09/16/21

The Science Behind Weighted Blankets: Why Do They Work?

Written by in Weighted Blankets

Weighted blankets have become quite trendy in recent years. As with every up-and-coming health trend, people typically question a product or practice’s effectiveness along with the science that’s behind it. This curiosity is a good habit to get into, especially when it pertains to your health. If you look into many widely-known health topics, you may find a lot of them aren’t very well-researched and may even be harmful.

Fortunately, this is not the case with weighted blankets, as there are many scientific mechanisms involved in the use of a seemingly simple chunk of fabric. It’s equally as important to know the basics of weighted blankets as it is to know their benefits, what they can help with, and studies that support their usefulness.

What are Weighted Blankets?

Weighted blankets are very simple in their design. At their core, they are traditional blankets that are heavier than normal. But the scientific reasoning is more in-depth than that. Weighted blankets were first exclusively used as a part of sessions provided by rehabilitation professionals called occupational therapists (OTs). 

Occupational therapists can help people of all ages, but their treatments with children often incorporate the use of weighted blankets to address sensory sensitivities. Therefore, in a therapeutic sense, weighted blankets can be used with kids who have a range of needs, from autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to attention-deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Outside of the therapy world, weighted blankets require very few special instructions so they became an easy at-home remedy for kids with these health concerns. However, their use has also extended to adolescents and adults to help address:

  • Sleep disorders like insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Mood concerns such as depression
  • Chronic pain
  • Fibromyalgia

Weighted blankets may even benefit people who are living with symptoms of restless leg syndrome. The interesting part about weighted blankets is that their mechanism is broad in nature. This means the blankets are effective for helping with a range of symptoms that result from several different health concerns.

How Do They Work?

In a general sense, weighted blankets work on the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for easing the body into a natural state. When the body enters this relaxed state, it experiences a boost in digestion, decreased mental health concerns such as anxiety or depression, an even heart rate, and relief from difficulty breathing.

Weighted blankets are effective due to what is called deep pressure stimulation, which offers input that has a calming effect on the body and provides a sense of comfort. If you know a child who often likes getting a big hug, it’s quite likely that they will also like weighted blankets, since they both offer the same type of deep pressure.

This type of input is significantly more impactful when it works on large areas of the body, such as the torso, arms, and legs. This is because pressure on a larger scale causes a surge in dopamine and serotonin, which are natural feel-good chemicals in the brain. 

  • Dopamine is responsible for providing feelings of reward, motivation, and happiness.
  • Serotonin helps keep our mood level and contributes to feelings of pleasure.

Stabilized serotonin levels in the brain also serve many other purposes, such as helping improve digestion while giving someone better sleep. The chemical impact doesn’t stop there, since weighted blankets have even more utility in improving sleep cycles. We mentioned that the input provided by weighted blankets spurs an increase in serotonin, which triggers the release of a similar chemical called melatonin. 

  • Melatonin not only helps people get to sleep more quickly, but it also helps them stay asleep for longer.
  • Oxytocin is another feel-good chemical in the brain that surges in response to input from weighted blankets. The release of oxytocin causes feelings of happiness and is commonly known for being present when people are in love.

Another huge benefit that weighted blankets serve for the brain (and body) is that they help lower cortisol levels. 

  • Cortisol is a stress hormone that stops processes like digestion, sleep, and the regulation of emotions. 

When there are high levels of cortisol in the blood, the body responds with constant anxiety and heightened awareness. Cortisol causes stress-based emotions, but it can also damage the body via weight gain and poor organ function.

As you can see, weighted blankets offer widespread benefits. Now that you are more familiar with the impact that weighted blankets have on the inner workings of the body and brain, we will now discuss some of the symptoms that weighted blankets can help alleviate.

Studies on Weighted Blankets & Autism

Weighted blankets have been studied extensively for their use in assisting children with autism spectrum disorder. Children with this behavioral condition often experience disrupted sleep cycles due to changes in the brain, so much research has focused on how weighted blankets can help these children get better rest. Studies and anecdotal evidence shows that regular use of weighted blankets can help:

  • Alleviate daytime anxiety
  • Improve ability to fall asleep and remain asleep
  • Morning routines flow more easily for children with ASD
  • Reduce restlessness and tantrums
  • Decrease stereotypic activities
  • Increase speaking power

Other studies have examined the usefulness of weighted blankets in lessening sensory sensitivities, which are commonly associated with ASD. There is not as much research surrounding this area, but existing studies suggest that weighted blankets can improve motor coordination and lessen sensitivity to stress-inducing input such as loud noises, light touch, and bright lights. A separate experiment did not note any improvements in the sleep quality of children with ASD who have severely impaired sleep. But parents and caregivers from this study did report that children preferred the blankets and they were easy to use.

Studies on Weighted Blankets & Anxiety

While there is typically not much variation across the different types of weighted blankets, some research demonstrates that blankets of a certain weight may be more effective than others for the purpose of anxiety. One study analyzed the effects of 5-pound, 15-pound, and 20-pound weighted blankets on the heart rate, oxygen levels, and anxiety scales of patients in a psychiatric hospital. Results showed that participants who used the 15-pound blanket experienced the most improvements across all symptoms. Similar research has shown that weighted blankets yielded lower anxiety levels in chemotherapy patients who utilized them on a regular basis.

Studies on Weighted Blankets & Chronic Pain

While there is not much research surrounding the use of weighted blankets for people with chronic pain, they have the potential to be very effective for this population. This is because weighted blankets calm the nervous system, which is the same end goal for pain medications. 

  • Both interventions have different mechanisms, as pain medications release certain chemicals that bind to receptors in the brain and trigger feel-good chemicals that allow for pain relief.

Weighted blankets offer deep pressure over large parts of the body, which work on some of these same receptors. The blanket doesn’t necessarily need to be added to the part of the body that is in pain, since one study cites that weighted blankets assist in reducing broad perceptions of pain and not numeric pain levels. This same study also found that light weighted blankets worked better for anxiety than pain in patients with chronic concerns.

Studies on Weighted Blankets & Sleep

While some suspect weighted blankets may be too hot, in reality the mechanisms behind weighted blankets can certainly improve sleep, but research actually shows that regular use of a weighted blanket allowed some people with mental health concerns to stop taking sleep medications entirely. Another study also supports the use of weighted blankets for individuals with a wider range of mental health conditions, including:

  • Bipolar disorder
  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • ADHD
  • Depression

If you’re wondering how weighted blankets measure up to other non-pharmacological sleep interventions, studies have also compared their effectiveness to that of a standard, slightly heavy blanket. The weighted blanket was 17 pounds and the other option was 3 pounds. Results showed that individuals who used the weighted blanket experienced far greater improvements in prolonged sleep and daytime energy along with less depression and anxiety. Another study showed that weighted blankets offered individuals with insomnia and other sleep disorders a more restful and calmer night’s sleep as well as more reports of feeling refreshed the next day.

Weighted blankets are an evidence-based way to enhance sleep, manage anxiety, and improve the symptoms of autism spectrum disorder. There is also some growing evidence that weighted blankets can be used to relieve pain for individuals living with chronic conditions. By taking advantage of this safe and easy-to-use tool, people of all ages with a range of needs can experience better health and improved quality-of-life.

Common QuestionsHow heavy should weighted blankets be?

How heavy should weighted blankets be?

Weighted blankets should be between 5 and 20 pounds, but they are most effective when they are around 15 pounds. However, it’s important to ensure that your weighted blanket is no more than 20% of your body weight, as this will make it too heavy and poses a safety risk.

Are weighted blankets safe for everyone?

Weighted blankets are not recommended for individuals under the age of 3 or anyone who has breathing problems such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), sleep apnea, or asthma.

What is in a weighted blanket?

Every weighted blanket is different. Some are filled with crystal beads or plastic pellets, while homemade ones may be stuffed with uncooked beans. High-quality weighted blankets may be made with several layers of heavy fabric and not contain any filling.

How do I care for my weighted blanket?

Weighted blankets can be washed in warm water with mild detergent. They can also be tumble dried on low, but it’s usually advised to air dry them if possible. You can also spot clean your weighted blanket, and some even come with removable covers that can be washed more easily than the entire blanket.

When should I use my weighted blanket?

Weighted blankets can be used whenever you prefer. Some people like laying with them before bed, which is ideal if you have trouble sleeping. Others like to use them during the day to keep calm and lower anxiety. This is entirely based on personal preference.