Alternative mattresses

I’ve been spending a lot of time reading about all sorts of things relating to beds: different mattresses, platforms, inclines, ergonomics. Two types of mattresses intrigue me: the shikibuton, and the buckwheat hull mattress. The thing is, there are no retailers of either product close to where I live; so, I can’t test them. Does anyone have any idea what these are like? Better said: I’ve read reviews, but I’ve got more specific questions that the reviews don’t really answer?

Hi Greg,

Interesting topic :slight_smile:

I came across this site a little over a year ago which is dedicated to do it yourself “alternative” and “minimalist” mattresses and because buckwheat hulls are her favorite mattress material … there is a lot of information there about how to use it. At the time I first came across her site … she was sleeping on 2" of latex with buckwheat hulls over top of it but it seems that there is no longer any mention of latex anymore on the site. She has also progressed quite a bit in terms of how she packages the materials she is using into “pods”. I would bet that she would be a great resource to call if you are exploring the idea of using buckwheat hulls or some of the other materials she talks about in a mattress … especially a DIY version.

I have slept on a buckwheat hull pillow for a while some time ago and it was an interesting experience. In a way it would be similar to dense memory foam except it would be even less resilient and firmer but it certainly does gradually take on the shape of the weight above it. I think at the time I was more intrigued with the novelty of the idea than I was with the actual performance of the material and while it wasn’t “bad” … it also wasn’t my idea of a perfect pillow. It was a little noisy and also a little warm for my liking and it doesn’t do well with adjusting itself to different positions without fluffing. Of course this is only one persons opinion and is no more valid than any other. I would think that it would have similar advantages and disadvantages when used as a mattress layer.

While I haven’t slept on a shikibuton … I have certainly slept on a futon (basically a thicker version) and I personally find them very uncomfortable. I think that thinner firmer “mattress” layers are far more common in Asia than they are in North America. Whether this is because of different “normal” sleeping positions (more back sleeping), different “average” body size and weight distributions (normally smaller and lighter), or for historical, cultural, or financial reasons is open to question. Most adult westerners though would have real difficulty with a mattress like this, especially if they were side sleepers, and would likely develop pressure issues IMO. For those who are more back sleepers or stomach sleepers or are less sensitive to pressure issues it would likely be more suitable. They remind me of the days when it was believed that the firmer a mattress was the better … which of course is now recognized as being more of a myth. The focus on more natural and breathable materials and fibers is still a big plus though and is also a growing focus in the western world. Mattresses like this can have a very good microclimate even though their pressure relieving properties or in some cases their support qualities (lack of support under the gaps in the sleeping profile) may not measure up to western “standards”.

In the end though … if the pressure relief and alignment is suitable for any individual and their own unique needs and preferences … and the idea of a natural and minimalist mattress with a good microclimate and other advantages that goes with this style are an important part of “value” to any individual … then there’s nobody who can say that for that person it wouldn’t be the “perfect sleeping system”.


I’ve been reading a lot about barefoot running, how the minimalist approach to running may be healthier for your knees. As a corollary, I’m taken by the idea that the minimalist approach to sleeping may be healthier for your body -like barefoot running. In fact, I became interested in latex beds at first because I thought that aesthetically a chunk of latex was kind of like sleeping on the floor (but more hygenic, warmer, and not a deal-breaker on a date). I guess I’ve got some half-baked semi-reactionary mental tendencies I should address (after the new bed project’s over of course).
Still I think you answered my hunch with your description of the buckwheat pillow. Is the buckwheat pillow better than a lot of the “innovative” junk out there that sells as a pillow? Yes. But is it better than some of the new ergonomic foam pillows? Not necessarily so. Does a shikibuton (or a buckwheat mattress if you will) provide a better sleep experience than a “dorm” futon or a lot of big brand mattresses? Yes. But, are there also certain spring and foam options out there with which an informed consumer can surpass the sleep experience of a shikibuton? Yes.
Oh, almost forgot, I saw that woman’s site on etsy -the one who makes the buckwheat mattress. Pretty impressive. There’s another guy, Jack Crisp, who makes them as well. I’m still kind of curious about their products, but I think you’ve helped me pull my finger off the trigger on this decision. At least for now. My reactionary fever always seems to return though.
Thanks for taking the time to respond. Greg

Hi Greg,

Since I’m always interested in things “alternative” and I have also been accused from time to time of having some “half-baked semi-reactionary mental tendencies I should address” :slight_smile: … and since you are into the benefits of barefoot running … here’s a link that was sent to me by another “half baked semi-reactionary” who is also always researching alternative ideas. Maybe you can have some of the benefits of barefoot running while you are sleeping on a thicker (and probably way more comfy) mattress.

There’s actually some very interesting information here.


Thanks for the link.I’d quickly read about earthing a little while ago. One of the bed sites that I visited while researching (a.k.a. internet surfing)information on mattress alternatives was Along with some interesting articles on the ergonomics of sleep and pillow therapy, they offer all sorts of less mainstream but intriguing bedding options. Included among them are: the Quantum calming mat, (their version of a product that I believe offers on their own site) and the kapok futon with EM ceramic technology, which is their method of grounding/earthing, and also their method for repelling bed bugs and dust mites from a critter friendly sleep surface. For some reason I read their product description, thought to myself “interesting”, and then chose to keep surfing. I’m actually very interested in this, and grateful you brought it back to my attention.

Is this comment based on something “scientific” (I always take “studies” with a grain of salt), or general consensus? How long ago did this thought fall out of favor, as it is something that is in my head.

I know someone who recently purchased an earthing product for their bed. They chose to bypass their home electrical system and run the grounding directly out of the house and to the small ground rod supplied. They live by large power distribution lines and believe they react (sleep, behavior) during periods of higher transmission. I’ve been meaning to see if they feel there has been any change.

Hi jdog,

There haven’t been a lot of official studies done that showed anything definitive but there have been a few.

The one that most people refer to when they talk about mattress firmness was a 2003 Spanish study that involved 313 people. They were each given either a firm and medium-firm mattress. There was no soft choice. Because the medium-firm mattress relieved pain more than the firm and gave more freedom of movement during the day, it was generally accepted that medium firm mattresses were better. There is some further commentary about the study here (among a million other places). From this point on the study results were interpreted as meaning that a medium firm mattress was the best … unfortunately there was no real definition of medium firm and the study only used 2 different mattresses. The main value here is that the idea that firmer was not better began to be seriously considered.

Sleep to Live also did a more recent study in 2011 which was much more interesting. While the study makes very interesting reading and certainly is much better thought out and includes movement measurements in addition to 7 different mattress firmnesses … it also leads to more questions than answers. The basic results are that both ends of the scale are the worst and the middle range seems statistically to be the best … however there are many areas where further study seems to be indicated. It also seems to indicate that a “best” mattress can be anywhere in between the two extremes.

They are also sponsoring another study here.

In my conversations with health professionals, mattress manufacturers, and many others and in my online travels, there seems to be a growing consensus … at least among those who aren’t immersed in the “old school” and have put real thought into this … who will agree that a mattress that supports natural spinal alignment (the natural double S curve of the spine) and whatever helps achieve that is the “best” for each individual.

There has also been a lot of at least anecdotal evidence published … mostly in regard to various pressure relieving materials … that good pressure relief also has clear benefits including better circulation, less movement during the night, and deeper sleep. Of course anyone who has had the discomfort of pressure points and the numbness and pain that can be connected with this doesn’t have to read a scientific study or research to know that pressure relief or lack of it can dramatically affect sleeping comfort.

So my own thoughts on all of this is that all of these studies are flawed as it relates to mattress firmness because the idea of rating a mattress with a single “firmness rating” seem to me to be somewhat nonsensical. For example (to make the point) if you have a mattress with 6" of 15 ILD foam and put this over 6" of 85 ILD foam you would have an average ILD of 50 which by any accounts would have a rating of ultra firm. On the other hand if you put the firm foam over the soft foam you would have the same rating. Even worse if you put a sheet of flexible firm plastic over 6" of ultra soft foam you would have an ultra soft mattress … and yet all of these would be disastrous in one way or another. Both “firm on top” versions would clearly create pressure points for most people in addition to probable alignment issues and back pain and the “soft on top” version would certainly create alignment issues even if the pressure relief was better.

It seems pretty clear to me … and almost anyone who deals with sleeping issues or who makes mattresses and has feedback from what they build will generally agree … that a mattress has 2 main functions not just one (pressure relief and alignment) and that a mattress needs to deal with both by being both soft on top to differing degrees and firm underneath also to differing degrees. It also seems clear that a mattress that helps some with back pain issues can make back pain worse for others. To rate a mattress with a single rating (such as medium-firm) once this is realized or to think that a certain type of mattress is “better” for certain conditions without taking the individual into account defies common sense. This is the main message IMO of the Sleep to Live study.

So while it is generally recognized in almost every area that is involved with sleep and/or mattress construction that the idea of “firmer is better” is a flawed concept, and that the mattress that is best for each person depends on many things, the industry itself is way behind in the way they describe their mattresses and in helping people to understand how to find what is best for their own individual needs in terms of pressure relief and alignment.

I could go on at length about this as it gets into different materials, layer thicknesses, mattress constructions, and how each can fit different individual body weights and shapes and sleeping positions … but there is already lots of information on the site and in the forum about this.

The bottom line is that it just makes sense (at least to me) and that not only different studies and research (as limited as they may be) but each person’s own sleeping experience can validate it. All we have to do is help more people who sell mattresses to understand this “revolutionary” idea (that a mattress needs to be both soft and firm to different degrees and that an overall rating is meaningless) so they can better fit a mattress to the needs of their customers.