So I’ve been sleeping on the floor for the last nine nights.
I started doing it because I had a couple days of inexplicable lower back pain, and I had been reading about more natural forms of sleeping. And of course, humans haven’t been sleeping on big fluffy mattresses for very long, and many cultures, like the Japanese, still don’t.
My lower back pain could have been due to a variety of factors: a few days of inactivity, sitting more than I usually do in bad posture, stress, and an over-stuffed twin mattress that has been my bed at home since I was in college, or maybe other things. (Thank you to everyone who gave me suggestions on Twitter.)
This was not a chronic condition, just something that developed over a few days, but it was intense enough that I appreciated how chronic back pain could upturn someone’s entire life. Chronic pain creeps into your conscious more than any other illness or condition I’ve experienced: colds, flu, strep, even headaches (though I’ve never had a migraine). I couldn’t easily sleep, do work, or even watch a movie. I guess that’s why people take painkillers!
I figured it was time for an experiment.
Below is my setup. It’s my roommate’s thin yoga mat under a thin-ish cotton blanket folded in half and my sleeping bag on top. The first two nights (in Michigan) I used a pillow, but have gone pillowless since.
It was hard to get to sleep the first two nights, when I already had lower back pain. I had to resort to a few Tylenol, which did the trick real fast both nights, and I fell asleep as soon as they kicked in. I woke up refreshed both mornings, and by the third night, the back pain had receded to where I didn’t need any Tylenol to get to sleep. By the fourth night it was gone entirely. The lower back pain may have gone away on its own, even had I not started sleeping on the floor.
But I’ve continued the experiment, and here are my observations.
- Dust – Floors get dirty.
- Critters – Haven’t encountered any, but I can imagine that one run-in with a critter would cause people to flee to the tree tops.
- Getting to Sleep – It’s was a bit harder to get to sleep, even after the back pain went away, but that effect has been fading as I adjust. I fall asleep fast now.
- No Pillow – When I lie down, I realize that my head instinctively reaches down for a pillow…but it’s not there. Not a big deal, just a weird feeling.
- Sinuses – With no pillow, my head leans back slightly and sometimes I wake up with my sinuses all filled up. (I had a lot of sinus problems in middle school and high school.) Hasn’t happened the last few nights though.
- Naps – Somehow the floor is less appealing for naps.
- Women – Something tells me the ladies aren’t going to take to my current setup. Hey baby, come try out this is king-sized floor. On the other hand, suddenly the person sleeping next to you seems a whole lot softer relative to the floor.
- No Back Pain – My back pain went away, though it very well could have been for other reasons, particularly since I didn’t have long-term chronic back pain.
- No Stiffness – I’m not waking up with any stiffness. (Though I didn’t wake up stiff on my normal bed either.) Occasionally, I get into a position sleeping on my side where there is a bit too much pressure on my hip. Last night I dreamed I was 8 miles into a marathon and my hip was hurting me, and I was wondering whether I could finish. But I realized my dream was based on the actual pressure on my hip.
- Little Tossing and Turning – I’m not tossing and turning much in the middle of the night, and sometimes it’s just about the sleeping bag constricting me. I guess I change positions, but those changes don’t seem to be disruptive.
- Deeper Sleep – It feels like a deeper sleep. The first few nights I got fewer hours of sleep (~5 hours) than I normally do (7-8), but I actually felt pretty good most of the day.
- Ground Sensation – This is one of the best parts. Gravity seems stronger when you’re sleeping on the ground. You feel the ground pushing back up at you, and you know exactly where your supports are. It’s a very different sensation than a normal mattress, where each part of your body gets a little bit of support. I like it. It’s calming. I think of it like Temple Grandin’s squeeze box. It’s almost like being hugged.
I could get a more accurate read on my sleep quality with various devices, but I’m just not one of those people that measures every little thing.
I’m going to continue sleeping this way for now, and will probably build myself a Japenese-style platform bed that allows me to sleep up off the ground, I’ll be able to make it a bit less ascetic, but still maintain a pretty firm sleeping surface.
I should note that in the wild, the surfaces we slept on wouldn’t have been perfectly flat or hard, but almost any natural surface would have been much firmer than what most people sleep on today.
Here are two links on natural sleeping that have been passed around in the paleosphere: The Ergonomics of Sleep and Slumber’s Unexplored Landscape. I’m also reading At Day’s Close: Night in Time’s Past, research into what people used to do at night (before electricity) and how they used to sleep.
As for the scientific research, let’s take bets right now:
- How many serious scientific papers have been performed on mattresses vs. hard surface and sleep quality?
- And are there any that actually suggest that soft mattresses are net beneficial?
I don’t know the answers to those questions just yet, but if the past is any guide, ZERO would not be an unreasonable guess.
If you give this a shot, particularly if you have chronic back pain, definitely drop me a line and let me know how it goes.