I embarked on my floor sleeping journey out of necessity, not by choice.
According to my Oura ring, a finger FitBit for sleep, my average sleep scores dropped from 78 to 74. Not a huge difference but enough to make me feel worse than normal the next day.
But what could I do?
Buy a new bed? We only had two months left in Spain, so that didn’t make sense.
So that left only one alternative: Either Kim or I had to get off the bed to make things more comfortable for the other.
Guess who won that battle?
Hint: Not me. But I ended up winning, too, in the long run. And it was such a decisive victory that Kim ultimately joined my side.
Here’s my story, four hard-earned conclusions about floor sleeping, and a two-year update.
What Does the Science Say?
Before migrating to the living room floor, I did some research.
Or tried to.
Turns out science is sleeping on the topics of what sleep surfaces or positions are best:
- Nothing about a soft versus firm mattresses’ effect on sleep quality. All I found is this study: 30 people tested had lower body temperatures, and consequentially higher-quality sleep, on non-memory foam mattresses.
- Nothing about mattresses’ effect on back pain. The most recent review I found, from 2016, sums it up: “There is no high quality evidence currently available to the support advice to use a particular type of mattress for the treatment of chronic low-back pain.”
- Nothing much on sleep position. Only this paper on instinctive sleeping positions observed in less-modern cultures, which has amusing photos of the author demonstrating “native” sleeping positions in a Speedo:
Even the website Healthline, which tries to convince Google and readers that it’s smart by wantonly linking to as many studies as possible, resorts to mostly anecdotal evidence and speculation in its article on sleeping on the floor.
So without scientific guidance, I winged it.
I figured sleeping on the floor would be just like camping in my living room…
The Floor Is Hard to Sleep On.
Sleeping on the floor is not like camping.
It’s more like barefoot running. Sure, it’s “natural,” but if you transition too hard, too fast, you’ll probably hurt yourself.
With just a yoga mat for padding on a laminate floor, my arms and legs fell asleep more than I did. And every night around 3 AM, my lower back woke me up screaming, “F you!” and didn’t stop until Kim emerged from her now spacious bed telling me it was time to get up.
Other bloggers’ posts on sleeping on the floor said it got better after about a week, so I powered through the discomfort. No improvement. Same for putting a thin pillow under my lower back and a bigger one under my knees. They never stayed where I put them.
I tried taking other bloggers’ advice to try stomach sleeping. That made my sleep even worse.
I guess that’s I what I get for believing blogs. (Consider yourself warned.)
A Good Pain?
Oddly, as loud as my spine screamed at me during my fitful floor slumbers, the pain vanished within minutes of getting up. The rest of the day, my lower back actually felt better than ever.
One morning, it dawned on me:
Back pain from sleeping on the floor is different from the lower back pain I’m used to.
It’s not the same pain you get from too much slouching on a couch or from lifting heavy boxes the wrong way. It’s a duller version of what you get from doing back extensions. Exercise pain. Good pain.
My lazy little lower back muscles were complaining about having to get back to work after decades of slacking off on soft mattresses. Maybe I was pushing them too hard, but it was long overdue.
Another silver lining on my miserable yoga-mat-only misadventures of sleeping on the floor:
I felt extra open-minded and creative.
Challenging the convention of sleeping on a bed seemed to turn off complacent mode in my consciousness. Like fasting, traveling, and other new things to try I mess around with then write about here on The Zag, it proved to be a way to “act your way to a new way of thinking.”
If only I could find a way to be less delirious and drowsy at the same time.
My Position Softens
My average sleep score after 17 nights of sleeping on the floor?
Garbage. Way worse than the 74 I averaged sweating and struggling on the mini bed with Kim. A 67 sleep score is closer to what I’d get when I have to wake up at 5:30 AM to catch a flight after a night of drinking too much.
So I gave up on “pure” floor sleeping. I pulled out a thick blanket from the closet and folded it below my yoga mat as an extra layer of cushion between me and the hardwood.
And what happened?
My sleep scores jumped to the high 70s overnight.
Better than the bed! And my lower back and creativity continued to feel stronger than ever.
After a nightmarish first two-and-a-half weeks, I was becoming a sleeping on the floor believer.
What About Kim?
Kim was becoming a believer in sleeping on the floor, too.
…Of me doing it, not her.
While she doesn’t have an Oura Ring to back it up, her sleep quality no doubt jumped once I left her free reign to roll about the bed. And better sleep puts her in a better mood, which is good news for me. (Another relationship hack?)
But there’s a drawback, too:
Sleeping in separate rooms meant less hanky-panky and late-night pillow talk.
Oh well. Both Kim and I were okay with those sacrifices if it meant better sleep.
Some Pain Remains
Based on others’ experiences I read online, I hoped sleeping on the floor would reduce the spasms and tension in my shoulders that I’d started feeling not long after moving to Spain. Maybe it would loosen my hips, too.
Once again, my experience was not as dreamy as my fellow bloggers said it’d be. Disappointing.
But not surprising.
Excessive hunching over my computer to work on this blog was clearly the culprit. Roundabout treatments like sleeping on the floor (or stretching or acupuncture) wouldn’t cure my pain. I had to address the source of the issue. Maybe take more Alexander Technique classes? That’s another blog post for another time.
Four Conclusions on Floor Sleeping
Over the remaining month-and-a-half or so in Spain, my semi-softened floor sleeping continued to pay off.
I was particularly glad for it when a heatwave defeated our air conditioner. Being a foot-and-a-half lower down also lowered the temperature a precious few degrees.
And then we said hasta luego to Valencia.
Over the next nine months, Kim and I nomad-ed around Morocco, South Africa, then Canada. I slept wherever was most practical, which ended up being roughly half my nights on the floor and half on a bed.
This back-and-forth rounded out my perspective on sleeping on the floor versus on a big bed and led me to four conclusions:
Conclusion #1: You are what you sleep on.
I’ve become a firm believer that a harder bed makes you harder. And vice versa.
Mentally, it makes me feel more resilient and adaptable.
Every time I lay down on the floor, I can’t help but feel a bit like some unfazeable, Chuck Norris-esque ninja/monk. And I wake up more alert and ready to get off the floor and get going.
I feel more physically resilient and ready, too.
My lower back feels stronger, as I already mentioned. I also feel there may be some truth to floor-sleeping proponents’ claims that sleeping on a hard floor improves blood circulation and joint function.
And the extra daily mobility training definitely helps.
Getting up and down from the floor and making my bed on my hands and knees forces me into positions I hadn’t regularly been in since daycare. If soft fatties with stiff joints did the same, I bet healthcare costs would drop.
Conclusion #2: Mattresses marketing is fluff.
I used to believe you should invest in the best mattress possible. You spend a third of your life there, after all.
Now, I believe that’s as misguided as the three-month salary “rule” for engagement rings. Like they do in the diamond industry, mattress industry marketers have manufactured mirages of value to suck big bucks out of us.
Just as you can’t buy love with an expensive engagement ring, you can’t buy better sleep with an expensive mattress.
This six-minute video, while way over the top with its dramatization, might help put your doubts to rest:
Conclusion #3: How matters more than What.
What we sleep on doesn’t matter as much as we’re lead to believe.
Mattresses are to sleep what shoes are to running.
No fancy cushioning system is going to make you a superstar sleeper. If anything, these “advanced technologies” screw up our physiology in the long run. All we need is something reasonably flat and comfortable.
What’s more important is how you sleep.
A regular evening routine with less alcohol, snacks, screens, and artificial light will do way more good for your sleep than any mattress, or lack thereof. So too will sleeping in darker, quieter, and cooler rooms.
And if you’ve already heard all these “sleep tips” a million times but still not motivated to put them into practice, I strongly recommend Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker. It’s one of the “sledgehammer” books that changed my thinking because of all the eye-opening info it’s packed with about improving sleep.
Conclusion #4: Sleeping on the floor is the bitter Brussels sprouts of slumber.
Sleeping on the floor will never give you as much short-term comfort as the sweet ice cream of cushy modern beds, but it’s better for you overall. And you can learn to love it, especially if you do it right.
Update: Two Years Later
It’s now been two years since I first experimented with sleeping on the floor.
And I’m still at it.
Not only that, Kim joined me six months ago. We bought thin Japanese-style tatami mats and futons for our apartment in Vancouver. This arrangement gives us the best of both worlds: We can put our mattresses beside each other to cuddle, canoodle, and chat, but still enjoy our own space and the body and mind benefits of a low, hard surface to sleep on.
Kim’s experience as a floor sleeper has been so dare-I-say dreamy that she’s now talking about bringing our mats with us to South Africa when we return there in October.
Sleeping on the floor may be unconventional, but, more importantly, it’s practical. But don’t take some bozo blogger’s word for it. Try it for yourself. You might be surprised by the lessons you discover.
And to help you fall asleep, read more adventures that dramatically improved my life:
- Zero food for 3 days with zero advance prep or research.
- Telling Kim something different about her I’m grateful for every day.
- Saying sayonara to the gym.
- Logging everything I do, all day, every day.
- Teaching myself to stop being a fly-swallowing mouth breather.
More Floor Sleeping Info
Since publishing my story, I’ve received many questions from readers and continued to research and tinker with “best practices.” See my Floor Sleeping FAQ: Pillows, Positioning, Pain, and More the best answers I’ve been able to uncover on questions like:
- Is it better to sleep on your side, back, stomach, or standing up?
- To pillow or not to pillow?
- Isn’t it dirty?
- Won’t all the mold, allergens, and dust mites/spiders/roaches/rats you swallow make you sick?
- What are other potential benefits of floor sleeping?
- And more!
Also, if you’re more of a visual learner, you may appreciate my video reenactment of this post:
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25 responses to “Sleeping on the Floor: Uncovering Hard Truths off a Soft Bed”
When you finally get one, best to pair it with buckwheat pillows. Also, don’t forget to always hang them outside under the sunlight at least 3-4x a week as they’re prone to mold. When you visit Japan, visit the rural or the countryside, and you’ll see what I am talking about.
I love your blog and especially enjoyed this post! About 6 years ago I transitioned to a more “furniture-free” lifestyle, which included experimenting with sleeping on the floor (yes, ouch) before finally moving to sleeping on a firm, thin futon. I highly recommend you check out Katy Bowman, a biomechanist and natural movement scientist and enthusiast in Washington State, and her books, including Move Your DNA. She was the inspiration behind my transition and so many of her unconventional concepts have revolutionized how I think about movement and the structure of my days. I think of her work often as I read your blog!
You might want to look at bed ‘toppers’ (i get twin size).
An excellent, more portable and washable than futon bed topper for me was “Sleep & Beyond 39 by 76-Inch Washable Wool Mattress Topper, Twin, Natural” i found on Amazon, combined with a “ZAMAT Contour Memory Foam Pillow for Neck Pain Relief, Adjustable Ergonomic Cervical Pillow for Sleeping, Orthopedic Neck Pillow with Washable Cover”.
Then i add a thick foam yoga matt underneath, bought anywhere.
– try full inclined bed therapy – cures diseases
I’ve been sleeping on a tatami mat with no pillow for the last 8 months! I’ve personally enjoyed it greatly (after the adjustment period). My back feels great and I feel more “connected” or “grounded” when going to bed and waking up. One unexpected benefit, which makes sense in hindsight, is that I get the same sleeping experience wherever I am, which has been a welcomed surprise when traveling!
what position do you sleep in?!
LED to believe…
Ive been practising Yoga from the Sivananda tradition since the age of 20, 15 years ago. This is an intense yoga not for health nuts and beauty queens. Waking at 4am minimum, staying up all night sometimes to chant or meditate, doing intense hatha yoga, and giving up all your extra clothes and of course, fancy bedding. So yeah, I learned to sleep on a floor, sometimes mat, sometimes not. Ive slept in beds when it offends people I live or stay with but otherwise, Ive only had at most half a year back in a bed at which point I freaked out and sold the bed. It is indeed better, and the discomfort helps prevent sleeping in, though after 15 years believe me I can relax on a stone and laze the day away better than you can on a marshmallow.
lately Im giving up chairs to prepare for monastic life and thats a whole new transition, my legs hate me…. Just wait til I start training to sleep while sitting. You thought the floor was bad…
I found this article (along with a few more on this site) an interesting and insightful read. I suffer for bulging discs and inflammation in my cervicle spine from an injury and been trying to find ways of comfort for every aspect in my life. Sleep is one of those things. A part of me wonders would floor sleeping benefit me if I were to get a mat with more padding on it (can lay too flat on the ground, becomes difficult to move in the AM). None the less this sparked some questions I’ll be taking to my chiropractor!
As someone who has sleep on the floor for decades, here’s my 2cents.
If you have cleaned the room, vacuumed, or if you have a hardwood floor, you will be breathing the 1.5ft, 50cm ground layer of dust kicked up.
Either a platform or good ventilation like a fan next to your head is almost a necessity.
I also found myself not moving around much in my sleep, just flat on my back with my arms across my chest (so called ‘egyptian’ position), it seemed to be the most comfortable.
I used a rolled yoga mat, often with a second yoga mat or a bed ‘topper’ (as good as a futon) and a sleeping bag.
When i used a futon, they’re going to be semi-disposable, because they clump over time, and are not cleanable, maybe 2–3 years.
I sometimes had trouble keeping warm in winter. The heat all goes to the ceiling unless you have a fan.
Any bass sounds will go staight to you regardless what you try: earplugs, whitenoise, etc.
So doing this in an apartment is dependent upon your neighbor.
Probably not as much an issue nowadays as it could get for me back in the 80s & 90s.
Any air matress i tried never lasted, *always* deflated sooner than later.
I never encountered bedbugs, but did encounter other innocent insects.
I wasn’t upset by them, but that’s me.
(A painted border of dolomite power and catnip tea will keep them away.)
The big advantages are: wherever you go, there you are. And it feels more free, both in its lowcost simplicity, and in its transportability – you can bring your bed anywhere and wherever you want.
Finally: Oddly enough I never felt uncomfortable, soft beds or hotel beds could get that way for me.
One of the main benefits of floor sleeping (or firm surface) is that the pressure on your body will stimulate your fascia, helping to loosen it up, increasing the movement of fluid and blood throughout your body. The first month I slept on the floor (on top of a thin rug, mainly for marking my space), I experienced periodic discomfort on the side I was sleeping on, so I would switch sides every so often. Then, after 3-4 weeks all discomfort disappeared. I don’t sleep on my back often, but when I experimented…I also found that staying there, initially, I would experience discomfort. BUT, after lying on my back for 3 days in a row….I’m fine. No discomfort. I have been working with the fascia, first with Bowen Therapy, now with Block Therapy, which uses a smooth bamboo block, roughly the size of a yoga block but completely smooth… to apply pressure to the fascia, which heats it up, loosens it…and unsticks it from your bones and muscles. The pain we feel generally is related to our fascia being dried up and torqued/twisted. Our modern “padded lifestyle” (mattresses, cushioned shoes, marshmallow furniture) has led us to becoming weak, twisted, dried up and rigid. By introducing regular pressure to our body —either by sleeping , sitting, walking without excessive cushioning—or with Block Therapy–we help to realign our body. I lived in Japan previously and slept on a “traditional futon” on top of tatami. What I sleep on now is less than that. Rather than focus on muscles or joints…think FASCIA first. If you adjust a joint or do deep tissue work without addressing the FASCIA, things will return to the way they were. But realign your fascia, the mesh that surrounds your bones…the changes will stick.
Oh yes, got rid of my office chair and sit on the floor, too, for most of the time.
So, yes, after getting used to sleeping on the floor…I can now sleep anywhere…and a mattress feels like a stupid idea. If you think of every other mammal..they don’t need extra cushioning to sleep. So why should we?
I tested my experience of sleeping on the floor back in April. It felt ok, so I bought a foam mattress off amazon BETTER HABITAT SleepReady Portable Floor Mattress & Bed | 3″ CertiPUR-US Memory Foam.
I’ve slept on it every since. I’m 61 and a very active person so back pain was an every day thing. It’s gone, or when I push myself too hard for a few days, I quickly bounce back after sleeping on the floor. I also use a special pillow that puts my head at the correct height so my spine is straight.
My only negative comment is that it’s not as neat looking, not like a nice tightly made bed.
Thanks for sharing.