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. Before going on a 6-month hike in 2006, I “practiced” sleeping on a lightweight camping mat for a few weeks. My first few nights on the trail were hard on my hips, until I found an old discarded compressed foam pad to add to the sleep system. I gave it up after a few weeks, because I didn’t need it any more. At the time I thought my hips just needed to get used to the camping mattress instead of a bed, but I sometimes wonder if it wasn’t the added strength in my legs, hips, and buttocks from all the hiking that made my sleep on a thin mattress better. Nothing like hiking all day and squatting in the woods to get you a good nights sleep!

    September wrote on July 7th, 2010
  2. I’ve often noticed that, once I CAN fall asleep, sleeping on the ground is almost alarmingly sound, more like anaesthesia than regular sleep. And when I wake I’m really ready to get up.

    Here’s the weird thing. Though the tempurpedic feels almost completely opposite when you lie down, it’s rather simlar in the morning. I sometimes even wake stiff, because you don’t roll around much on it. Once I’m conscious enough to move, I don’t feel like hunkering under the covers (if I’ve gotten my primal Zzz’s, that is).

    I wonder if the pressure-less tempurpedic simulates the effect of good aligned sleep, without actually realigning your back?

    Patty wrote on July 7th, 2010
  3. Yeah, sorry Mark buy I’m not giving up my shampoo, nor my comfy bedding. Hell, Grok didn’t have an iPod either but I hardly think all of these things have to have a negative connotation. I think we can safely integrate many of our modern amenities into a Primal lifestyle as long as we listen carefully to our bodies and take care not to make physical ease our primary goal.

    Christopher Kosel wrote on July 7th, 2010
  4. I can do without the pillow…but I need my wooby! There is nothing like being wrapped in a comforter to sleep. It’s my way of shutting off the world a bit.

    Alicia Kirschenheiter wrote on July 7th, 2010
  5. I sleep on a memory foam topper on the floor. The learning curve from the floor to the backpacking tent is zero. Plus I never have to worry about falling out of bed.

    hiker wrote on July 7th, 2010
  6. I slept in my tent last week with my son in our backyard. We didn’t use poly pads and all I had between us and the grass was the bottom of the tent and a sleeping bag. I could tell how accustomed I’d become to sleeping on a plush mattress. It was probably the worst night of sleep I’d ever gotten. I kept waking up and trying to get comfortable. I tended to sleep better on my side when I did sleep. My son, who’s 5, slept very well. We go camping next week and I’m going with the poly pad.

    Carl Dyer wrote on July 8th, 2010
    • Ray Jardine, a backpacking expert, recommends pitching your tent on a soft place with leaves and things underneath. The hard ground of a back yard or campground is, well, hard, whereas the soil in the woods is frequently softer.

      He uses a closed cell foam pad, and that’s what I use when I go camping. These are very cheap and you can even cut them down to half size for ultra lightweight backpacking.

      shannon wrote on July 8th, 2010
  7. I’m new to this whole “primal living” thing – and I’m interested. But this sleep issue is confusing to me. I have a big, soft, old, memory-foam bed at home. There is a giant hole where I sleep – and a not-so-giant one where my wife sleeps. We both agree that when we go anywhere else, we don’t sleep as well, and we can’t wait to get back to our bed.

    Perhaps it’s because I’m big and out of shape. I weight about 250 – and should weigh closer to 200-210. But away from my bed, I always wake up with aches and pains.

    Any thoughts?

    Lance wrote on July 8th, 2010
  8. I spent a good part of 3 years sleeping on a 3/4 thermarest when in Africa and it was sound as a pound.

    I’ve been eating ‘this way’ for 15 years and more by serendipity than by design i lived a very minimal existence for 10 of those years as compared to 99% of Westerners.
    Suppose i feel that whenever a new lifestyle is embraced one seems to have a natural zeal..perhaps as it makes one feel so much better than one did hitherto and thus one then ‘goes off’ like a preacher until that newness becomes the steady state i.e if you like sleeping on the floor and feel it to be far better then do it of course but if after having tried it for however long a period and it feels less good then for phuqs sake don’t do it out of some adherence to what might be perceived as paleolithic principles..
    We might have the biology of our ancestors with our sensibilities fashioned 150000 yrs ago but we don’t live in that environment externally even though we might not know that iternally.
    That environment isn’t coming back and if it was it’d likely be because we or the earth had done something pretty orrific and then it might not be as nostalgic as it seems we can make believe it would be.
    I’ve seen the !San up close and personal and its a fecking hard life for the few that live mod trad lives.
    Mr Le Corre and such like might kip on the floor and he might like it muchly but he’s a guru, self appointed or not is immaterial, and so thats his ‘schtick’ his persona.
    Of course am not a believer but i have always adore Chestertons ‘Angels fly because they take themselves lightly’ and i say that there’s an air of taking all this paleo stuff ways too seriously to the point of it becoming like a religious fervour

    Simon Fellows wrote on July 8th, 2010
  9. I have been hanging out on the earth for a pretty long time and have never slept in a hammock. Will have to put that on my bucket list.

    Since I am always thinking about the things we use ending up in the waste stream, this subject made me think of all the mattresses that must end up there. Minimal sleeping mats or hammocks would certainly cut down on the resources used and add less to the waste stream.

    Maybe some get recycled? I have no idea.

    Sharon wrote on July 8th, 2010
    • Sharon —

      One can make a hammock out of a bed sheet fairly easily. It just requires a little sewing. Technically you dont even need to do that if you just tie it up right – but I find that the length and width of the sheet need to be just right to be comfortable.

      Way, way less waste than buying a mattress!

      skunk1980 wrote on July 14th, 2010
  10. “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.”

    I just ran across this article and wanted to let you know that I hate my latex mattress. I tried it for a year and have experienced nothing but shoulder and neck pain. I’ve ditched it all together and am now sleeping on the floor with a couple of blankets.

    I feel way better.

    vegard wrote on July 9th, 2010
  11. Hey Mark, I’m glad you touched on this subject, I’ve been wondering about the supplemental parts of our modern lives lately and what impact they may be having. I find it interesting that for the last few months i’ve been sleeping on couches and, actually, I have been sleeping great! I don’t know if it is just having something to lean back on or if it has more to do with firmness and my own posture. I stayed with my girlfriend in her bed last night and woke with neck and shoulder joint pains that took a while to shrug off. Maybe she sleeps better with me because my body offers that same support that the back of the couch offers me? I don’t think I could sleep on the hardwood or tile any time soon but I think I will be playing with some sleep surfaces because I certainly have been wanting a firmer surface the older I get, and in getting primal, I think this may be another great change!…. Or at least I hope, but I’ve always slept pretty great anyways 😉

    Mlkrone wrote on July 9th, 2010
  12. On the topic of bedding, have any of you heard of or tried IBT (Inclined Bed Therapy)? I just read about it here:, also see video here: I’m going to try it to see if it affects blood pressure. Eliminating grains and sugars from diet have helped to some degree, have been able to cut hypetension medicine in half. Would be wondeful if this could take me the rest of the way to be free from medicine. Very cost effective too, just need some cinder blocks or some 2 by 4’s :)

    Hule Mann wrote on July 10th, 2010
  13. No bedding. No grains. No shoes. When are you giving up your computer?

    Michelle wrote on October 11th, 2011
  14. I recently started sleeping on the floor due to the heat. I’ve noticed how good it feels on my body to lay completely flat and stretch out. I wake up feeling better, no aches and pains and my allergies aren’t as bad. I’ve also noticed it has helped with digestive issues. I’m now selling my beautiful bed and going Japanese style.

    Amy wrote on July 23rd, 2012
  15. I’ve been sleeping on the floor with just a camping mat or folded comforter below me. I’ve been doing this for 15 years and I feel great!

    Jesse wrote on November 27th, 2012
  16. Has anyone used an Intellibed(laytex and gel) or have any helpful input? I have a Tempurpedic that, after 3 years, is sagging where i sleep. I knew to expect SOME breakdown, but now i’m just as disappointed as with prior beds.

    Merry wrote on December 15th, 2012
  17. I have been sleeping on floor for about 5 years.

    I sleep directly on a rug, sheet with a feather duvet. It has taken me several attempts to find the right surface, stay warm and stay out of the draft, after initially getting severe torticollis. However I am now toying with the idea of just using my sleeping bag, as it seems a waste to only use it for camping trips.

    I am not so concerned about the physical temperature, but this being the UK; a duvet provides a certain psychological warmth and softness when its cold, damp and grey… Not sure I’m ready to give that up!

    Great site and enjoy reading about other peoples experiences

    Gabriella UK wrote on February 14th, 2016
  18. I have to disagree with you, Mark. Great benefits can be reaped from switching to sleeping on a floor, but they don’t necessarily have to do with your sleep quality.

    During sleep, your body is essentially resetting itself. Dreams consolidate important memories while the volatile RAM is shut down. Your body is repairing and growing certain tissues. Your hormones are being balanced and primed for the new day… In addition, your musculoskeletal system is adapting to the position and stresses you are in.

    If you’re on a comfy cozy bed, then your body will adapt to that set of stresses, and consequently, your bones will become weaker/brittle over time. Also, your body is likely to be in an unnatural position (falling into the beloved crater in the middle of your bed), so over time your posture will reflect that. Lastly, you are being supported by softer tissues, thus blood flow becomes somewhat impaired (this last bit is more speculative than scientific)

    Sleeping on the ground however, is the great equalizer. That flat surface will straighten out that skeleton night after night as well as provide the hard surface to keep some stress on the bones (keeping their density up). Lastly, blood flow through softer tissues is enhanced.

    Austin wrote on March 4th, 2016

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