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Sleeping on the Floor Is Not Like Getting an Eight-Hour Massage

Some influencers have ditched their bed. The reasons they give often beggar belief.

Sure, a mattress is nice, but have you ever considered sleeping on the floor?

The wellness movement is underpinned by the belief that modernity is slowly killing us. Sooner or later, its influencers were bound to target mattresses. In fact, you can watch The Liver King—the muscle-bound Instagrammer who preached for an ancestral lifestyle before being forced to admit he was on all sorts of steroids and growth hormones—blow up a mattress using a piece of artillery. Why? Because it’s full of “chemicals.”

Wellness trends typically woo women, but plenty of men are jumping on the anti-modernity bandwagon. On YouTube, you will find many young men documenting their experiments with sleeping on the floor and repeating health claims they have heard from other influencers.

So, should you ditch the memory foam and join your pet on the floor every night?

Chemical-free chemicals

 In a video published a few months ago and which was viewed a quarter of a million times, a young YouTuber explains that mattresses used to be “thin and natural,” but they have now become “thick and unnatural.” “Most of the mattresses that you find on the market,” he tells us, “are treated with chemical flame retardants that have been shown to be toxic to humans.” He emphasizes the word “chemical.”

Before addressing this concern, it’s important to correct, for the umpteenth time, an influencer’s use of the “chemical/natural” dichotomy. Everything in the universe is made up of chemicals. Cotton, despite being natural, is made of chemicals. Our bodies are made of chemicals. Water is a chemical. There is no such thing, from a scientific perspective, as a chemical-free flame retardant or a chemical-free mattress. Unfortunately, in common parlance the word “chemical” has come to mean a lab-made compound that is believed to cause us harm. Scientists and non-scientists are thus speaking difference languages. Natural things, like poison ivy and snake venom, can harm us while synthetic materials can be perfectly safe. As always, it’s the dose that makes the poison.

The underlying worry of a mattress’ flame retardants causing us harm, though, is not complete fantasy. The use of flame retardants in the manufacture of mattresses and furniture has been associated with a decrease in the number of deaths from people falling asleep with a cigarette in hand. What probably also helped were changes to building codes, the use of smoke alarms, and a decline in smoking. But then research discovered associations between the most popular of these compounds (called polybrominated diphenyl ethers or PBDEs) and all sorts of health issues. PBDEs started to be phased out around 2004 even though a clear cause-and-effect link with human disease had not been proven: to be fair, this kind of evidence is difficult to come by. But as we have seen with the story of bisphenol A, when a particular compound acts as a lightning rod for consumer anxieties, it is often replaced by one that may not be as well researched and could potentially cause even more harm.

PBDEs as flame retardants have been replaced, in part, by organophosphates, which have also attracted their share of concerns. When it comes to the long-term health effect of being exposed to specific chemicals, like flame retardants, plasticizers or microplastics, scientists are still figuring it all out, but it is becoming harder to tease apart the influence of one compound when we are exposed to so many over the course of a lifetime. An approach based on precaution is certainly understandable but eyeing any modern development with leeriness is, I think, going too far and comes with its own risk.

This distrust of modernity bleeds into other aspects of the lives of these floor-sleeping YouTubers (we might call them “floorists”). Looking at their channels, I often saw videos embracing the carnivore diet, the use of barefoot shoes, and the consumption of raw milk. Through their rose-tinted glasses, past is good and present is bad. In reality, drinking raw milk has zero benefit and only health risks. Innovation is not always a dirty word.

In another video, a YouTuber debates whether or not sleeping on the floor helps with grounding, the pseudoscientific claim that we should walk barefoot on the earth to soak up its healing electrons. At this point, we have firmly left the ground and are just floating in an ether of make-believe. We may as well be debating the existence of unicorns.

Mattresses may be bad for these influencers, but how can sleeping on the floor be good?

The Goldilocks zone

Sleeping on the floor hurts at first but you get used to it, these influencers will tell you. After all, many people around the world do it. Haven’t you read the Tetley paper?

Michael Tetley is a physiotherapist who published an article in the Christmas edition of the British Medical Journal in 2000. This yearly issue is known for its eclectic and zany research. In his paper, Tetley documents his “largely anecdotal evidence” for how primates and tribal people sleep on the ground and allegedly avoid musculoskeletal problems. It certainly makes for an interesting read, though I’m not sure how the proper way to sleep on your side to protect the penis from insects is relevant to those of us living in modern houses.

Tetley asks his readers, “Has anyone ever seen a gorilla shinning up a tree with a pillow?” No, but the body of a gorilla is not equivalent to that of a human, and just because an ape does something in the wild does not mean we should too. Again, technology can bring benefits. Tetley’s paper also ends on a fantastical hypothesis: dogs apparently don’t have asthma despite being exposed to the same pollutants as humans because, Tetley posits, their sleeping posture keeps their nervous system working properly. You’ll have to excuse me if I don’t forsake my bed solely based on this physiotherapist’s arguments.

But while some floor sleepers use Tetley’s paper to legitimize their practice, many more trace the idea back to Mike Chiang, an influencer known for his flow training practice who revealed in a video viewed a million and a half times that ten years ago he ditched his bed. He realized his body was aching whenever he sat on the floor and he decided to harden it by sleeping on progressively thinner surfaces: first a bunch of blankets, then a mattress topper, and finally a simple rug.

Chiang claims that the ground ends up massaging your body as you sleep, that all of the tensions we have accumulated get released when we sleep on a hard surface, a claim which many floor-dwelling YouTubers repeat. I found this hard to swallow, so I reached out to a former massage therapist, Paul Ingraham, who debunks musculoskeletal myths on his website “I am confident that no one has ever asked a massage therapist for a treatment that feels just like sleeping on the ground,” he told me. “Firm, static pressure on a few spots does not remotely resemble any kind of massage, let alone a good one.” While there are specific spots on the body that feel particularly good when massaged—the back of our skull, the patch just below the elbow on our forearm, the little triangle at the top of each butt cheek—none of them would be massaged by contact with the ground, he continued.

Related to this claim is the bold affirmation that when we sleep on a mattress, its softness allows us to remain stiff and tense. Contact with a hard floor, however, is supposed to allow our body to fully relax. This is the exact opposite of common sense. Ingraham tells me, “This just seems like misguided and muddled ascetism and sadomasochism, based only on the vague idea that ‘what doesn't kill you makes you stronger’." Indeed, I have also heard the assertion that sleeping on the floor strengthens your body, that building up a tolerance for pain is good. Research into mattresses, however, shows that extreme firmness is generally not desirable.

In a systematic review of trials of different mattresses in adults with and without back pain, where the studies were judged to be of moderate to high quality, the answer was clear: a medium-firm mattress was usually preferred. Much like the chairs in “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” the answer is neither soft nor firm but somewhere in the middle. The authors conclude that in people dealing with chronic back pain, a medium-firm mattress significantly improves sleep quality and decreases back pain. To be fair, it may be that research participants held onto their mattresses for too long and the mere fact of getting a new mattress for the research project led to an improvement. But when compared head-to-head, medium firm usually wins over firm. Sleeping on the ground, however, hasn’t been tested for perhaps obvious reasons.

I keep saying “ground” but when you watch these YouTube videos, it becomes apparent that when they say ground, they often mean a futon. Not the Western futon, a sofa that unfolds into a bed, but a Japanese futon, which is a quilted sleeping pad stuffed with fibres and which is often elevated above the floor by tatamis. The tatamis act as a box spring with the futon serving as a mattress, though compared to what we are used to in the West, the combination is much thinner and firmer. What is interesting to note is that the Japanese have been moving away from futons since the end of the Second World War. The split for the population as a whole between bed sleepers and futon sleepers is getting close to 50:50, with a 2014 study done specifically in Japanese teens showing that two-thirds of them sleep on beds. Those sleeping on a futon reported poorer sleep on average.

You can buy futons that are filled with organic cotton, and some YouTubers recommend those over mattresses filled with potentially toxic “chemicals,” but beware: despite what you may have heard, organic cotton (and any organic crop, really) can be sprayed with pesticides, as long as they are found in nature and that their chemical nature is unaltered. Farmers, for example, can spray organic cotton with peracetic acid, described by the CDCas a strong sensory irritant that is more potent than hydrogen peroxide, or with copper oxychloride, which is moderately toxic to mammals. It is recommended that the person spraying these pesticides wears protective clothing, like gloves, goggles, and body coverings. This is not to scare consumers but simply to expose the hypocrisy at the heart of this issue: just because your Japanese futon is filled with organic cotton does not mean it is free of “chemicals.” Pesticides are not harmless because they are natural: they are used precisely because they can kill undesirable insects and weeds.

So, should you sleep on the floor (or on a Japanese futon)? Once we strip away the groundless health claims, I think it boils down to preference. In fact, I heard more than one young male YouTuber who had fallen in love with sleeping on the floor mention the prospect of a girlfriend and how a relationship may not survive sleeping on the floor. So much for all those health benefits!

And remember that, depending on where in the world you live, spending the night at ground level makes you more accessible to all sorts of creepy-crawlies. Don’t let the bed bugs (and spiders and scorpions) bite.

The problems of modernity won’t be solved by venerating a better, imagined past. They will require evidence, clarity, and nuance. Let’s all sleep on that.

Take-home message:
- Some YouTubers, mainly young men, have stopped sleeping on a bed and are embracing sleeping on the ground, claiming a number of health benefits
- The underlying philosophy is that the modern world is full of bad “chemicals” and we need to go back to a more natural way of sleeping, which is a faulty argument that misrepresents what chemicals are
- The idea that sleeping on a hard surface allows your body to fully relax is nonsensical, and research into mattresses shows that the average person prefers a mattress that is neither soft nor firm but rather medium-firm


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