Mattress start-ups are everywhere and promise better shut-eye, but how much of a difference do they really make? Experts weigh in.

By Julia Malacoff
January 23, 2018
Photo: GoodMood Photo / Shutterstock

If it feels like you're constantly hearing about a new mattress company that brings an incredible direct-to-consumers product for an affordable price, you're not imagining it. From the original foam Casper mattress to newcomers with techy twists like the customized Helix and the "smart" collection from Eight Sleep, there's a lot to choose from. But are these mattresses really worth the price tag, which can range anywhere from $500 to over $1,500? And more importantly, can they really help you sleep better? Here's what sleep pros have to say.

The Sleep Boom

It's undeniable that sleep-getting more of it, improving its quality, and exploring its impact on health-is a hot topic right now. Along with the buzz has come a plethora of *stuff* for getting the best possible night's sleep. "Since I started my research and practice in sleep medicine, there's been a distinct uptick in sleep-related products marketed to consumers, like white noise machines, sleep trackers, and now this emergence of high-tech mattresses," says Katherine Sharkey, M.D., Ph.D., co-author of the Women & Sleep Guide and associate professor of medicine and psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University. (FYI, sleep even has an impact on weight loss.)

As awareness about the importance of sleep rises, more and more people are willing to spend money on fancy sleep products, which means there's plenty of profit to be made. "Selling mattresses tends to be a high-margin business-and one that is now being disrupted," says Els van der Helm, Ph.D., sleep researcher and CEO and founder of sleep coaching app Shleep. "What's driving that is a strong interest in sleep and many individuals looking for the silver bullet, a 'quick fix' to improve their sleep." Changing sleep behavior is difficult, but buying a new mattress is easy if you have the funds to do so, she points out.

And though the direct-to-consumer model does help keep things affordable, it's important to look into what you're actually getting for your money. "While there are some that serve consumers in a meaningful way, a lot of the very new mattress companies are cropping up to make money," says Keith Cushner, founder of What's more, the vast majority of these companies sell an almost identical product made by the same manufacturer. "There are certainly different covers, slightly different densities of foams, etc., but most of these direct-to-consumer companies make very similar all-foam mattresses."

But it's not all about money. "It's a good sign that both the general public and medical practitioners are finally becoming aware of the importance of sleep for good health and the value of creating an environment that is conducive to good sleep," Dr. Sharkey says. "As people become more sleep-literate, they are becoming better at noticing the impact of poor sleep on their physical, mental and cognitive health, and feel motivated to address it."

The Features

Most of these mattresses are pretty similar, but there are a few that have elements that could help improve your sleep. "There are some features that are cool, especially around temperature regulation and sleep tracking," Cushner says. "Custom firmness is fantastic," he adds. Helix offers a mattress tailored to your sleep preferences, and for queen-size beds and larger, you can make each side of the mattress a different level of firmness. Outside of super-expensive mattresses, this is a tough feature to find, and Helix offers it starting at $995.

Cushner also says Eight Sleep's smart mattress covers are worth checking out since they provide daily sleep reports, temperature regulation, and even a smart alarm that wakes you up at the optimal time in your sleep cycle. Even sleep physicians think this is a worthwhile development. "To the extent that a better understanding of sleep improves sleep, I find the notion of a 'smart mattress' promising," says Nathaniel Watson, M.D., a board-certified sleep medicine and neurology physician, director of the Harborview Medical Center Sleep Clinic, and advisor to SleepScore Labs. "Some beds can measure aspects of your sleep through respiratory and heart-rate variability measurement, providing objective data to help you determine if you actually ARE getting your best night's sleep."

Temperature regulation features are also of special interest to sleep experts. "Temperature can have a really big impact on your sleep, so products that ensure your bed is exactly the right temperature would be ideal," van der Helm says. "This is not an easy feat because it's different for each individual and your temperature window is quite small, meaning it shouldn't be even slightly too cold or too hot. But it's definitely an area with much potential to have a meaningful impact." That's why products like Chilipad, a heating and cooling mattress pad, have so much potential to do good, according to Cushner.

How Much Does Your Mattress Matter?

Ultimately, the question here is whether a higher level of comfort equals a higher level of sleep quality. "A terrible mattress can surely hurt your sleep, as we've all experienced at some point in a low-budget hotel or on an air mattress at a friend's place," van der Helm says. "An uncomfortable bed can lead to too much friction when you move in the bed, which can disrupt your sleep."

Dr. Sharkey agrees, noting that "comfort can certainly play an important role in getting good sleep." That being said, "persistently poor sleep is typically rooted in sleep or circadian rhythm disorders, physical ailments, or mental health issues," she explains. "Especially for women, sleep problems are often driven by the stresses they face in their personal and professional roles and hormonal changes that are common through different milestones in life, like monthly menstrual cycles, pregnancy, the postpartum period, and menopause." In other words, a mattress might help you feel more comfortable, but it might not be the root of your sleep issues. (BTW, your sleep position matters, too. These are the best and worst sleeping positions for your health.)

But can a brand-spanking-new mattress actually improve your health? "Anything that improves sleep is going to lead to better overall health," says Dr. Watson. On the other hand, a top-of-the-line mattress certainly isn't necessary for getting a good night's sleep. "When physical discomforts play a role in sleep problems, pick a comfortable bed, but don't spend beyond your budget," Dr. Sharkey says. "But other behavioral and environmental factors are just as-if not more-important than the mattress and bed. Don't underestimate the importance of the timing of sleep, keeping a regular sleep schedule, and sleeping in a dark, quiet, room." Need a little help to get started on improving your sleep? Check out these five ways to reduce stress after a long day and promote better sleep at night.