When it comes to greening our lifestyles, most of us think of the most obvious things first: recycling, conserving energy and water, switching to compact fluorescent lights, low-flow showers and toilets, unplugging appliances when not in use, eliminating unnecessary consumption of plastic, composting, and buying organic food. Beyond that we might seek to replace our household cleaning and personal care products with safer, non-toxic alternatives. But rarely do we consider the impact of the furniture we own or buy or our home furnishings and decorations, not just in terms of how they fit into a “green” lifestyle but also in terms of how they affect our health and well-being.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the bedroom. When it comes to our bedroom furniture, it’s rare that we factor in the importance of choosing greener, safer alternatives for our health or for the health of the environment.
Mattresses and beds are one of those strange things. When the time comes to buy a new one we typically spend a lot of time shopping and deciding which to buy based almost exclusively on our perceptions of how comfortable they’re going to be. Of course, this totally makes sense since the primary objective of having a comfortable bed is to get a good night’s rest.
There’s no question that sleep deprivation and stress-related insomnia can adversely impact your health and lead to all kinds of problems from becoming more accident-prone, to experiencing short-term memory loss and difficulty concentrating, irritability and mood swings, and even weight gain or difficulty losing weight!
And we all know the importance of having proper support for optimal sleep postures and the ensuing neck and back pain that can come from not having that. Yet most of us spend close to, if not more than a third of our life sleeping on beds made from anything but green materials. Even if your bed is super comfortable, if you’ve had it for more than 5 years, then you have to consider the health consequences of continuing to sleep on it.
The Hidden Danger in Old Fashioned Beds
Are you sleeping on an old-fashioned coil or foam mattress? A Futon? Or maybe you invested in one of those polyurethane memory foam mattresses designed to mold itself to the shape of your body so you sink into it making it less likely that you’ll spend the night tossing and turning and instead get a good night’s sleep? If you answered yes to any of the above, then it may be time to seriously consider greening your sleep routine.
The hidden, unspoken health risks that come from sleeping on an old-fashioned coil or foam mattress may seem secondary to the health risks from not getting enough sleep, but when it comes to your health you shouldn’t settle for unnecessary trade-offs.
You see, most traditional mattresses are made with metal coils that are coated in some type of toxic chemical to keep them from rusting and degrading over time. Then there’s the material used to fill the mattress, which is more often than not, polyurethane foam and other flame retardant materials. Even mattresses that are filled with cotton or a cotton/polyester blend can be loaded with pesticides unless they are explicitly labeled as organic cotton.
To add insult to injury, there is an additional layer of chemicals added to the top layer of the mattress that helps keep them water and stain resistant. So from the core or heart of the mattress all the way to its outer surface, there’s a cornucopia of toxic chemicals that slowly leach out over time (or outgas as the case may be).
Who Needs a Furnace When a Synthetic Mattress Will Do the Trick?
Ironically, some of these materials can also contribute to insomnia or sleeplessness. As it turns out, foam or synthetic fiber mattresses retain your body heat and can act like an oven, raising your body temperature, which results in lighter sleep. As your body temperature increases you tend to kick off the covers to cool off. Then, during the night, you get colder and get up to grab the covers again. This hot-cold progression disturbs your pre- R.E.M. (Rapid Eye Movement) sleeping pattern, which leads to fitful and restless sleep.
By contrast, when you sleep on natural fibers, moisture gets wicked away, which helps keep your body at a more even temperature. This also helps you get a better night’s rest and stay in the R.E.M. (deep) sleep cycle longer. So optimal sleeping conditions should provide a breathable surface to the sleeper. Natural fibers are breathable. Synthetic fibers are not.
Which Flavor of Green Works Best?
So how do you go about choosing a new mattress? There are a number of good options to choose from starting with natural latex (don’t get fooled into buying a mattress that is a mixture of natural and synthetic latex), organic cotton, or organic wool. Natural latex is recommended because it’s naturally anti-microbial, anti-bacterial, dust mite proof and relieves pressure points along the body. The rubber in natural latex provides an almost motion-free sleeping experience, is exceptionally breathable and naturally hygienic. In addition, infrared photography has shown that natural rubber reduces pressure-point pain up to 30% better than memory foam.
Wool has the ability to absorb large amounts of natural body moisture and then release it easily through evaporation. This attribute keeps you comfortable while you sleep by minimizing natural body-temperature fluctuations. Wool can also spring back to its original size and shape, and it discourages dust mites. Because of its high moisture content and the protein (keratin) that it contains, wool is also naturally flame resistant.
And last but not least, certified organic cotton mattresses. These can be rather hard but you can make them more comfy by adding a wool mattress topper. Apparently the wool in mattress toppers (and in mattresses) is well encased in cotton so if you’re allergic or sensitive to wool there shouldn’t be a problem.
If you can’t swing a new mattress then a pure wool or natural rubber mattress topper is your next best option, followed by organic cotton barrier cloths or zippered encasings to protect your lungs from dust mite allergens and put a little barrier between yourself and the toxins being out gassed by your current mattress.
For maximum benefits, create the optimal sleep environment by converting your other bedding –sheets, comforters, duvet covers, pillows and pillow protective casings to materials made of natural fiber as well.