You hear it all the time, in study after study: Sleep is critical to your health, energy levels, memory, mood, and metabolism. (Basically, sleep is life.) And there have never been more high-tech wellness products touting abilities to track, encourage, and/or enhance our shut-eye. Yet just 49 percent of people feel satisfied with their sleep, according to a 2020 Philips Global Sleep Survey of more than 13,000 adults. What’s still standing between us and our pillows? “Good sleep is like a puzzle,” says pulmonologist and sleep expert Raj Dasgupta, MD, assistant professor of clinical medicine at the University of Southern California. “Often, there’s one missing puzzle piece, and you’ve got to figure out what that is. It could be the sound or temperature in your home, the lighting, or the comfort of your bed.” The first step in ID’ing the missing piece(s) of your sleep puzzle is checking out this roundup of products that leading sleep experts swear by—for both their patients and themselves.
Different wavelengths of light help regulate our circadian rhythm, or sleep/wake cycle. By day, we need plenty of the blue wavelength found in natural sunlight and bright light bulbs; this keeps us alert by suppressing the release of the sleep hormone melatonin. As evening approaches and the sun begins going down, we can cue melatonin release by mirroring that gradual dimming effect in our homes. “Light is a stimulant that tells your brain it’s daytime, so if you continue to see light well into the evening and before sleep, the brain stays alert, and that causes problems with falling asleep,” says Steven Lockley, PhD, a Harvard Medical School neuroscientist who researches sleep and circadian disorders. “Light also has a half-life, much like caffeine, where its effects carry on after exposure, so the light you see before bedtime will affect your sleep for at least a couple of hours and also impact how deeply you sleep.” If you tend to gaze at a smartphone or tablet in the hours before bed, use the blue-light filter or put your device in night mode, which reduces blue light; for TV watching, put on a pair of blue-light-blocking glasses. Once you’re under the covers, aim for total darkness (blackout shades are helpful); even a night-light or bright alarm clock can disrupt your sleep cycle. “Because they’re bright spots in the darkness, you can often see them even with your eyes closed,” Lockley says. Here are some highlights in sleep-enhancing light technology.
Sleep doctors don’t want your phone anywhere near your bed, yet traditional digital clocks give off harsh light and sound. These will wake you up, not keep you up.
Clearly, a partner’s snoring or a neighbor’s pounding music can be a sleep killer, yet a dead-silent bedroom can prove almost as disruptive for sensitive or anxious sleepers. “When you’re in complete silence, your hearing becomes more defined and your brain starts looking for sounds, so the slightest one can disturb your sleep,” explains Michael Breus, PhD, a clinical psychologist and sleep specialist based in Manhattan Beach, California. Depend- ing on your preferences, options include nixing all noise by using comfortable-for- sleep earplugs or sleep headphones, or smoothing out the sound level by intro- ducing monotonous background noise. While research continues to delve into the sleep benefits of specific types of sound, there’s no need to get so scientific to reap good results. Any background noise that helps you fall asleep is fine—just choose what relaxes you, Dr. Dasgupta says. The key is sticking to uniform, uninteresting sound. Listening to a calming podcast or music can be a great way to release anxiety before you close your eyes, but avoid sleeping with these (or the TV) still on. If they play all night, your brain attends to those sounds, and this interferes with the quality of your sleep, says W. Chris Winter, MD, a Charlottesville, Virginia–based neurologist, author of The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep Is Broken and How to Fix It, and Health Advisory Board member. Here, some audio-centric product picks worth hearing about.
Ambient conditions can have a real impact on sleep quality. According to the National Sleep Foundation, the ideal temperature for sleep is 60 to 67 degrees, with about 50 percent humidity. Research shows that the quality of air you breathe all night long also matters. “Particulate matter and allergens may lead to inflammation and mucus production that disrupt sleep,” says Martha E. Billings, MD, a UW Medicine pulmonologist in Seattle. Regular dusting and vacuuming make a difference in removing particulate matter, as does replacing the filter in your HVAC system every three to six months. Fresh air helps, too; a 2015 study in Indoor Air: International Journal of Indoor Environment and Health showed that better ventilation in dorm rooms overnight improved alertness among college students the next day. Make it a habit to open the windows for a few minutes before bedtime to flush out volatile organic compounds and CO2. Also, those lovely linen sprays and scent diffusers may be more than just charming amenities. “At least two double-blind placebo studies have shown that lavender and ylang-ylang help with the muscular relax response, which can help you to fall asleep more easily,” Breus says. Research has also linked lavender aromatherapy to lower blood pressure and heart rate.
Good mattresses have always been expensive, but sleep experts say they’re worth the investment. “Your mattress is the most important health-care product in your home, one you probably spend more than 50 hours a week on,” says Terry Cralle, RN, a Washington, D.C.– based clinical sleep educator. “We need to shift our focus [on mattresses] away from just price points and to how important sleep is in our lives.” A good mattress eliminates pressure points and keeps your spine in a neutral position throughout various sleep positions— but can’t be expected to keep doing so indefinitely. “The dynamic between a mattress and our bodies is constantly changing,” Cralle says, who, like other experts, recommends getting a new one every seven to 10 years because worn mattresses lose support and comfort. “As we age, we lose subcutaneous fat and may sleep more comfortably on a softer surface than in the past,” she says. Thanks to fierce competition posed by the countless (some say more than 150) bed-in-a-box companies that have popped up since Casper arrived on the scene in 2014, technology has never been better, and most companies offer generous return/exchange policies, so you can test the goods without a showroom attendant awkwardly small-talking you. Here are some of our experts’ favorite picks that are worth considering.
Be honest: Do you even know how old your pillow is? Have you washed it lately? If the answers are no and no, you’re not alone. It’s important to pause and do a “bedroom audit,” as Cralle calls it. During daylight hours, consider whether each bedding item still serves you well or if you might benefit from a change (more breathable sheets, a pillow that won’t have you waking with a stiff neck). “A lot of people don’t stop and think about their sleep environment until they turn off the light, lie down, and realize they’re not totally comfortable. Then they stay in a nice hotel and experience how comfortable a bed can really be,” says Cralle. Your bed’s topper items are more than a surface concern: An ill-fitting sheet that slips off the mattress can rouse you several times a night, while a worn-out pillow will require fluffing into the wee hours. On the flip side, investing in an excellent pillow and/or mattress topper can elevate a bargain mattress. “Spend money on your pillow. The easiest way to take a $2,000 bed and turn it into a $200 bed is to put a $20 pillow on it,” Breus says. Meanwhile, back to that old-pillow question: You really should be buying a new one every two years, max. Here’s some of what’s new since you last shopped for bedding.
The sleep industry is embracing cutting-edge technology to help you get a better night’s rest. While these products aren’t yet tried and true, they give you a glimpse into your sleep future.
RELATED: 5 Expert Tips for Better Sleep
This article originally appeared in the September 2020 issue of Health Magazine. Click here to subscribe today!
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