The Sleep / Detox Connection

TEXT by Celine MacKay | PHOTOGRAPHS by The Great Romance Photo (Styling by Carrie Moe)


LIFE WITH A TWO-YEAR-OLD IS MANY THINGS, AT ONCE WONDERFUL AND EXHAUSTING, and never before have I looked forward to and relished crawling into my bed as much as I do now. Bedtime is relished by many (except, perhaps, that same two-year-old), and the tradition of sleepy Sunday mornings (if you're lucky) is one that isn't given up lightly. The thing is, however, our comfy, cozy, plushy mattresses may be a wolf in sheep's clothing in the form of toxins lurking within. Unfortunately, regulations imposed by governments to protect us are actually doing the opposite. And while you may be thinking, "well heck, my mattress hasn't killed me yet", let's take a peek at what is going on metabolically while you sleep, and what's so bad about mattresses anyway before you make that judgement call.

While sleep is largely viewed simply as a function to shut down for a while, the reality is that our bodies perform a huge variety of functions while we sleep. During the four stages of sleep our metabolic rate slows down, our muscles relax, we regulate and release hormones, our brains solidify new neural connections, we build restorative tissue, and we detox. It turns out that our brains produce metabolic waste resulting from its activity during the day, and without getting too scientific, a buildup of this waste is one of the leading theories as to what causes Alzheimer's Disease, and our brains flush this waste most efficiently at night. In fact, as a result of the particular study where this was discovered, the relationship between sleep deprivation and neurological diseases are being extensively studied, and the implications are huge. 

So much for just "shutting down", right?

So now that we understand why sleep is so crucial, as alluded to earlier, our bedrooms often contain fatal flaws that may affect the quality of our sleep. We spend a third of our life in bed, and for a space that's so heavily used and important to our health, we pay very little attention to what's actually in our bedrooms. Until now, that is!


Your Mattress

The most important fixture in your bedroom is the mattress. Until recently, mattress foam was treated with fire retardants that contained a particular chemical called PBDE, which can damage the reproductive, neurological, and developmental systems in the body, and it's even thought to be linked to SIDS. What's worse, PBDE's bioaccumulate in the body (meaning that we can't eliminate it and levels just continue to build with exposure) and induces DNA damage (which is linked to aging, disease, and cancer). So the situation is not pretty. Thankfully, most new mattresses no longer contain fire-retardant laden foam, but the way around it is through a fire-retardant barrier (aka covering) around the mattress so there is still cause for concern. The main point in sharing these facts about PBDE's is this: if your mattress is more than five years old, it probably contains PBDE's, so it's time for a new one (this is one time that I will openly advocate for buying new over reusing).

So, what are most mattresses made of then? Petroleum-based foam, which aside from it's obvious sustainability issues and the fact that it doesn't break down in landfill, emits a host of V.O.C.'s (air polluting chemicals that offgass into the air that you breathe). Also, many mattress companies use a special stain-guard material to cover the mattress and keep it looking fresh, but these stain-guarding formulas with which the fabric is treated contain chemicals that affect the body in much the same way as PDBE's. Unfortunately, questions about these concerns at the mattress store are often met with blank stares or dubious claims—the emphasis has always been on pure comfort with little concern to toxicity or environmental impact.

I'm painting a pretty grim picture, something that I don't like to do usually. I like to inform, not scare! But the entire situation is a quagmire for consumers—rife with confusion but worthy of discussion—and your best tool is being knowledgeable.

The very good news is that word is getting around, and increasingly nontoxic options are becoming available, although mattresses are big ticket items so it's unavoidable that it will cost you to replace your mattress (sorry in advance... prioritize replacing kids' and baby mattresses first if need be). The not-so-good news is that manufacturers are getting wise too and are toeing the line of what's nontoxic and what isn't (more confusion, ugh!). So how to know if a mattress is truly healthy? Easy. Read the list of ingredients (I'm serious) and get in touch with manufacturers if there is any doubt in your mind.

Anatomy of a Nontoxic Mattress

What you're looking for are natural materials and simple construction. The foundation for a nontoxic mattress is a natural latex (sometimes called natural rubber) core. Natural latex is literally sap from the rubber tree that gets whipped up (to inject air) and then poured into a mould, and baked until it's set (no additives if it's done purely). It's stable, very long lasting, and biodegradable. Yes!! Following that, the latex is wrapped in pure, organic, ethical wool, which is naturally fire-retardant and antibacterial, resists dust mites and mildew, and the whole lot is enveloped in natural, unbleached, organic quilted cotton. For bonus points, check to make sure that the sources of all raw materials are independently certified as organic, sustainable, ethically produced, and fair trade. The best are as follows:

ECO INSTITUT: This independent German certifier has the toughest standard for total VOC emissions in mattresses. It also tests for pesticides, heavy metals, triclosan, phthalates and the most extensive list of flame retardants.

G.O.L.S. (Global Organic Latex Standard): The latex used to make your mattress is from certified organic sources, with some fair labour provisions. Child labour and forced labour are banned and workers can’t work more than 48 hours a week and have the right to form a union.

G.O.T.S (Global Organic Textile Standard): The material used to make your mattress is certified organic by what’s considered by many to be the world’s best organic textile certifier. Goes beyond just making sure the cotton is organic, workers have to be treated well too.

I personally sleep on a Sleeptek (manufacturer of Obasan) mattress, which meets all the above standards and is a Canadian company (contact Sustain - our sister company - for information on purchasing one). I've been sleeping on one for 5+ years, and I swear by it. If you live in the US, a comparable brand is Naturepedic.


Other considerations in the bedroom:


If you can, buy organic cotton sheets. Bamboo sheets have been pretty popular as of late (and let's face it, they're CRAZY soft) but chemicals used in the manufacturing process take them out of the running for me. The textile industry is one of the most ecologically harmful, so avoid the bad mojo and buy organic. I am currently sleeping on a set from GLO, and I have to admit I love them and they seem to get softer with each wash. They are definitely worth a try. Another brand we love, which has a stronger retail presence is Coyuchi. Their line is also much larger and they are now offering linen! 


No point in investing in a nontoxic mattress without an organic pillow! Sleeptek and Naturepedic both offer good options made of either natural latex or wool. An internet search for organic kapok (a fluffy material similar to cotton but which can grow in poor soil not suitable for typical agricultural use) pillows yielded lots of results too.


Increasingly there is evidence that EMF (Electro-Magnetic Frequencies) emitted by electronics is harmful to our bodies (our bodies are made mostly of water, and EMF interacts with it causing unknown reactions and effects within the body). The science is complicated and a little experimental at this stage, but some countries like Germany have bought in to the point of a "suggested daily dose" of EMF and are putting regulations in place to limit exposure. My main point here is that we're surrounded by electronics ALL DAY, so why not make your sleep space as low in EMF as possible? Main sources of EMF are cell phones (don't take them to bed, and for heaven's sake don't charge them next to your bed) and other electronics plugged into the wall such as televisions, alarm clocks and lamps. You can purchase battery operated lamps and clocks (just use rechargeable batteries please!) to use instead (here's a tutorial on how to turn any lamp into a battery operated one... FYI I haven't tried this). Also, turn your wifi hub off at night.


Clean the air in your bedroom using plants! Install a couple hanging planters and kit them out with a spider plant or Boston fern, both of which are great at removing pollutants from the air.


Heavy metals and pollutants in your home often end up trapped in dust, so be sure to sweep or vacuum all those dust bunnies away and use a reusable microfiber cloth to capture all the dust on furniture.

The images shown originally appeared as part of a feature inside Vol. 9, and depict the home of Jodi Mockabee. Images are photographed by The Great Romance Photo, and are styled by Carrie Moe of Type A Society