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Sleep Challenge 2010: Man, They Sell Some Weird Stuff To Make You Sleep Better -- But Does Any Of It Work?

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Among the 972 weird things about sleep I didn't know until Arianna Huffington and I started the Sleep Challenge: There is a toothpaste that supposedly makes you sleep better. Also, sunglasses, smoothies, body patches, special sheets and even sleep-promoting cherries. Surprised? Not as much as I was when I found out that some of it actually works.

My first introduction to the over-the-counter sleep-aid industry—expected to be a $750 million market in three years’ time, and that’s not counting the five billion dollars in drugs like Ambien—came shortly after we announced the Sleep Challenge. Suddenly, I was deluged with everything from "performance bedding" (special sheets made for athletes to sleep on) to books with drowsy-making titles like I Can Make You Sleep.

Now, I may not be the best tester of products like these: As someone who used to get by on five hours a night pre-Challenge, I was so chronically zonked that the only sleep aid I needed was a horizontal space at least 5’2” long, and it didn’t really need to be comfortable, either. (A lawyer friend of mine used to nap underneath her desk with her feet sticking out like the Wicked Witch, so I’m not the only one!)

But I realize that millions of people do need help falling asleep—and that in fact, the more sleep-deprived you are, the harder it sometimes is for you to rest well. Our nation of poorly rested women may really need this stuff! So I decided to bed-test some products. Not all of them, though. I eliminated:

  • Anything pharmaceutical. Two years ago, one of our editors developed a consuming addiction to the sleeping pill Ambien, and wrote about it here. There may be plenty of good reasons to try these drugs, but “I need material for my blog” isn’t one of them.
  • Anything with instructions longer than a paragraph. I am dying to try the Zeo, which tracks your sleep cycles (via a headband you wear) and sets your alarm time for when it’ll naturally be easiest for your body to wake. (Fellow magazine editor Chris Anderson of Wired is using one.) Alas, I’ve found the multi-step directions to be sleep-inducing in and of themselves, and have only gotten as far as unpacking the headband. Next week!
  • Anything that just freaked me out. So, no small bottles of pills with foreign-language type on them. Bad idea.
  • But that left a lot of stuff. Ready? Here’s me:

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    Sexy, no? (No.) But everything here comes with some degree of scientific backup: the blue-light lamp supposedly rebalances the body's natural sleep rhythms; the toothpaste and the dried Montmorency cherries contain melatonin, which regulates sleep; and the Bedtime Beats CDs feature music with 60-80 beats per minute—a rhythm also found to promote sound rest.

    My favorite things so far:

  • Lavender pillow spray. The one I tried, by Gabriel’s Garden, made my pillow smell like a spa. And there’s science here: One study found that the smell of lavender oil at night increases the amount of time you spend in the most restorative phase of sleep. (Our sleep expert, Michael Breus, Ph.D., cautions against lavender cocktails, though: you want to smell the stuff, not ingest it.)
  • Valerian teas. (Valerian’s an herb that promotes relaxation; don’t drive after drinking it!) I especially liked the Yogi teas brand, but Celestial Seasoning’s Sleepytime tea is nice too.
  • The Yantra mat. Feel free to ignore this recommendation once I go on to tell you that it’s an acupressure mat that actually hurts the first few times you lie on it. But I tried it for ten minutes before bed several nights running, and it relaxed my whole body, especially my upper back.
  • And what about melatonin? The supplements are popular; they work best if taken at least 1.5-2 hrs before sleep. But since most of us actually aren’t melatonin-deficient to begin with, you should only take .5 mg, says Dr. Breus (many supplements contain more). Also, because it’s a hormone, he warns, “I never recommend Melatonin to females under 18 years old with a developing menstrual cycle. Who knows what it may do.” Got it?

    For me, the most effective way to get a better night’s sleep is still pretty simple and basic: Remember to go to bed, and do it roughly at the same time every night. But if any of the above help you sleep more deeply, go for it. (Just don’t do what I do and try melatonin, valerian tea and lavender spray all at once. Coma!)

    Now it’s your turn. What sleep aids have you tried—or wanted to try?

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