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SCIENCE AND TECH

4 MIN

Sleep Gadgets Are Booming. Do They Work?

Sleep aid technology is suddenly everywhere – and if you think it's all been scientifically tested, you’re dreaming

Sleeping might be perfectly natural, but it would seem that for more and more people, it is far from naturally perfect. We’ve become obsessed with our sleep – from sleeping longer, to sleeping deeper or just getting to sleep in the first place – and as a result, there’s now an exhaustive number of products promising to be the answer to our nightly prayers for pleasant dreams. But how do you know if they’ll work?

Billy reached out to sleep expert Hawley Montgomery-Downs, associate professor of psychology at West Virginia University, to get her take on the science (or lack thereof) behind consumer technology that claims to give people better sleep. She’s been following the wearable fitness/sleep tracker category for several years and told us that she’s appalled at the explosion of products flooding the market – a quick search on Amazon for “sleep tracker” reveals more than 5,000 products and accessories.

The CEO of the American Medical Association isn’t impressed either, referring to these direct-to-consumer devices as digital snake oil. “There’s no science behind them,” Montgomery-Downs says of the vast majority of products that are vying for consumer dollars, but her primary concern is the potential damage sleep trackers in particular could be doing. “Every single one of these sleep trackers that have been studied by investigators are overestimating both sleep time and sleep quality,” which could lead to a perpetuation or worsening of sleep habits.

“[People] are being told they’re sleeping more and better than they actually are,” which Montgomery-Downs believes could lead to catastrophic accidents due to a lack of sleep. “I’m sort of amazed it hasn’t happened yet,” she says.

You’re probably familiar with the big names in this space: Fitbit, Misfit, Jawbone, and Withings. But sleep trackers aren’t the only devices promising to improve our Zs. Do any of these devices and products work? Pending further research, no one really knows for sure. But if you’re tired enough to be willing to make yourself a guinea pig, here are the products and what they claim to do.

Light therapies

Several products have emerged in the last year or two that are specifically targeted toward sufferers of jet lag, but they also claim general sleep benefits too. They’re face-worn devices that use light – usually blue light – to effectively hit your body’s sleep reset switch.

Ayo (top), Neuroon (bottom)

There’s the US$189 Ayo, which could be mistaken for Google Glass; the US$299 Neuroon, which is worn at night and looks like a sleep mask; and the C$299 Re-Timer, which has been on the market longest and is the only product of the three that claims a university as its incubator. Jet lag is considered a circadian rhythm sleep disorder, so attempts to adjust our circadian rhythm (as these products claim to do) could be effective in dealing with it.

Retimer

"Looks like it's dork o'clock!"

“There’s a ton of science that says the best cue for resetting your circadian rhythm is light exposure,” Montgomery-Downs says, in support of the science behind these products. Yet she’s quick to note that on the other hand, no equally valid scientific evidence exists to say the products themselves work as promised. Consumer Reports recently tested products that block blue light to see if they held any promise for better sleep. Their results were inconclusive.

Sound therapies

It’s hardly surprising that we sleep better when there’s less noise, but can the right amount (or the right kind) of noise actually improve sleep? That’s the premise behind these gadgets: The US$129 Sense is a palm-sized sphere which can generate a number of sounds to help you sleep in addition to monitoring your sleep and your sleep environment.

Sense

The US$189 FitSleep is another small gadget, which you place beneath your pillow or mattress so it can emit alpha waves (one of the natural frequencies the brain exhibits) to pull you into a deep sleep faster and for a longer time.The US$349 Dreem headband looks like a pared-down boxing headgear, but claims to use sound to get you to sleep and give you a deeper sleep.

FitSleep

And what did the sleep gadget fairy leave you?

The US$179 Dreampad Pillow also uses sounds, which are described as “Intrasound Technology™, which converts sound into gentle vibrations that travel directly to your inner ear.” The DreamPad is a rarity in that it has several published studies that appear to show its effectiveness. Finally, there’s the US$199 Nightingale, which uses two wall-plug devices to intelligently cancel noise in your bedroom. “There is good solid evidence,” Montgomery-Downs says, “that sleep environment has an effect on how you sleep.” She notes that sound might be one of the things preventing people from sleeping well, and a lot of research points to its negative effects, especially in urban environments. Not that this is a guarantee these products will help, but Montgomery-Downs does feel that some represent, “exciting, innovative and theoretically relevant ideas.”

Temperature control

Finding just the right temperature for sleep can be a challenge – between changing seasons, changing body temperature throughout the sleep cycle and perhaps a bedmate with a completely different set of temperature needs, it’s amazing we can get to sleep at all. Now finding backers on Indiegogo, the Kryo promises to cool you down, using its water-based system plus mattress topper, making it better for warm climates. Eight Smart Cover, takes the opposite approach, offering heating in addition to capturing a vast array of sleep data through its integrated sensors. It costs US$349. For $20 more, the Bedjet might be the best of both worlds, as it offers a heating and cooling unit that pumps air between your mattress and bottom sheet to give you just the right temperature. More expensive units can be controlled from a smartphone and two units are needed if there’s two of you with different needs.

Kryo

Meanwhile, a secretive and recently FDA-approved new product that has yet to launch, might be the most effective use of temperature: Aimed squarely at insomniacs, the Cerêve claims to help sufferers get to sleep faster and achieve a longer, deeper sleep, through a cooling pad worn on the forehead. The claim is that there is a temperature at which the frontal cortex naturally starts to calm itself, and Cerêve can target and maintain that temperature. Though Montgomery-Downs doesn’t throw cold water on any of these products, she does have high praise for Cerêve’s inventor, Dr. Eric Nofzinger, who she says “is very well respected in the sleep field.”

Going gadget-less

We’ve become accustomed to trying to fix our problems with technology, but given how little independent study has been done on the effectiveness of sleep gadgets, Montgomery-Downs says that we shouldn’t overlook the options offered by our healthcare systems. “There are really good treatments for sleep disorders,” she says, and many of them require no tech or pharmaceuticals. “Study after study shows that for people who have insomnia, behavioural sleep medicine wins over medication.” Her advice: Before you drop several hundred dollars on a bedroom device, or become a sleep-slave to your wearable wrist tracker’s fancy graphs, talk to your doctor.

A few sessions with a sleep expert may not be as exciting as buying a shiny new gadget, but then again, sleeping is supposed to be the least exciting thing we do in bed.

Published Thursday, December 7th 2017

Header image credit: It's not a good look, but is it a good sleep? / Courtesy Neuroon

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