We are in the grip of a ‘sleep-loss epidemic’, declared the World Health Organisation two years ago.
Since then, tech companies and health brands have swiftly stepped up the search for a cure, with the sleep industry now worth £100 billion — and growing.
‘People are desperate to buy a “magic” solution, and now is the time to sell a sleep device,’ says independent sleep expert Dr Neil Stanley.
We are in the grip of a ‘sleep-loss epidemic’, declared the World Health Organisation two years ago
‘But I think people are both confused and sceptical — with good reason.
‘For most people, the answer to sleep problems is in their mindset and making time. A lot of these products are shortcuts to make up for what you really need: a bedroom conducive to sleep — quiet, dark and cool (16C to 18C) — a relaxed body and a quiet mind.’
But, for those of us who still struggle with sleep — around 16 million people in the UK are reported to have issues with insomnia — are any of these products the answer?
We asked Dr Stanley to cast a critical eye over 14 of the latest sleep aids, which we then rated.
CLAIM: Worn all night, these soft headphones ‘help you sleep using music, the sound of gentle rain or the ocean, and spoken word techniques used in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).’ They also contain ‘brainwave sensors that monitor your sleep to personalise your experience’ by storing sleep data and using it to create a pattern of sound that works for you.
EXPERT VERDICT: Some people find sleeping with music on helpful, as it distracts the mind. There is a great deal of benefit to be had from CBT, which seeks to alter the way you think about sleep and tackles the problem that way — but as this refers only to ‘spoken word techniques’ and not a clinical programme, I’m not convinced.
The claim that it records brainwaves from sensors on the ear is bizarre: I’ve been doing sleep research for 37 years and have no idea how you get a brainwave that is meaningful from the ear.
SLEEP WELL DRINK
CLAIM: The maker of this ready-to-drink flavoured milk says it will help you ‘get your eight a night’. It contains valerian root and honey, which, it claims, ‘contains the perfect blend of sugars that can help you sleep’.
EXPERT VERDICT: Most of us are familiar with hot, milky drinks such as Ovaltine or Horlicks and how having them before bed can help us relax, so this drink taps into that mindset. Is it going to put you directly to sleep? No. Is it going to help you relax? Probably, if you are used to a milky drink as part of your wind-down ritual before bed. Valerian has a calming effect. Sugar is irrelevant.
KALLY ANTI SNORE PILLOW
CLAIM: Tested by the British Snoring & Sleep Apnoea Association and found to reduce snoring by 50 per cent, this pillow has ‘an ergonomically S-shaped foam core designed to support head and neck at the right position to improve breathing and open your airway’.
EXPERT VERDICT: Snoring is caused by some kind of blockage in your airway as you sleep, such as the throat tissue or tongue relaxing, and can be brought on in certain positions. This pillow will be helpful for some people who snore only when, say, lying on their backs.
But we naturally turn over 12 to 20 times a night — so a device that requires you to be in a particular position will not work consistently. Sew a tennis ball into the back of your pyjamas if you don’t want to lie on your back and snore — that’s just as effective.
SOMNOX SLEEP ROBOT
CLAIM: You hold this robot — the size of a large pillow — in bed, and mimic its ‘breathing’ rhythm, which, the maker says, will help you sleep. It also emits calming sounds, such as lullabies.
EXPERT VERDICT: It’s difficult enough having somebody else in your bed, never mind a huge robot! Breathing deep and slow is part of meditation and can help you sleep, but you don’t need an expensive device to do this effectively. We’ve been singing lullabies to children for thousands of years, but it depends who’s singing: your mother’s voice might help, as it’s a comforting sound. Anything else won’t have the same effect.
THIS WORKS SLEEP PLUS+ PILLOW SPRAY
CLAIM: Sprayed on bed linen, this product is proven to restore sleep patterns, as lavender, vetivert and chamomile support a longer, less interrupted sleep, says the maker. It quotes an independent survey showing that 96 per cent who used it had less disturbed sleep.
EXPERT VERDICT: In the same way as the milk drink, a pillow spray could be helpful, by providing a ritual that relaxes you before bed. There’s no science to say lavender, vetivert or chamomile as scents will help you sleep, though there is evidence that inhaling these oils may reduce anxiety, possibly by affecting certain receptors in the brain. The ‘independent testing’ claim is nonsense — it’s not science, it’s a survey.
DREEM 2 HEADBAND
CLAIM: Worn while you sleep, this band measures brain activity, heart rate and movement with ‘the precision of a sleep lab’ and sends bursts of ‘pink noise’ to ‘strengthen the quality of deep sleep’, says the maker.
EXPERT VERDICT: Of all the high-tech devices here, this is the one I’m most convinced by, because pink noise [meaningless sound comparable to a waterfall] is proven to be helpful for sleep.
The factors it monitors might give you a good estimation of what stage of sleep you are in and when, but the claim that its results are comparable to a sleep lab is wrong. In a sleep lab, you’d use electrodes on the scalp to measure the activity of the brain from at least four regions, as well as measuring eye movement and other indicators of the depth of sleep — this doesn’t do that.
BETTER YOU MAGNESIUM SLEEP MINERAL LOTION
CLAIM: This body lotion combines magnesium chloride to help relax tired muscles and lavender and chamomile to quieten the mind for deeper sleep, says the maker. Massage on to skin before bed.
EXPERT VERDICT: While the scent of lavender might be calming, there’s no definitive evidence that magnesium can penetrate skin and be used by our cells, so any benefits are overstated — and the few studies that suggest magnesium supplementation aids sleep are very small. 2/10
SMART NORA PILLOW INSERT
CLAIM: This device ‘listens’ for snoring — when it detects it, the electronic pad will start to inflate inside your pillow. ‘This stimulates the throat muscles — allowing natural breathing to resume,’ says the maker.
EXPERT VERDICT: What it does is relatively simple — it moves your head slightly, which can stop snoring. But there are many causes of snoring. For example, some people have an anatomical problem that causes them to snore — such as if they broke their nose playing rugby.
This device will work for those who need only a nudge in position, but there is no way of knowing if you are one of them — and you might not want to take a chance, as it’s expensive.
SLEEPFUL CBT APP
CLAIM: A CBT programme developed through publicly funded research and clinical trials, say the makers, a team of UK scientists and doctors.
EXPERT VERDICT: This is the best non-prescription option if you are having sleep problems.
It is one of several free apps using CBT-i (cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia) and is aimed at changing your attitudes and behaviours around sleep — thereby making it easier to fall asleep.
CBT-i is like a recipe for Victoria sponge: you’ve got the same ingredients [i.e. using the sleep questionnaire and sleep diary] but, somehow, everyone has their own way of making the cake [the methods they then use to improve their sleep].
Not everyone can access this therapy face-to-face, so this app makes it more accessible. You use it for as long as needed.
10/10 — BEST PICK
PHILLIPS HUE SMART BULBS
CLAIM: These bulbs can be programmed to start dimming up to an hour before bed to ease you into sleep, and mimic the sunrise to help you wake more naturally. They claim to be useful for shift workers and those with jet lag.
EXPERT VERDICT: The theory is that these bulbs mimic natural sunrise and sunset, which impacts your body clock — but, regardless of the claims, the sun is a billion times more powerful. As for shift workers, it’s unrealistic for them to set a new light schedule with these bulbs, as the whole point is that their schedules are inconsistent. At worst, you might end up causing more problems using devices to alter the timing of your sleep without expert advice.
MODIUS SLEEP HEADSET
CLAIM: Worn for 30 minutes before bed, this headset claims to ‘stimulate key sleep neurons, reducing the time it takes to fall asleep and keeping you asleep longer’. It sends an ‘electrical pulse into the vestibular nerve, influencing areas of the hypothalamus and brain stem that control sleep’.
EXPERT VERDICT: Sending an electrical pulse to the vestibular nerve won’t make any difference to sleep — the vestibular function is your balance. The hypothalamus is right in the bottom centre of the brain, so this headset is targeting something smaller than a walnut, in the base of your brain, precisely? — I don’t think so. The hypothalamus is important to sleep, but there’s no proper science to back up this device.
WITHINGS SLEEP PAD
CLAIM: This electronic pad goes under your mattress and claims to provide ‘sleep cycle analysis, heart rate tracking and snore detection’, and to ‘help identify signs of sleep apnoea’ — when muscles in the throat collapse during the night, interrupting breathing and causing you to wake in fits and starts.
EXPERT VERDICT: This device detects movements, and so may give a reasonable estimate of how long you slept for, but it can’t measure the different stages of your sleep cycle, or your heart rate. By using sound detectors to record the changes in your breathing, it could pick up sleep apnoea — but if you know you feel tired all day despite sleeping for eight hours, and you’ve been told you snore, you can probably identify the problem that way and save money.
MASK SHINES LIGHT INTO EYELIDS
CLAIM: This eye mask is said to increase rapid eye movement (REM) sleep — the dreaming stage — by shining LED lights on to closed eyes to ‘unlock the world of lucid dreaming’.
EXPERT VERDICT: Often, during the night, for a moment you become aware that you’re dreaming — and, if you practise it, you can actually take control of your dreams. This is known as lucid dreaming.
We have a dream roughly every 90 minutes as we sleep, so some people set a very gentle alarm to partially wake them at that point in the hope this sparks the ability to lucidly dream.
This eye mask seems to be doing the same thing, but with lights, which may work — yet it’s not beneficial.
You’re not entering a world of creativity or insight in a lucid dream, there’s no health benefit, and there is no evidence that this device can increase the duration of REM sleep.
In fact, by trying to wake yourself in order to control your dreams, you may end up sleeping less.
THE ‘SMART’ AIR BED
CLAIM: A memory foam mattress with ‘air chambers’ that correspond to five body zones from head to toe. You can customise the firmness on each side separately, and it has ‘smart’ technology that detects your position and automatically adjusts the bed to relieve pressure for a better night’s sleep, the maker claims.
EXPERT VERDICT: Pain can be a distraction from sleep, and sleeplessness makes you more susceptible to pain — so a comfy bed breaks that cycle. But using air to change the shape of the bed in order to relieve pressure is overkill: any mattress that has pocket springs would do this.
The five zones may also cause problems — I’m 6ft 5in and my hips aren’t going to be in the same zone as someone who’s 4ft 11in.
But as far as having independent control on each side of the bed is concerned, you’re not going to be the same as your partner in terms of height, weight or medical conditions, so customisation may very well be beneficial.
Under the microscope with Sir Bernard Ingham
Margaret Thatcher’s former press secretary Sir Bernard Ingham, 87, answers our health quiz
Margaret Thatcher’s former press secretary Sir Bernard Ingham, 87, answers our health quiz
Can you run up the stairs?
I can’t, and fortunately I don’t have to because I live in a bungalow. I am not very fit though. I suffer from a serious shortage of breath, which I think is a legacy of my lifetime’s asthma.
Get your five a day?
Yes. In the morning, I have prunes and bananas, fruit at lunchtime and salad in the evening.
Pop any pills?
I live a medicated existence. I take six pills in the morning and two at night — including warfarin to prevent blood clots and various pills to regulate my heartbeat.
Yes. At my peak I was 17 st (I am 5 ft 11 in, although I am shrinking). In 1967, my doctor told me to quit smoking and eating so much. I started a slimming regimen in January 1968 and got down to about 12 st 7 lb before 1970. But I easily put on weight and have had to watch it. I am now around 12 st and weigh myself daily.
NOT really. I don’t eat sweets and I haven’t had an alcoholic drink since 1993. I just felt better for it. Aren’t I boring? I gave up smoking in 1968. I smoked like a trooper for 11 years.
Ever have plastic surgery?
NO. I will go to my grave as I started.
Most serious illness?
Double pneumonia in 2014. I was in hospital for just over a week. As a child, I was covered in eczema. My mother got rid of door-to-door salesmen by taking me to the door all swathed in bandages and black ointment. I grew out of the eczema but not my allergic asthma. Horses are a lethal trigger, as are cats, some dogs, cattle and dust.
Any family ailments?
Only asthma. My son has it and my granddaughter. My mother had it severely. She died in her 60s. My father, a cotton weaver, died of overwork at 74.
Cope well with pain?
I have wonky hips but I keep going.
Had anything removed?
Yes. Damaged cartilage in my knee as a result of playing football. My right knee is not as straight as the other.
Is sex important?
If it isn’t, then it is a poor outlook for the human race.
Ever been depressed?
I did suffer from a lack of confidence as a journalist in the early Sixties, but I didn’t really get depressed.
If there is one, I never found it.
What keeps you awake at night?
Not much. I can sleep very well.
Like to live for ever?
Not unless I was enjoying myself — and I am, lost in wonder that I have made it this far.
The Slow Downfall Of Margaret Thatcher: The Diaries Of Bernard Ingham by Bernard Ingham (Biteback Publishing) is out now.