The average human spends a third of his or her life in bed and is likely to own a mattress as long as or longer than a car. But because it’s hidden under bedding and stowed in a private area of the home, a mattress’s impact on health often goes ignored. That is, until a health crisis intervenes. “The liver does most of its detoxifying work when the body is at rest,’’ says Peggy Wolff, a nurse and healthy home consultant in Leverett, Massachusetts. “We can heal best if the body isn’t bombarded at night.’’
Doctors and health specialists agree that sleep is paramount for improving or simply maintaining health. But many conventional mattresses fail to foster good sleep or good health. They may emit gases from the polyurethane foam used to pad them and the flame retardants used to prevent smokers from setting them afire. Even after they’ve finished outgassing, conventional innerspring, polyester-encased sleep systems may offer dust and dust mites a hospitable home and give the sleeper a clammy, too-hot or too-cold environment. And then there’s the issue of back and spine support, which sent hordes of bleary-eyed sleepers to waterbeds in the 1970s and futons in the 1990s.
Today’s natural mattresses are designed to address health issues ranging from arthritis, lower-back pain, and asthma to allergies and extreme chemical sensitivities. Instead of polyurethane foam, they tend to be padded with untreated or organic cotton, naturally flame-retardant wool, or natural latex—all of which breathe and draw water vapor away from the body, make the mattress less attractive to dust mites, and keep body temperature more constant. Wooden slats that float on “beams’’ of natural latex may be used instead of metal coils for custom back support.
Bettina Waldraf, North American sales and marketing director for Samina, a slat-bed system developed in Europe, became involved with the company because of her mother-in-law’s arthritis. “She saw the bed during a trip to Europe and ordered one when she came back home. It really helped her; within a few months she was walking normally again,’’ Waldraf says. Her father-in-law, a chiropractor, saw how much the mattress helped his wife and discovered that no one was selling such a sleep system in North America. Waldraf and her husband acquired a license to manufacture it in Canada, and now they sleep on a Samina themselves. “I felt the superior back support right away,’’ she says.
The Samina system consists of a mattress with ash wood slats, a 100 percent natural latex pad covered in organic cotton, and a quilted, merino wool mattress topper, also covered in organic cotton. An all-wood foundation box, constructed with dovetailed joints and environmentally safe glue, is available, with or without legs.
Developed by a German baubiologist (a scientist who studies healthy building technologies), the Samina system isn’t cheap; a queen-size system runs $3,500 to $4,500. Samina justifies the price by touting its almost obsessive dedication to craftsmanship and detail. Company personnel visit the factories where its organic cotton is woven and the flocks who supply the merino wool for its mattress toppers. “The sheep are shorn carefully, so that some wool is left—they’re not sheared right down to the skin,’’ Waldraf says. The ash used for the slats is run through a special machine that leaves the wood’s surface slightly rough so it can continue to breathe throughout its lifetime. No finishes are applied.
Natura World, a Canadian company, offers two types of natural mattresses: a slatted system and a 100 percent natural latex mattress surrounded by wool padding. Sales and marketing director Larry Klein recommends the slat system for those with back support issues, but opted for the latex mattress himself.
While Klein had no sleep complaints, allergies, or back problems, “I had to make an almost immediate adjustment’’ to sleeping on the latex mattress, he says. “I had to go to bed an hour later.’’ He regained a whole day per week just because he slept better.
When Michelle Hertz of Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, bought natural mattresses for her two sons, Douglas and Robert, she found peace of mind. “Douglas, the eight-year-old, has always had lots of health issues. He has allergies, sinus problems, lots of colds—he was just sick a lot,’’ she says. She ordered organic cotton-covered mattresses from Lifekind, a mail-order retailer in California. She was so impressed with the quality of the mattresses that she got back on the phone and ordered sheets, pillowcases, and a latex mattress topper for her own bed.
“They don’t have any kind of synthetic smell at all,’’ she says of the mattresses. “And my kids seem to love them.’’ While she can’t link Douglas’s symptom reduction specifically to his four months of sleeping on a natural mattress, she says that he’s doing better.
Rosalind Anderson, president of Anderson Laboratories, a firm that tests airborne chemicals for toxicity, has seen the chemicals emitted from some brands of conventional mattresses produce pulmonary and sinus irritation in mice. “Mattresses in general were sort of nervous-making,’’ she says. She’s in the market for a new mattress herself, and is considering only those covered in organic cotton.