For most people, seeking better health and well-being through a Paleo lifestyle is purely a dietary choice.
However, some of the more curious and adventurous spirits out there are willing to experiment with other aspects of their life for further health gains. An often overlooked, but certainly important aspect of leading a Paleo lifestyle is sleep quality.
Our Paleo ancestors certainly didn’t have cushioned king mattresses or posturepedic comfort foam. They slept on a variety of surfaces that sometimes had more to do with what was available. But the question is whether mattresses are a truly welcome advance or if like so many aspects of our diet, the old ways are better?
The Modern Day Mattress
The modern mattress is the most common sleeping surface in the western world. In fact, it’s reasonable to assume that you are sleeping on one now or have in the past.
Modern mattresses can be made up of various materials including polyurethane foam, steel springs, water, memory foam, gel, dense foam rubber particles (i.e. latex), and the list goes on.
Many people sleep just fine on a modern day mattress since it is the surface they have been accustomed to their entire lives. But, we all have had sleepless nights where our bed just doesn’t seem comfortable no matter how many times we readjust our sleeping position.
Sleep issues seem to be a very common complaint among most people living in western society. Companies cater to this problem by marketing various sleep drugs and sleeping aids “that will give you the best night’s sleep of your life.” All too often these marketing tactics don’t live up to expectations. Unfortunately, in the quest to get better sleep, the mattress itself is frequently overlooked.
It’s guaranteed that our hunter-gatherer ancestors were not schlepping heavy mattresses around to suit their nomadic lifestyles. And for better or worse, the surface that a modern mattress provides is very different from the earth’s various natural unaltered surfaces.
In fact, the development of stationary long-term beds or mattresses is directly tied to the transition of human society away from a nomadic lifestyle and towards a sedentary agriculturally-centered lifestyle as evidenced by prehistoric beds found at the settlement known as Skara Brae in Scotland dating to roughly 5000 B.C.1
The widespread availability and use of mattresses in western society in the last two hundred years was only made possible by major advancements in production efficiency during the industrial revolution.2
In that short time frame, mattresses have become so pervasive, they are no longer a luxury – they are a custom in modern society. But with that pervasiveness, have we questioned whether there’s something to be concerned about with the mattress we lay our heads on every night?
Many modern day mattresses often have an “off-gas” period where various toxic chemicals (often flame retardants) are released into your home and potentially your body.3 Certainly no one would volunteer to sleep in a toxic soup every night while adapting to a new mattress. Fortunately older mattresses tend to have already “off-gassed” and should be safer.
If you are committed to sleeping on a mattress, opt for mattresses that are labeled as non-toxic or better yet purchase a good quality firm futon mattress made from 100% organic cotton.
Hammocks are the most common alternative to sleeping on a mattress.
Backpackers and campers alike will often opt for a hammock due to its portability and lightweight nature. If you’re looking to make one a more permanent feature in your home, indoor suspension systems and frames are available online.
Forest-dwelling hunter-gatherers almost certainly slept in hammocks, but the archaeological evidence for their use much beyond recorded history is unknown since the plant-based composition of hammocks degrades quickly.
The earliest evidence of hammock comes from the time of the Spanish conquest of the West Indies when Spanish colonists observed wide-spread use among Native Americans.4
Hammocks by their very nature induce a gentle rocking motion. New research has demonstrated that this unique “swaying” or “rocking” has positive effects on sleep quality. Participants in a recent study fell asleep faster on a rocking bed than a stationary bed. The length of N2 sleep, which is a form of non-rem sleep typically occupy one half of an eight-hour sleep cycle increased as well. There was also a rise in sleep spindles (burst of brain activity during sleep.)5
Perhaps the most disliked and ignored, yet potentially beneficial sleeping surface for humans is the ground.
Sleeping on the ground can be traced back to the very roots of human evolution.6 Anthropological evidence shows that hunter-gatherers lived nomadic lives and slept on the ground wherever a base camp was constructed. Mattresses were certainly not an option and hammocks were only possible in forested areas.
Very few hunter-gatherer sites have revealed evidence of bedding remains but it is often assumed that animal hides, clay, and soft plant materials were used to construct beds within the vicinity of the base camp.7
Now-a-days, there’s a wealth of anecdotal claims online about the benefits of sleeping on the floor. Numerous people have said it increases circulation, falling asleep faster, disappearance of sleep-related joint or muscle pain, and they no longer have difficulty finding comfort as pressure points are eliminated by sleeping on a firm surface.
The belief is that while the body sinks into a mattress and has to be supported by the muscles for comfort and stability, the skeleton naturally maintains equilibrium with the ground because of its firm and non-elastic properties. This prevents your muscles and joints from having to support misaligned portions of your body that are all too common on a modern mattress. There’s a certain logic for the skeleton to be aligned exactly parallel to the surface it sleeps on for maximum support.
Of course most of these claims are anecdotal. Very few research papers exist on ground-sleeping and its health benefits. But in one, semi-nomadic populations in Kenya who slept on the ground demonstrated far fewer musculoskeletal lesions than western populations sleeping on beds.8
Transitioning to ground sleeping can be very difficult in the first week or two, considering most of us have been sleeping on a mattress our entire lives. But after a few weeks most people have no problem sleeping on the floor and many prefer it over a mattress. Most people use a thin layer of padding or foam on the floor along with a pillow or blanket.
While ground sleeping might seem bizarre, consider that many cultures are accustomed to it and it is still common practice in various Asian countries. If you can’t warm up to the idea of sleeping on the floor, consider purchasing a very firm non-toxic mattress or futon.