Surface Talk – What Are You Sleeping On?

As you’ve all probably noticed, we talk a lot about sleep. It’s one of the most important aspects of your health. Seriously. If you’ve been out of the loop and missing all the sleep related fun, take some time to check out these posts to catch up:
There’s still one factor of sleep we haven’t talked much about, and that’s sleep surface. We get asked often about which sleep surface we would recommend. So let’s talk sleep surfaces and their differences.
You spend about a third of your life sleeping. Yeah, that’s a lot! Think about how many years old you are. Now divide that number by 3. That’s about how many years you’ve spent during your life sleeping, probably most of that time being on a mattress. It goes without saying, your sleep surface/mattress can be pretty important.
Let’s go over some of the main topics when looking at beds/mattresses:
Why do we sleep on beds? Because they’re comfortable. You may be thinking “well our ancestors didn’t sleep in big soft beds with pillows, and they did just fine”, and you would be somewhat right. Generally they were also a lot more mobile, didn’t have the movement and postural dysfunction that seem to be so common today, and they were used to being on the ground and harder surfaces. They used appropriate sleep positions for their environment, and also used animal skins, leaves, and grass to make their own beds.  But remember, a paleo lifestyle isn’t about historical recreation, it’s about looking at things through an evolutionary lens and using it as a starting point. Beds are probably one of those technological improvements that, for the most part, might not be a bad thing. Let’s face it, sleeping in a bed is usually more comfortable than sleeping on the ground for most people. Getting good sleep is healthy, and we’re after the best sleep we can get.
What people consider comfortable can be preferential. Ideally you want something soft enough to be comfortable so you can lay in a good position for long periods throughout the night, but also provide support at the same time. It can be a fine balance.
What is your mattress made of?
You may not know this, but in 2007 the US Federal Government mandated that mattresses be manufactured with a fire barrier in them. This fire barrier often contains chemicals like PCDE’s (polybrominated diphenyl ethers), which have shown to be potentially harmful and cancer causing.
Many mattresses are made of foams and materials that degrade and “off-gas” over time. Off-gassing refers to the VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) that break down and create gas. VOCs can include chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), formaldehyde, benzene, methylene chloride, toluene, trichloroethane, naphthalene, perfluorocarbons and other chemicals. Have you ever noticed the strong smell of a mattress or mattress topper, especially foam and memory foam mattresses, when you first get them? A lot of that is off-gassing.
But even after the smell is gone, mattresses and furniture will still off-gas throughout their life. Off-gassing can potentially cause airway irritation and restriction, reduced breathing, and even be absorbed by your skin. In tests it’s common to find many of these chemicals in people’s blood and urine. Seeing how we’re constantly surrounded by these materials and off-gassing from our beds, furniture, paint (which is why they make low VOC wall paint options now) and many other things, it’s no wonder we suffer from respiratory problems.
Maybe it’s just me, but I feel a lot better about sleeping on something that is releasing minimal potentially harmful chemical fumes.
So let’s go over some different types of beds, then I’ll get to what I recommend:
Mattress with coiled or laced springs inside, usually surrounded by foam. Originally spring beds were springs and cotton, but this has since changed over the years. The springs were used to provide some give while also pushing back up on the heavy parts of your body so you didn’t just sink down.
Memory foam
Developed by NASA in the 60’s to be a slow response foam to handle G forces for astronauts, but was never actually used for astronauts. It started coming out in consumer beds in the 90’s. Can provide decent support, but can be hot, and there’s a concern of toxicity from the materials used.
Natural latex can be a safer, purer material made from the sap of the rubber tree (hevea brasiliensis). It’s got some of the same benefits as memory foam, but doesn’t have the slow response of memory foam and acts like a more traditional foam in that sense. Has decent pressure relief and support, and can be a bit cooler than memory foam.
Chamber or chambers (typically vinyl) filled with water. Support is okay, but not optimal. Motion transfer can be bad unless you get one that has baffles inside.
Alternative Surfaces
This is where I would label hammocks, sleeping pads, and everything else considered “unconventional”. While some can pull off sleeping on a pad on the floor (I’ve tried it for a while but it just didn’t work as well), or a hammock, most people will find it hard to get good sleep and will want an actual mattress/bed. Some of these options can be great in a pinch, for camping, etc, but are typically not an ideal for most people as their main sleep option.

So what is best, and what do I recommend? The short answer is: whatever let’s you sleep the best!
I’ve tried many different mattresses, traditional innersprings, memory foam (Tempurpedic and others), natural latex (even a natural latex piece of foam on the floor), etc. I wanted something that was comfortable, provided good support, was safe and had minimal off-gassing.
So when It was time for a new mattress, I researched and searched to find something that met my criteria. I finally found it! We got the chance to try an incredible mattress from IntelliBED, a company in Utah.
I’m not someone to recommend something lightly.  I do tons of research before I ever purchase anything. I am the “Go-to-Guy” for friends or family when they want to make a purchase for something. I find them the best product for the best deal, it’s kind of a thing I do.
So after much research, IntelliBED really impressed me! They use non-toxic and non/minimal off-gassing safe materials that still last a long time and are durable. And most importantly, it’s been the most comfortable bed I’ve ever slept on. I was used to sleeping on a pretty firm mattress, and this IntelliBED mattress is softer than I had been used to, but has the best support at the same time.

Blue hall abstractIntelliBED cutaway

They use a layer of what they call “Intelli-GEL” which is hollow gel columns attached together (the blue layer in the picture above). This is the same type of material (under the name ISOFLEX) used in some hospitals for special beds for burn victims and people with pressure ulcer issues. When light pressure is applied, the gel column flexes/springs some, but when heavy pressure is applied it collapses. This let’s your heavy parts go deeper into the mattress for pressure relief, while your light parts are still lifted and supported. It’s like it forms to your body and supports everything it needs to while giving awesome pressure relief. I can lay in the same position longer than I’ve ever been able to on anything else without feeling like I need to turn and switch positions. This means less tossing and turning at night, and better uninterrupted sleep.

Like I said before, I’m all about deals and can be a bit cheap, but I think a bed is one of the places where it can be worth spending a bit more on. You don’t want to cheap out on something that plays a big part in your sleep, and therefore health, since you spend so much time on it. These IntelliBED mattresses actually turn out to be a really good value because they have 30 year warranties on them. Yeah, 30 years! That’s usually at least a good 3 times longer than most mattresses will last. I was impressed by their customer service too. They actually seem like they care about how you’re sleeping and how you like the mattress, and will follow up with you by phone and email.
You can try out one of their beds for 60 days risk free, and if you don’t like it you can send it back for free (even free return shipping).
If you use the code RobbWolf at checkout (or over the phone), you’ll get 10% off your order.
If you try it out, let me know what you think!

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