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!