Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
6 Jul

Bedding: Do We Really Need It?

The massive, California king body-molding Tempurpedic mattress that can balance a glass of Cab even as the red-faced TV pitchman hops up and down on it on his way to the next infarction, is a recent invention. Our ancestors were not hauling these massive things from kill site to kill site. They made do with mats, or piles of leaves, or animal skins, or even just the bare ground, and they – by and large – managed to avoid the musculoskeletal disorders that plague modern sedentary man. Should we follow suit, ditching our sumptuous sleeping setups for something more Spartan? Are health benefits conferred by slumbering on something Grok would recognize? Or put another way, are our beloved pillow-topped mattresses doing more harm than good?

To make a long story short, I don’t think contemporary Western beds are all that important in the development of back and shoulder pain and think this is one of many areas where a modern convenience is a plus. In fact, I feel for Grok. Who wants to sleep on the ground!? We prefer softer beds because they’re… well, softer. Who doesn’t feel spoiled in high-thread count, Egyptian cotton sheets and surrounded by a plethora of pillows? There aren’t many things more comfortable and relaxing. With all that said let me add this caveat. I also see them as a reaction to our sedentary lifestyle. We prefer softer beds in part because our backs hurt, and our backs hurt because we sit in chairs instead of squat, plod around in shoes instead of prowl around in bare feet or barely-there moccasins, and obtain our food by placing it neatly into a grocery cart instead of hunting or gathering it. Modern bedding is like cholesterol; it’s the smoke, not the fire. Sleeping on softer and softer beds might exacerbate our pain or make recovery that much harder, but from what I can gather it doesn’t seem to be the original cause of our back pain.

Still, if you’re making good progress (making the barefoot transition, minimizing time spent hunched over a computer or sitting improperly, exercising regularly), you might want to experiment with different sleeping surfaces. After all, most ancestral beds were little more than mats or planks, and many modern cultures still prefer firm beds with nearly nonexistent mattresses (like most of Asia, for example; just try finding an affordable hotel or hostel with big plush Western-style bedding).

No support (mats, ground, palm fronds, stiff board) should work fine, provided you’re working from a solid healthy base. If you look at the folks who’ve traditionally slept on not much at all (PDF), they’ve got all their bases covered. The Ache of Paraguay, who sleep on mats, are active hunters, getting around 80% of their energy from animals or insects, and far from sedentary. I doubt the average Ache has even seen an office chair. Then there’s the !Kung, who sleep on blankets or “nothing at all,” or the Efe people of the Democratic Republic of Congo, who sleep on leaves strewn on the ground. These are all active groups who do not sit in chairs or lead sedentary lives. They tend toward physical fitness as a necessity of survival, and lying on the ground with minimal support is a perfectly natural way to sleep. I’m reminded of Maba’s account of her grandmother, who went barefoot her entire life, slept on the ground, and remained “healthy and active until 2 days before she died.” I’m not entirely sure that your average IT guy could sleep on his studio floor and get a good night’s sleep like she evidently could. In that same thread, Erwan le Corre of MovNat is described as a floor-sleeper; the guy goes barefoot trekking through rain, sleet, snow, and jungle for a living, so he’s definitely wired and prepped for minimal bedding.

I personally lean toward the firmer side of things. In the last couple of sleep posts, commenters praised latex mattresses. Since I’m inclined to trust my readership, especially when they reach a consensus, I would suggest checking out latex mattresses if you need a change.

What about pillows, for that matter?

No, we weren’t born with pillows, but they sure do improve my sleep quality – and that’s enough reason for me to keep on using them. Besides, even if we haven’t always had access to goose down pillows, we’re using forearms and shoulders to support our big heads. The traditional Chinese “pillow” consists of a wooden block that rests under the head; certain hunter-gatherers use a “wad of clothing” or a bunch of leaves bound together. I had a college buddy who always stretched (passed) out on the floor and refused to use a pillow, instead preferring his fist. The guy never failed to fall asleep, so I guess it worked for him.

I’m thinking our reliance on mattresses is a bit like our reliance on protective footwear; we’ve grown soft and coddled, and switching to a firmer (or nonexistent) mattress results in some growing pains as we adjust, just like new barefooters, with their underused foot and calf muscles, need to ease into the new way of moving. But the comparison stops there. Barefooting confers considerable benefits over shoefooting, provided you master the transition, and I’m convinced that nearly everyone should try to ditch the shoes whenever possible. I’m just not convinced that ditching the bed and hunkering down on the ground is necessary. Sure, there may be some benefits – you’d have to give it a shot to see just how evident they are – but I, for one, continue to get fantastic sleep and wake up with zero pain on my standard (albeit firm) mattress. It may be a case of “you don’t know until you give it up,” like with grains and sugar, but I doubt it. At any rate, I gave up the grains and sugar because their deleterious effects on my body were tangible. If you’re tossing and turning and waking up with terrible back and shoulder pain because of your mattress, it might be worth it to tinker with your sleep posture (first) and bedding choices. There does appear to be evidence that in the presence of lower back pain, switching from your old bed (more than five years old, firmness not specified) to a brand-new “medium firm bed” improves sleep quality and reduces discomfort. If you don’t have back pain or sleep discomfort, keeping doing what you’re doing.

Would Maba’s grandmother have enjoyed such robust health and vitality if she slept on a mattress? It’s difficult to say, but I think her lack of footwear and tendency toward staying active were bigger players. Lock those down, stop sitting so much, improve your recumbent and upright posture, and then think about playing with your bedding.

Let me know what you think. What are your bedding preferences and experiences? Thanks for reading, everyone, and Grok on!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. “Stay tuned for today’s regularly scheduled post in which we’ll be exploring another hormone: estrogen.”
    Wow, who knew estrogen was so comfy… 😛
    just kidding, great post!

    SNMNY wrote on July 6th, 2010
  2. I need it! But that’s just cause I life to be comfy and cozy! Thanks for the article, I love sharing your info with my clients!

    Susan Campbell wrote on July 6th, 2010
  3. I’m not parting with my comfy bed, pillows, flannel winter sheets and soft summer sheets. Grok can have the ground, I’ll take the mattress, or even the couch for that matter.

    Tracee wrote on July 6th, 2010
    • LOL I was just thinking that :-))

      I loooove my bed :))

      Carla wrote on July 6th, 2010
  4. Like I have said in your other posts about sleeping, I have been sleeping in my same bed for 22 years. Well, except for 3 months. But, it is a twin bed and it is a cheap mattress set I am sure. But, I sleep like a baby every night.

    For one who struggles with sleep, they should first look at posture and any distractions that effect them before and during sleep time. Buying an expensive mattress set may do nothing where as simply avoiding the TV before bedtime or sleeping in a different position could do wonders… for FREE.

    Primal Toad wrote on July 6th, 2010
  5. Doing without my tempurpedic? Oh Man!

    Seriously though I have noticed that while my overall comfort level is down when sleeping on foreign mattresses or other surfaces, one can still get quality sleep.

    Jesse wrote on July 6th, 2010
  6. Erwan said he slept on the floor when I interviewed him here:

    Chris wrote on July 6th, 2010
  7. I found some of my problems have been my sleeping posture…I corrected a shoulder issue just by stopping the habit of tucking my hands between my knees while laying on my side….I was surprised that it was causing my actual shoulder/rotater cuff pain.
    We are getting ready to get a queen size bed…we have been in a full size since we got married and I find it way too small! :(

    Cindy wrote on July 6th, 2010
  8. I’ve had the opposite experience. I had a bad back for years, which I assume to be related to chronically sitting at work all day, which lead to poor thoracic mobility. And because of this, I absolutely had to sleep on a hard surface – sometimes the floor. A soft bed was literally painful. Since correcting my thoracic and hip mobility problems, my back feels much better, and only now can I sleep on a soft mattress (if I choose to).

    Shawn wrote on July 6th, 2010
  9. My wife and I have been sleeping “minimally” for the past 8 or so months. There is, as you ably note, an adjustment period. But post-transition, we are doing great!

    We started with a cheap trial of sleeping on the floor. When we decided that super-firm was for us, we purchased a bed and set of tatami mats. Perfect!

    I have coupled this with transition to a standing desk, and all kinds of alignment issues have resolved themselves.

    Cam wrote on July 6th, 2010
    • Ditto here! I’ve been sleeping minimally for about 6 months and love it.

      I sleep on a 3″ shikibuton (traditional Japanese shiki futon) directly on a carpeted floor. It’s cotton/wool and hand made – no off gassing and what not, very comfortable. I would have liked to use tatami mats but I ended up foregoing them and just adding another layer using an old blanket. I highly recommend this as an option for folks who enjoy a firm bed. This, in addition to transitioning to sleeping on my back had improved some minor back pains I’d had.

      I’m a bit interested in a buckwheat pillow also, anyone have any comments on those?

      lecz0r wrote on July 6th, 2010
      • Yes, my husband uses a buckwheat pillow ( He took some of the hulls out of it when it was new, and added some back in after they compressed. I didn’t like it, though, because it shifts during sleep, so it loses support. I prefer to slip a rolled hand towel into a standard pillow for neck support. Works great in hotel rooms, too.

        Carin wrote on July 6th, 2010
      • Where did you get your shiki futon? Looking for one too. I am in New York. Thanks.

        Sveta wrote on February 6th, 2013
    • Where did you get the mats? I went to Japan last year and had the best sleep ever on these. I wish I could get one!

      Kristin wrote on August 1st, 2010
  10. Great write up! After going thru two very expensive bed sets, backaches and night sweats, we finally have a happy ending with a (cheap) IKEA bed that consists only of wooden slats and a mattress that is only 3 7/8″ thick. Best sleep we’ve had in 12 years! Check it out: 1) Mattress: 2) Slats: 3) Frame:

    Thanks for a great subject! Simple/basic is always better! Sweet dreams!

    Lirpa wrote on July 6th, 2010
  11. I’ve owned a traditional spring mattress, Tempurpedic, foam rubber, and select comfort air mattress.

    So far the select comfort air mattress (my current mattress) has been most successful at preventing bumps or dips. Does need the occasional inflating–especially in the wintertime.

    My foam rubber mattress was actually worse than a spring mattress. Created a huge crater near my lower back after only 6 months.

    Tempurpedic was inconsistent. Be careful of using fitted sheets as they compress the mattress and may restrict the natural contours that mold to your body as you lay in it. Also, on hot days it becomes way too soft.

    My bigger issue is finding the right pillow. :)

    Steve-O wrote on July 6th, 2010
  12. Looking for a good pillow, one that doesn’t go flat in a couple of weeks. Any good recommendations would be greatly appreciated.

    Tee wrote on July 6th, 2010
    • I’m all over the bed and start sleeping on my sinde and when I wake up I’m on my stomach. I used to have issues with too fluffy pillows then if I bought stomach sleeper pillows they were too flat and uncomfortable for me to relax and fall asleep. Go to Ikea. They have down pillows that are also stomach sleeper friendly. They are a little stiff but you can squish them down if you push on it a bit. Best part, when you make your bed in the morning all you need to do is give them a little fluffing and ta da! They are back to normal. I have had these pillows for over a year now and they are like new still. I will say they were 50 bucks each but well worth it.

      Nicole wrote on July 6th, 2010
    • I’d recommend a tempurpedic pillow – ever since I got mine, I’ve hardly had any neck problems whatsover.

      (We’ve also got one of those tempurpedic-style “topper pads” for on top of the mattress, but I’m not so sold on it anymore… but my pillow is pure gold.)

      Adam Kayce wrote on July 6th, 2010
      • Oh, forgot to mention – I’ve owned my happy pillow now for 10+ years, and it’s just like new.

        Adam Kayce wrote on July 6th, 2010
      • Did it take any time to adjust to the tempurpedic pillow? I have the side-sleeper one and just used it last night for the first time. A lot of my joints are cracking today. I’m wondering if this is a good thing!? :-)

        Kristin wrote on August 1st, 2010
    • Try a Sobakawa pillow.

      Mario wrote on July 6th, 2010
    • I’ve had luck with this one:

      Adam wrote on December 7th, 2011
  13. I’m still wondering about the toxin side of bedding. Flame retardants, off-gassing of memory foam mattresses and toppers, etc. Is this a big issue or not? What are the alternatives?

    Lastly, what sort of firm options are people using aside from traditional mattresses? I would consider a mat of some sort, but don’t know where to begin. I am just tired of spending $1000+ for a “good” mattress that sags after only a few years of my 190ish pound body.

    Rodney wrote on July 6th, 2010
  14. “No support (mats, ground, palm fronds, stiff board) should work fine, provided you’re working from a solid healthy base…” finally struck home for me! In my teens & 20’s when I couldn’t sleep, I’d chuck everything on the floor & sleep there. In the summer I’d go sleep outside on the lawn in my bag. duh, I was fitter then & unspoiled by desk jobs. Now I have a “marker” to judge when I’ve reached my fitness goal!
    Thanks Mark (& worker bees), is there no end to your thought-provoking info?

    Peggy wrote on July 6th, 2010
  15. I hate springs. I can’t sleep on a bed that has them. I lie awake for hours and finally just lie down on the floor.
    This is when I’m stuck in a motel or something.

    At home I sleep on egg crate foam with a memory foam topper. I got the memory foam when I had a shoulder injury, and it helped.

    I started sleeping on the floor when I noticed that I often fell asleep on the floor in yoga class, during savasana.

    shannon wrote on July 6th, 2010
  16. PS
    another advantage of floor sleeping: sleeping with kids is safer, as they don’t hurt themselves if they roll off the bed.

    Also, you can accomodate any number of guests with your infinite number of egg crate foam single size “mattresses.” These are very cheap at Walmart. You can stack them for more cushioning. Dogs like them too. Giant beds for three or four or more people, kids, and dogs are possible.

    If you get bedbugs or any other parasites in the bed, you can simply take the foam pieces outside for a good airing, or throw them away.

    shannon wrote on July 6th, 2010
  17. Just an FYI: Using your arms, hands, or fists as a pillow can cause stress on your ulnar nerve (at your elbow) and can cause numbness and nerve issues in your pinky and ring fingers. I learned this the hard way and couldn’t figure out what was causing it (my guess was my knitting). Which it was, but it was also because I rest my hands on my chest when I sleep kind of mummy-style which was putting lots of stress on my ulnar nerve. Sleeping with your hands outstretched and arms flat is best!

    Kara wrote on July 6th, 2010
  18. Hi there Mark —

    You mentioned that “They made do with mats, or piles of leaves, or animal skins, or even just the bare ground, and they – by and large – managed to avoid the musculoskeletal disorders that plague modern sedentary man. ”

    I’ve often wondered about this and whether or not it was actually the case. Do you have research or know anyone who has investigated it? I have been looking for quite a long time and haven’t been able to come up with any stories, anecdotes, or any data collected suggesting that pre-modern
    peoples had fewer musculoskeletal complaints.

    I would be fascinated if you could point me in the right direction —

    Alexander wrote on July 6th, 2010
  19. I’m more than willing to give up all the bad starchy foods, the bad oils, the processed grains and anything I might ingest that would be considered harmful. But, I wholeheartedly refuse to give up sleeping in a bed.

    I don’t think we need to get carried away in our “Grokkiness”.

    We have evolved in some areas for good reason!!

    Angie wrote on July 6th, 2010
  20. I’ve never been a fan of bedding apparently. My mother always tells me how i started out in bed as a child, but more often than not woke up on the floor or some spread out laundry.
    even today, i would love it if i could talk my wife into getting rid of our bed. the best…sleeping vessel i can remember having is a beat up futon mattress just tossed on the floor.

    Primalrob wrote on July 6th, 2010
  21. It’s about time! In the past I’ve slept for many months in a sleeping bag on a bare floor, and loved it. But it’s not that easy to keep a sleeping bag clean with daily use. Now I pamper myself in a bag liner (different weights for different seasons) on a bare futon–with a pillow. Once a week the bag and pillowcase go in the wash.

    My friends have huge soft expensive beds with giant mattresses, layers of bedclothes that take an afternoon to strip and wash, and bad backs, and they think I’M crazy.

    Pete H. wrote on July 6th, 2010
  22. I would personally stir clear of anything latex.

    I know people that have been around latex (usually a hospital environment) for years and then suddenly developed aserious life threatening response. So much they can’t even walk past the florist in the grocery store where latex balloons have been blown up.

    The interesting thing is the slow and gradual development of the allergy in the people I’ve seen. 15 years or so of snapping on gloves. Then one day, “What’s that rash? Usually on the hands, and attributed to things like new soap, etc.” Then sadly, severe asthma attacks requiring hospitalization in a, you guessed it, rooms FULL of latex. Finally a DX, and then finding a new latex free job… good luck with that!

    twinmama wrote on July 6th, 2010
  23. I have no trouble sleeping on my comfy mattress – and no trouble on my thin camping mat either. I’d be just fine giving up the comfy bed as a trial – then I wondered…. what about sex? It’s a totally different ballgame on a hard surface. I like having the variety – and with a comfy mattress, hard floor and a variety of furniture, well, it’s all the variety I need! I sure would hate to give up that comfy mattress…

    Chris wrote on July 6th, 2010
    • Paleo sex—now there’s an article I’m looking forward to on MDA!

      Heidi wrote on July 6th, 2010
  24. Has anybody here tried a wool mattress? Its basically like a fluffy wool pad on a wood slat bed frame. This is what we are thinking of getting for our next bed…here is a link to get an idea of what I am talking about:

    Ika wrote on July 6th, 2010
  25. I used to think that soft beds were the way to go because softer was supposed to be comfier. But my husband really wanted a firm mattress, so we ended up buying the extra-super firm Sealy Posturpedic from someone on Craigslist and never looked back. Then I got rid of my pillow and never looked back. But after reading this post, it all made sense. When I lived by myself, my favorite place to take a midday nap was in the middle of the living room floor.

    Deanna wrote on July 6th, 2010
  26. I posted on another of the threads, but had to say again that I love, love, love my natural latex mattress. We had ours custom made so no chemical fire barrier was used. There was no off gassing for this reason. It is pretty firm, but less firm versions do feel like memory foam in many respects.

    Katie wrote on July 6th, 2010
  27. I used to have tatami mats under my futon, but I found that they harbored bugs too much.

    shannon wrote on July 6th, 2010
  28. I will never give up my memory foam. NEVAR!

    Lojasmo wrote on July 6th, 2010
  29. The only times I slept without back pain is when I’ve slept on tanned sheep hides directly on wood or dirt. I can’t achieve deep sleep on other surfaces (I currently sleep on a king sized mattress and this is the case right now), and futons give me back pain within one night.

    I go with Grok on this one. However, finding a partner to share space on some hides is harder than you may think.

    Dennis wrote on July 6th, 2010
  30. We tossed our two-year-old TempurPedic after two years of aches and pains. We disassembled the layers and parted it out to our kids. What’d we use instead? The old cotton/foam futon from our guest room. Life got even better when we traded in our memory foam pillows for a buckwheat hull pillow (him) and two flat pillows, one with a rolled hand towel for neck support (her). We’re sleeping much better now.

    Carin wrote on July 6th, 2010
  31. Lately, I’ve started taking my lunch break outside on a big flat rock under some partial shade with grass in the parking lot at work. I figured a bit of grass and sunlight would provide not only relaxation but also Vitamin D. Sometimes I even lay out flat on the rock and take a little nap. At first, the hard rock felt somewhat uncomfortable, but after a few times, my body adjusted and now I really like it. Recently, some of my friends drove by and happened to spy me napping on the rock and now I have the nickname of ‘the girl who sleeps on rocks.’

    Eva wrote on July 6th, 2010
  32. Whew.

    And here I was worried you were going to advocate ditching the bed altogether for a yoga mat!

    I love my bed and am unlikely to get rid of it any time soon. (I even hauled it halfway across the country when I just moved.)

    I can speak firsthand that the physical and emotional benefits of having a cozy haven to collapse in every night easily bests any slight detriments it may have.

    Darrin wrote on July 6th, 2010
  33. You could say the same thing about indoors and out. Do we really need to sleep indoors?

    Interestingly, someone in one of the North American 18th or 19th century “captivity narratives” mentions difficulty in re-adjusting to sleeping in a bed and indoors after escaping from the Indians. I can’t remember which one, but it’s in Frederick Drimmer’s excellent collection:

    I think you get used to whatever you habitually do, and if you do change you then get used to that. That’s a phenomenon I’ve often noticed in the past. It’s just the way habit works – and a very good thing to remember, if there’s a habit you think you need to change.

    I expect the bed should be firm, as has been said.

    If you do kip on the floor, best to sleep on your back and use something to raise your head slightly. Otherwise, your spine will be out of alignment.

    Then again, if you’re going to get your breathing down there, what’s in the carpet?

    Lewis wrote on July 6th, 2010
  34. My bed is its own ‘institution’.
    Just need to make sure I rotate the matress every 6 months and it lasts for a long time. I can’t stand a squishy bed either. Medium to firm is the go.

    I only just trained myself to sleep with a pillow and NOT on my stomach in the last year :)

    Clint Nielsen wrote on July 7th, 2010
  35. In the past years i got trouble to get enough sleeping because of sudden wake ups in the night. I tried different mattress types but no succeed. So i remembered the younger years when i slept on festivals – i slept on the ground in a tent. And in a strange matter i was fitter than on normal work days. So i started to sleep on the ground and my sleep problems are gone. So i can fully support Marks opinion -> get out of bed and start sleeping on ground.

    Patrick wrote on July 7th, 2010
  36. This morning when I went to get my dog out of his kennel, I saw that he had shoved his sleeping pad up against the side & was laying on the cardboard…
    (for a pic of him in his all-out relaxed mode, go to the “our primal pets” group)

    Peggy wrote on July 7th, 2010
  37. Hammock = primal-light.

    I love my hammock.

    A “real” hammock is great to sleep in (nylon or woven – just not the American rope thing with a cross bar – this will not do). Great on the back and joints, inexpensive, saves space. Pretty great all in all. You just absolutely need an underquilt in cold wintery nights.

    See also:
    (read that first line!)

    Grok on!

    skunk1980 wrote on July 7th, 2010
  38. I sleep in a pile of crackpipes, it feels pretty relaxing.

    mr.wong wrote on July 7th, 2010
  39. Thanks for the post , Mark. Although I agree with the idea of ridding the shoes as much as possible, which I have practiced most of my life by wearing moccissans of some sort. I on the otherhand believe that my transition from a regular old spring mattress to a temperpedic has drastically changed my sleep and my day. I have had the mattress for 2 years now and I have yet to toss and torn or wake up during the night once. At one point , on my old mattress, I could not stay asleep longer than 2 hours without tossing.

    Adam wrote on July 7th, 2010

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