be the industry’s main selling point. Everyone loves hugs! And the snuggling sensation is said to activate the same pressure sensors you’d get from skin-to-skin contact. This, according to some, produces more oxytocin, and as we’re told: Oxytocin is the key to a healthier, less stressful life.

    So does science actually back all this up? Yes and no. Well, yes and then no.

    Sony Pictures Television / Via giphy.com

    Turns out the rise of oxytocin as a wonder hormone is a mix of wishful thinking and, as Vox poses in light of recently published studies, the rise of “a poster child for hype in science.” The hormone might be an easy way to talk about the associations of touch to our well-being, but the early studies behind its effects don’t quite add up — at least when it comes to the claim that oxytocin is the main reason why we feel good from a warm embrace.

    This doesn’t mean we should shout, “FAKE NEWS!” yet. If anything, oxytocin is just one small piece of the puzzle regarding why weighted blankets can supposedly help us destress and get better sleep.

    Walt Disney Pictures / Via giphy.com

    When it comes to broader studies in the Hugging Sciences™, researchers say weighted blankets may help relax the nervous system, acting as the stress relief that helps us sleep better. Still, the evidence is mostly anecdotal. Test subjects use the weighted blanket and report their feelings, which doesn’t account for a whole host of other variables.

    “The studies will never ever get the gold standard, which is a double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial because of the obvious reason — you can't have a sham blanket. You know if your blanket is weighted, so there’s no placebo control,” says Dr. Raj Dasgupta, a pulmonary specialist, sleep expert, and assistant professor at Keck Medicine of USC.

    HBO / Via giphy.com

    In Dasgupta’s view, weighted blankets can have positive effects as long as users also improve other areas of their “sleep hygiene,” such as having a target bedtime, regulating the temperature in the bedroom, considering what they wear to sleep, and eating properly to facilitate restfulness, like avoiding caffeine at night.

    Dasgupta also notes that while there are studies that show increased levels of “happy hormones” like oxytocin, serotonin, or dopamine due to the use of a weighted blanket, a more important takeaway might be the fact that pressure therapy has shown to decrease the release of the stress hormone cortisol — something commonly found in large quantities in people with insomnia. “High cortisol increases blood sugars, your blood pressure, so it all cascades from there,” he explains. “There is an assumption that there's a better balance of hormones if you can get better sleep. We don't have the data to say it's going to be specifically latched to the weighted blanket. But in some people, it's working.”

    Walt Disney Studios / Via giphy.com

    In that sense, weighted-blanket users basically just need to trust that they work. Dasgupta mentions that patients with fibromyalgia have reported benefits, with the thinking being that the pressure applied by a weighted blanket suppresses certain trigger points that cause pain. Dasgupta’s son is autistic and uses a weighted blanket, which seems to work well with all of the other measures taken to ensure his sleep hygiene is the best it can be.

    Which is to say if it works, it works. And it anything, it’s proven to be a safe and effective non-drug therapeutic practice for sleep and relaxation. “I will pick a weighted blanket any day of the week if it prevents you from going on any type of sedative-hypnotic such as Ambien, Lunesta, or trazodone,” he says.

    CBC Televsion / Via giphy.com

    For anyone looking for a more concrete measure of a weighted blanket’s correlation to increased oxytocin and other hormones, Dasgupta offers this rejoinder: “How bad do you want me sticking a needle in your arm to test these things?” Take his word — as well as the word of test subjects and thousands of other users — that these blankets and the hugging sensation they offer can help you, provided you’ve set yourself up for a better night’s rest, physically and mentally. 

    “I think many of these blankets are wonderful,” he says. “You just have to be committed to better sleep and changing your lifestyle beyond purchasing the blanket.”