Gadgets to help you sleep better: Do they work?

For many people, the nightly trip to dreamland is a difficult journey. Up to a third of all adults — including 30% to 48% of older people — have a hard time falling or staying asleep at some point, with about 10% developing chronic insomnia. So it’s not surprising that a wide array of gadgets claim to help you get more Z’s. Do they really help?

To find out, we turned to Dr. Lawrence Epstein, a sleep specialist with Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital and medical editor of the Harvard Special Health Report Improving Sleep (/is). Here are his takes on devices that promote sleep.

Sound or “white noise” machines

These small bedside machines play sounds from nature (like gentle waves or rain) or city sounds (such as traffic). “Sound machines can be very helpful if the person is in an environmentally challenging situation, where noise is disrupting sleep,” Dr. Epstein says. “This can be anything from living near an airport to having the bedroom next to the garage or sleeping with someone who snores. The goal is to block out spikes in noise that can disturb someone’s sleep.”

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Earbuds for sleep

These earbuds are designed for sleeping, not listening to music. They’re comfortable enough for you to sleep on your side. They might mask noise with other sounds, or they might “cancel” noise by blocking it out with certain frequencies.

“As with sound machines, things that reduce noise will improve the sleep environment and can reduce unwanted awakenings,” Dr. Epstein says.

Cost: Prices start at about $100.

A “sunrise” alarm

A sunrise alarm simulates the sun coming up by scheduling the timing of the first light you see. “It’s very important to wake up and go to sleep at the same time every day, and a sunrise alarm can be very effective for people with circadian rhythm [sleep-wake] disorders; light has the strongest effect in setting and shifting the circadian clock,” Dr. Epstein says.

But be sure to set the alarm correctly: if it lights up too early, it will worsen the quality of your sleep.

Cost: Prices start at about $25.

A weighted blanket

Weighted blankets contain plastic or glass beads to make them heavier. Blankets range from 12 to 25 pounds and are intended to simulate a comforting hug or the swaddling we experienced as infants. “There is little research on the effectiveness of the blankets, but some studies suggest they may be helpful in reducing anxiety. Less anxiety may help you fall or stay asleep, but we don’t have enough evidence yet,” Dr. Epstein says.

Cost: Prices start at about $50.

Smartphone apps

Applications (“apps”) are programs you download to your smartphone. There are many apps that can help you sleep, including white noise makers, sleep activity trackers, relaxation and meditation guides, and even online programs for cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBTi).

“CBTi trains you to shift unproductive thinking patterns or habits that affect sleep,” Dr. Epstein says. “Recently, Somryst became the first FDA-authorized prescription CBTi app for people with chronic insomnia.”

Cost: For Somryst, costs are $700 for a nine-week program, which requires a doctor’s prescription. Apps for white noise, sleep tracking, or meditation may be free or cost less than $10.

Cooling systems

Getting too hot at night can interrupt sleep. There are some elaborate ways to stay cool, such as using an expensive water-cooled system for your mattress or pillow. One newer, novel device that Dr. Epstein recommends is called the Ebb Cool Drift Versa Sleep System. It cools the forehead and is FDA-approved.

“The brain cools down during sleep, and the start of the temperature drop is one of the signals for impending sleep,” Dr. Epstein says. Would a pillow or mattress topper with fabric that wicks away heat and moisture ease insomnia? Dr. Epstein says there’s no evidence they’d help, but they wouldn’t hurt if they keep you comfortable.

Cost: Prices for pillows with heat-wicking fabric start at about $25. The Ebb device is about $300.

What else helps

Proven methods to promote better sleep include seeking CBTi from a therapist and practicing good sleep hygiene: keep your room dark and cool; go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day; and avoid alcohol, meals, caffeine, exercising, and all electronic screens (bright phones, TVs, or computers) within two hours of bedtime.

Bible verses for today’s meditation and inspiration: Matthew E. McLaren

Yours, Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty and the splendor, for everything in heaven and earth is yours. Yours, Lord, is the kingdom; you are exalted as head over all. 1 Chronicles 29:11 NIV

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. Mark 12:30 NIV

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. Ephesians 3:20-21 NIV

So he said to me, “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty.” Zechariah 4:6 NIV

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 1 Corinthians 1:18 NIV

For who is God besides the Lord? And who is the Rock except our God? Psalm 18:31 NIV

It was not by their sword that they won the land, nor did their arm bring them victory; it was your right hand, your arm, and the light of your face, for you loved them. Psalm 44:3 NIV

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. Romans 1:20 NIV

For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority. Colossians 2:9-10 NIV

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