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Natural Alternatives to Conventional Mattresses

I feel like a home manager sometimes. At work I'm a writer, editor, assistant, coordinator; but at home, I handle inventory, accounting, scheduling, purchasing - so I get to handle a lot of the decision making when it comes to what we buy.

A couple years ago, we found ourselves in need of a mattress. In our fully furnished house, the California king sized mattress the landlady had in the master bedroom was bordering on the ancient, and proving to be back breaking. With a baby on the way, it was time to find an alternative.

stuffing a straw mattress 

Why I Hate Mattress Shopping

There's a little method I use to make sure we're always getting the best possible products and necessities for our home. Since it’s not financially realistic to just go out and buy healthy alternatives to the junk we've acquired over our lives, every time something needs replacing or updating, I just troubleshoot it like crazy until I find a solution that makes sense.

That's how it was with replacing our mattress. I did a lot of research on the topic, and what I surmised from my reading was that typical mattresses were not only expensive, but made of some really nasty stuff. Petroleum based textiles, flame retardant chemicals, materials that were hard to clean, had to off-gas for days before they were usable — it was really unappealing.

After a few days of reading, I still wasn't sure what the solution was, but I knew it wasn't something from Serta. That's when the real research began, and I became really familiar with the alternatives to these types of mattresses that exist on the market today.

Natural, Non-Toxic Mattress Options

Depending on your preferences and budget, some mattresses are going to make more sense than others, but here you'll find that you can do something other than buy a memory foam filled abomination on any budget, with pretty much any lifestyle or family size.

Organic Latex Mattresses

This is probably the most well-known option out there, and one that fits the bill for the conventional mattress shape - you can put it in a bed frame, lift it off the floor, put a fitted sheet on it - for all intents and purposes, it’s a regular mattress, made out of a less toxic, more sustainable material.

However, the problem I ran into with these was that once again, they were prohibitively expensive. For a queen sized bed, we were looking at right around $2,000 — entirely more than we were wanting to spend. These mattresses are beautiful and thoughtfully made, but there are also a lot of imposters out there.

Cheaper alternatives made of 70% of the junk you’re trying to avoid in the first place with this kind of mattress litter the market, and it was a painstaking process watching what we thought were affordable contenders drop off the list because of what they were made of.

The bottom line is, with a latex mattress, you’re going to have to shell out some serious cash for the natural materials, and that was a deal breaker for us - we wanted an option that was both environmentally and financially sustainable.

Japanese Style Futons

I’m kind of in love with the idea of just rolling up my bed every morning and having all of this floor space. Sleeping on a lightly padded floor has actually been shown to be wildly beneficial for your spine health, and many chiropractors suggest it to patients with back problems.

Futon style mattresses present a more affordable choice that’s another ship-to-your-door option. Though most are filled with polyester, you can find some bound in cotton fabric with natural fillings like organic cotton and latex. The kind you can roll up are my favorite - very thin, with just enough cushion to keep your bones from really digging into the floor while you sleep.

However, even the thinnest shiki futon mats with these kinds of materials are a little spendy, with queen sized ones running about $600. It’s an affordable enough option, but for such a minimalist bed, I’d just assume sleep on a couple of comforters, which is what we are actually doing now.

Floor Sleeping

We tried a straw mattress for a while, which I’ll get to, but eventually my husband and I wound up just sleeping on a couple of comforters on our hardwood bedroom floors. It’s not that we could never rustle up the money for a mattress, it’s not that we were cornered into the choice, but rather, we just realized we really didn’t need a mattress.

As a person who has suffered some nasty lower back issues in the past, I was skeptical at first, but it’s been an incredible eye-opener as to just how unnecessary mattresses are for so many people. I’m a pillow-top mattress loving fool, but the bottom line is, when I wake up the next day, I’m inevitably achy, awkward, and uncomfortable.

Every day when I wake up on the floor of my bedroom, with just a couple of comforters under me, I’m not sore, nothing aches - my body is ready to go. If you’re a minimalist, this is about as minimalist as a mattress alternative gets, and it’s a highly versatile option. My bed is easy to clean (important with a toddler in the mix), can be rolled away during the day, is safe for our son to sleep in (with no danger of rolling off of anything), and is so good for our backs and posture.

Give it a try for a few days - you may be surprised how well your body adjusts.

Straw Mattresses

If you just plain need a mattress, this option is definitely my second favorite to floor sleeping. Though it may seem unconventional, straw makes a wonderfully comfortable bed, and talk about natural - this material is about as eco-friendly as you can get.

We used a straw mattress for about a year, only disassembling it when we moved, and then later realizing we just didn’t need a mattress after a couple of weeks sleeping on the floor, surrounded by our moving boxes. However, this mattress option is incredibly economical, something you can very easily make yourself, and is even compostable - how cool is that?

I’ll be doing a follow up post next week that chronicles how we made our straw mattress, and how it worked out for us, but let just preface that post by saying, it was the bees-freaking-knees. Details to follow.

Wool Mattresses

This is something you don’t hear much about these days, but let me just say, I am in love with the idea of sleeping on wool. I’m saving my pennies for a locally made wool mattress pad to replace our pile of comforters with, and I cannot wait to give it a try.

In addition to wool being a beautiful, natural material, it’s also incredibly insulative, without being too stuffy, so it’s great for keeping you warm and cool through the seasons. There’s also some speculation that wool mattresses help with circulation in some way, though I haven’t been able to find any science to back that claim up.

The drawbacks to these mattresses are that, for one, wool can be quite expensive. If you want a true wool mattress, you’re going to be hard pressed to find enough to fill a ticking for under $1,000. Thinner mattress pads (like what I’m pining after), aren’t quite as pricey, but still will set you back about half as much.

Also, keep in mind that as you sleep on a wool mattress, the wool is going to compress - you’ll need to open the ticking from time to time to fluff the wool, a process that can be time consuming and tedious. In olden times, these mattresses were quite popular in France, where professional mattress-fluffers plied their trade to compacted wool mattress owners, but now mattresses like this are practically unheard of, and it’s likely you’ll be doing it yourself, if not making your own wool mattress altogether.

Cleaning can also be tricky, since wool is particular about how it likes to be handled - this is my biggest hesitation with really investing in a mattress. However, it is also naturally antimicrobial, and dries incredibly fast, so it could be worth the tradeoff. My hope is that with the wool being on the inside of the ticking, cleaning it won't adversely effect the mattress too much.

There are a few other unconventional sleeping options out there, should you choose to take the bold leap away from those shiny white cushions we’ve all gotten so accustomed to. If you have access to enough feathers, feather beds are incredibly soft and fluffy, though a bit challenging to clean, and most evidence suggests that firmer sleeping surfaces are ideal for our spinal curvature.

It’s a hard adjustment to make, most of us have slept on the same thing for most of our lives, but deciding you don’t need a mattress anymore is oddly freeing, and it’s empowering to know that once upon a time, mankind slept just fine without Tempurpedic and memory foam.

Do you have an alternative sleeping arrangement? Share it with us in the comments below, and stay tuned next week for a more in-depth look at straw mattresses, and how you can make your own!

Destiny Hagest is personal assistant to Paul Wheaton, founder of  Permies.com and RichSoil.com, as well as a content curator and freelance writer. You can catch Destiny hanging out in the forums at Permies.com quite regularly, and visit her LinkedIn profile, and follow her on Twitter. Read all of Destiny's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here. 


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