Ever since my collegiate football career ended, I've suffered from spondylothesis, a fracture of my L5 vertebra that causes nerve pain down my leg and spasms in the muscles of my torso. I have developed a morning routine of forward bends, rotations and extensive foam rolling to rid myself of back tightness and achieve full range of motion. Each morning, I sit on the edge of my bed fully aware that the previous hours of "restful" sleep will require 10-15 minutes of undoing before I am ready to face the day.
In some instances, discomfort in my back has affected my sleep prior to rising, negatively impacting my training or work the following day. This is not surprising, since the link between sleep and athletic performance is undeniable—a solid eight hours or more are crucial to recovery, regeneration and overall health. Sleep provides an opportunity for the body to repair damage caused by training, practicing or competing, improves blood flow, and removes stress.
Sleep also packs numerous performance-enhancing benefits beyond recovery. One of the more recognized studies on athletes and sleep, focused on the Stanford men's basketball team, showed that their athletic performance drastically improved when they increased their sleep duration each night beyond their usual sleep habits. The results were conclusive.
During the study, the players' total nightly sleep time increased by about 80 minutes, which resulted in improving their sprint times by .7 seconds, free-throw accuracy by 9 percent and 3-point field goal percentage by 9.2 percent. The athletes also saw improved reaction time and decreased fatigue while experiencing improvement in their sense of physical and mental well-being during practices and games.
Despite this evidence, many athletes and fitness-minded individuals who are striving to gain an edge on their performance and general well-being look only to training and nutrition as the key components to improvement. In most cases, the importance of sleep is overlooked.
However, one company is hoping to change that by bringing more restful, performance-enhancing sleep to the masses. LEVELsleep has created a product line of mattresses that purportedly provide lumbar support and minimize pressure on key areas of the body to enhance natural alignment, all with the goal of improving the quality of sleep while reducing next-day pain and stiffness.
LEVELsleep mattresses rely on a unique structure to provide these benefits. Made of foam, each mattress consists of zones of varying firmness to allow a natural alignment of the body. Typical mattresses sag under the weight of the torso, which results in flattening the lumbar spine's [low back] natural curvature. In contrast, LEVELsleep mattresses support the torso with added firmness via a LEVELfirm layer positioned two feet from the head of the bed.
Your head and shoulders are situated above this zone on a softer layer. Same goes for your hips and legs below the firm zone. This allows for a more level, sag-free posture, providing a natural decompression of your spinal column as you lie on the mattress.
According to Roger Sramek, co-founder and inventor of LEVELsleep, the typical flattening of the lumbar curve is compounded by the fact that many of us are hunched over computers or bowing our head to text all day before we hit the sack. "All of the things we end up doing all day are distorting our posture, and we definitely don't want a mattress that is going to do the same," he says. "Otherwise, that will reflect down to the lumbar region as back pain and stress on the soft tissues, ligaments, muscles and intervertebral discs. It worsens the pain and the next thing that happens is your sleep is disturbed."
The consequences of unnatural sleep posture can wreak havoc on the body. "When pain and stiffness result from the previous night's sleep, you're starting the day with that and have to find a way to mentally and physically shake that off before moving into any activity," Sramek says. "And of course, the tossing and turning that was probably a part of your night has cut into your sleep and affected your energy level and your positive attitude. If you're a competitor waking up to go into competition, you're waking up with some strikes against you already."
With all things touting performance benefits, we wanted to see the research behind the claims. Turns out, there is some data to support the benefits of the mattress. LEVELsleep recruited 30 patients and monitored their sleep and body positions with Philips' Actiwatch technology while they slept on the mattress. Monitoring was done for the first week on the patients' usual mattress, then the LEVELsleep mattress was put in place, and patients were monitored for five nights. The monitoring revealed the following changes in the patients:
- 34.5% reduction in tossing and turning
- 57% reduction in pain
- 54% reduction in stiffness
- 43% reduction in next-day fatigue
- 56% reduction in time to fall asleep
- 60% increase in overall sleep satisfaction
While the study provides substantial evidence, firsthand experience is always ideal. So, with the goal of putting the efficacy of the mattress to a further test, I took advantage of the opportunity to sleep on it for the past two months. After unwrapping the rolled up foam mattress from its tight plastic seal, I watched it expand to about three or four times itself in a matter of minutes.
The feeling of the mattress took a little getting used to, as I had been accustomed to sinking into a typical mattress my entire life. The firmness of the mattress was immediately noticeable as was the posture my body adopted after lying down. My hips, legs, head and shoulders were below my torso, resulting in what felt like a chest-opening sensation (picture yourself lying with your back on a physioball and allowing your body to curl around it, just not as extreme).
According to Sramek, an adjustment period is quite common. "Every night for eights hours a night, we do the same thing over and over all our lives," he says. "To change anything has a temporary disruptive effect. It certainly makes you notice it. That's why we did the clinical studies after the people had a chance to sleep on the mattress for a few nights. Some people said they slept all night long for the first time in years on that first night, while others said it took them a few nights to get used to it."
The new sensation was odd at first, but it didn't dramatically disrupt my ability to fall asleep the first few nights. After that, it became less and less noticeable, until it felt completely normal lying in bed. While I didn't immediately notice any changes in how quickly I fell asleep or how often I moved around, the next-day benefits were evident from day one.
When I awoke the first morning, I immediately noticed less lower-back stiffness and did not need to go through my usual loosening routine. The noticeable change has remained over the two-month testing period, and I can get into my morning workout without any special low back considerations. I can confidently say that my workouts and performance have improved as a result of sleeping on the LEVELsleep mattress at night, and I look forward to the continued benefits.
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