In a recent National Sleep Foundation poll, 60 percent of respondents agreed that they experience a sleep problem every night or almost every night. It’s no wonder the market is teeming with products promising to help us get some much-needed shut-eye. But do they really work?
“If you’re selling something as a panacea for all sleep problems, that’s not right,” says Dr. Doug Moul, sleep specialist at the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio. “When people make product claims about these things, they’re often not taking into account basic sleep science.”
Experts say sleep is a very individual process. While some basic tips will help most people optimize sleep — using your bed for sleep only, and getting out of bed if you find your brain engaging too much — there’s no catch-all solution. So your first step should be to examine your bedtime routine and the things that inhibit or affect the quality of your sleep.
“Asking yourself honest questions about how you’re functioning is a really good skill for solving a lot of sleep problems,” Moul says. “Figure out your body and let it work—and get out of the way of it working properly.”
You can then take that information — for example, the fact that you need total darkness to fall asleep — and use it to make an educated decision on whether you should invest in a product — or come up with a no- or low-cost alternative — to address the cause of your sleep problem.
“The ultimate standard isn’t whether it’s science, but whether it works,” says Moul. “If standing on a chair and clucking like a chicken works, I’m all for it! It’s what works for you.”
We rounded up a group of testers with varying sleep complaints to test-drive some of the latest offerings.
Philips Wake-Up Light, $99.99 • www.philips.com
Opinions varied widely on this alarm clock, which underscores just how individual sleep — and waking — preferences are. Heavy sleepers reported that the gradually brightening halogen light didn’t rouse them, and found the chirping bird sounds (which function as back-up) irritating. Others thought it was a pleasant, natural way to be eased out of sleep. Intriguingly, the device can also be used in reverse: You can turn on the light at bedtime, and it will dim over the course of 30 minutes, slowly signaling to your brain that it’s time for slumber.
Badger Sleep Balm, $5.50 for .75 oz • www.badgerbalm.com
This aromatherapy balm aims to relax you into sleep with organic oils infused with rosemary, lavender, bergamot, ginger and balsam fir. Instructions say to rub it on your temples and under your nose at bedtime, but we found the scent incredibly faint even with a hefty application. The texture is light, but with other scented products on the market, we’d just as soon opt for something that does double duty by providing a light feel and a stronger scent.
SleepPhones, $39.95-$49.95 • www.sleepphones.com
Dubbed “pajamas for your ears,” these flat earphones are housed inside a fleece band so that you can comfortably fall asleep listening to the sounds of your choice. We liked the breathable fabric and respite from the “digging in” sensation that other earbuds and earplugs sometimes give. The device also doubles as a mask — another plus. While the price tag is a bit steep, SleepPhones adds value by offering free mp3 downloads of relaxing music and white noise on its website.
Zeo Personal Sleep Coach, $199 • www.myzeo.com
For a device with multiple complex features, Zeo’s sleep monitor is remarkably easy to navigate. A headband that measures electrical signals in the brain tracks your time in three sleep modes — light, deep and REM. The device then not only graphs that information and compiles a total sleep time, but also assigns a quality score to your night’s sleep that you can monitor over time based on variables like your stress level, diet, and nighttime routine. The headband has to fit snugly in order to work, which some found uncomfortable, but the sheer amount of data collected is impressive, and the accompanying alarm clock is appealing as well.
Sleeptracker Pro Elite, $179 • www.sleeptracker.com
This wristwatch device is far more comfortable to wear than the Zeo’s headband, but its data collection is more basic. The Sleeptracker detects when you stir during the night, and compiles an average length of time between these waking moments. Then it chooses a time to wake you based on a window of time you set and its analysis of your sleep cycle, so you bounce out of bed refreshed. (You can snooze, but that seems to defeat the purpose.) The interface takes a little practice, but the alarm is pleasant: a gentle vibration and sound.
SleepMaster, $21.95 • www.sleepmaster.us
The SleepMaster mask sets out to block two common sleep inhibitors: light and sound. While it’s adept at both (with the use of the included earplugs), we thought its flaws overshadowed the benefits. The bulkiness of the mask made it uncomfortably warm — and ultimately stifling. The earplugs, while sufficient, are standard-issue, and the mask didn’t much muffle noise on its own.
Homedics World’s Greatest Sleep Pillow, $49.95 • www.homedics.com
The shape and feel of this micropedic pillow took a little getting used to—it feels more like a beanbag than what you may be used to resting your head on. But we were won over by its supportive qualities, which help keep the head and neck in optimal alignment. Pillows are largely individual, but for those with neck or back pain, this firm but comfortable one is a good choice.
Chillow, $24.95 • www.chillowstore.com
Pillow flippers, this product— a water-filled liner that keeps your head cool — is made for you. We thought the set-up was cumbersome: 8 cups of water need to be poured into the liner through a small spout, then it needs to sit for 4 hours before it’s rolled up to remove air pockets — a move that is unavoidably messy. But it only needs to be topped off every couple months, and once in place (inside a pillowcase) we liked its simple comfort.
Marpac Sleep-Mate Sound Conditioner (dual speed), $59.95 • www.marpac.com
Experts recommend total silence for optimal sleep, but that’s not always realistic— whether a snoring spouse makes it impossible or you simply need some kind of noise to lull you to sleep. This white noise device comes with two volume settings, but we found even the lowest to be incredibly loud, audible from rooms away. We liked the sound quality and ease of use, but it seems impractical (and expensive) unless you need to drown out a lot of noise.