Do sleep aids actually work? We ask the experts

More than one-third of Kiwis don’t get enough sleep and the market has responded with a mind-boggling array of sleep aids. But do any of them actually work? The Weekly goes in search of slumber

Last spring, wellness mogul Gwyneth Paltrow took to Instagram to announce she’d discovered that the secret to optimum sleep was taping her mouth shut before bed.

“Breathing through your nose at night apparently creates alkalinity in the body and promotes best quality sleep,” Gwyneth declared. She shared a photo of the sleep tape she uses ($37.50 for 90 strips) and unleashed an army of copycats who echoed her enthusiasm across the internet.

Sleep expert Dr Carmel Harrington says the kernel of science at the heart of this viral craze is that, when you breathe through your nose, you humidify and warm the air before it hits your lungs. But you don’t need to spend almost $40 on designer tape to reap the benefits. “We are all natural nose breathers,” Dr Harrington says. “If you’re not a nasal breather, there might be a reason, so don’t go and tape up night after night, and ignore the underlying issues.”

Using a thin piece of surgical tape to keep your mouth shut can provide short-term relief from some sleep conditions, Dr Harrington says, but sealing your mouth shut horizontally with a big strip of tape is at best pointless, at worst dangerous.

As a sleep researcher, Dr Harrington gets frustrated when she sees expensive and ineffective solutions being peddled by people out to make a buck. “A lot of these things are born of research, but the commercial interest makes it bigger than it is,” she says.

Nearly 40 per cent of Kiwis are spending fewer than seven hours with their head on the pillow. The optimal is 7-9 hours. Unsurprisingly, we’re eager for solutions, and the business of bedtime is booming: Mattress sales alone are making multi-million dollar sales this year, and brands are investing in sophisticated tech to wow us and win our business.

Bedding brand Tempur just signed superstar David Beckham as an ambassador. Tech companies are in on the act with meditation apps, sleep trackers and sound machines that fill the air with white, pink and brown noise. Sleep teas, sleep candles, cooling comforters, lavender misting sprays and weighted blankets abound.

Superstar David Beckham is a brand ambassador for bedding company Tempur.

We are, Dr Harrington says, sleep-deprived and searching for answers. How do I get my sleep?

“To help answer this question, the sleep brand Emma took over a hotel to create the perfect sleep environment. That’s all very well and good, I tell the brand’s sleep science manager, Emma Merritt, but very few of us sleep in luxury hotels. What I want to know is, is it possible to recreate such a sanctuary at home? In the interest of science (and sleep) Emma offered me a one-on-one consultation to help me find the areas of life I can improve to help me get a better night’s sleep and, happily, it didn’t require sealing my mouth shut with tape.”

Let there be light

If you want to improve your sleep, start by looking at the light in your life. “Light is one of those things that is super-important for our circadian maintenance,” says Emma. You may be familiar with the term “circadian rhythm”, which refers to the rise of the waking hormone (cortisol) in the morning and the rise of the sleeping hormone (melatonin) at night.

“The area of your brain which is responsible for your circadian rhythm – the suprachiasmatic nucleus – has nerves that are directly connected to your retinas,” Emma explains.

That’s the science behind the increasingly popular alarm clocks fitted with lights, often called sunrise alarms. The idea is that these products mimic a sunrise by filling your dim bedroom with morning light, as well as noise. You can pick up a basic one for around $40. A top-of-the-range sunrise alarm can cost north of $200.

“The caveat is that any type of artificial light would be a teeny-tiny fraction of the strength of natural light,” Emma says.

But, when I swap my phone alarm for a sunrise alarm, I discover that it does indeed help me wake. When I’m woken up by light as well as sound, it’s harder to hit snooze. Put simply, the light is annoying in exactly the way you want it to be.

The opposite is also true. Emma says one of the biggest barriers to sleep in modern life is the light of our devices hitting our eyes before bed. Items that promise to filter out blue light, such as blue-light glasses and phone shields, are a huge category in the sleep market. But the research into the effect of blue light is inconsistent. Dr Harrington explains that the blue light our devices emit reduces melatonin production, but only by about 10 per cent: “The belief is very strong out there that blue light filters work really well, so much so that people think, ‘as long as I use a blue filter, I’m going to be okay’. But it’s more complicated than that.”

The Sleep Health Foundation says it’s better to limit screen time than to simply counter the effects of the light. “The natural evening rise in melatonin is not affected by one hour of bright screen light, but … after 1.5 hours of technology use in the evening, people report feeling less sleepy.”

Indeed, Dr Harrington believes that using a blue filter could do more harm than good because people may feel free to use their devices for longer than they otherwise would.

“There’s a bigger story and a lot of research has gone into why our devices are causing so much trouble with sleep,” she says. “There are three reasons. One: You’re not exposing your eyes to enough dim light. Two: You’re on your computer or your phone because you’re engaged and interested, [so] you’re producing wakeful hormones of adrenalin and cortisol.” Third? “Instead of being on the device for the five minutes we tell ourselves we will, half an hour passes and we’re still on it.”

The “engagement” element of being on our devices leaves our minds whirring with activity instead of quietening down before bed.

“Studies have shown people who use their phones for work within two hours of going to bed tend to have worse sleep quality and more awakenings in the night,” Emma says.

However, not all bedtime tech is bad. “Using it for meditation [or] if you’re listening to an audio book … can be good,” she adds.

My partner swears by podcasts about astrophysics and mathematics to quieten his mind after a busy day. He says it shifts his train of thought away from work and life stresses. While my preference is silence, the even drone of conversation isn’t disruptive.

Create a sanctuary

“If the brain is associating the sleeping environment with the working environment, sleep can become problematic,” Dr Harrington says. The room should also be dark.

Our experts say your sleeping environment really can make a difference to the quality of your sleep. “Getting the bedroom in a good state really does help the body and brain sleep well,” Dr Harrington says. “Your bedroom needs to be a bit of a haven.”

While it’s tempting to use this as an excuse to splurge on beautiful sheets, it’s more important that your bedroom is cool and free from clutter. During COVID, many of us turned our bedrooms into studies or lounge rooms. But if you’re still sitting in bed with your laptop propped up on your knees, you’re impeding your sleep.

“If the brain is associating the sleeping environment with the working environment, sleep can become problematic,” Dr Harrington says. The room should also be dark.

She doesn’t recommend many products, but Dr Harrington does suggest investing in your sleeping space. “Have the best bedding that you can afford, support-wise,” she says. “I do come across people who keep a bed for 15 or 20 years and it stops being supportive, so people present with broken sleep.”

Comfort is key. Linen manchester has been having a moment but I far prefer cotton. Whether you sleep in pyjamas, an old Van Halen T-shirt, or nothing at all is a matter of preference, but Dr Harrington recommends choosing natural fibres to prevent overheating. The ideal sleeping temperature is around 17-19°C.

“Throughout the course of the day our body temperature fluctuates typically within one degree but that makes a big difference,” Emma says. “Decreasing our core body temperature is a prerequisite for increasing the production of melatonin.” This is why we all find it so hard to sleep in summer. A good mattress can affect air circulation and thus body heat.

The once humble mattress has been revolutionised and manufacturers now offer features ranging from motion isolation to gel cooling technology. I stopped short of replacing my entire bed in the interest of journalistic inquiry, but I did try a mattress topper as an affordable alternative. Adding a topper was transformational. My bed became significantly more comfortable without the outlay of buying a whole new bed. If you are going to upgrade your mattress, Emma says, consider its composition. Dense, low-quality foams can trap heat.

Muted tones

A sleep-friendly room is a quiet room, or if that’s not possible, a room where the noise is unobtrusive. That doesn’t mean you have to spend $500 on a top-of-the-line sound generator.

While some people swear by them, Dr Harrington says the evidence for them is slim, and there are cheaper alternatives. “In a very noisy environment … it’s quite handy to have a white noise generator going because it covers off all the sounds,” she explains. “So no one sound is going to be alerting to you.”

Dr Harrington often recommends a humble pedestal fan to her menopausal clients. “You know, you get hot, and it’s also that white noise as well.” On the subject of noise, Dr Harrington, like Emma, likes meditation apps.

Some technology can enhance your sleep. All the experts The Weekly spoke to recommended sleep tracking apps. Dr Harrington says a good meditation app and a sleep-tracker are “the two things that are really worthwhile”.

Finishing touches

Incense, oils, pillow sprays and candles are big players in the sleep product space. I have always had a healthy scepticism towards some of the claims about aromatherapy, but I know lavender has a well-earned reputation as an effective sleep aid.

“Studies have shown it does quieten the mind and they’ve used it to good effect in Intensive Care Units,” Dr Harrington says. “Things like aromatherapy can work really well. Once the brain associates an effect with something, it starts to go there really quickly. So you get conditioned.”

Despite what Gwyneth Paltrow and her acolytes would have us believe, there is no simple hack that will cure sleeplessness, but there are small tweaks you can make to improve your chances of sweet dreams. One of the best things I ever bought was an eye-mask to block out a streetlight that was just outside my bedroom window.

If you’re among the one in four Kiwis estimated to have a major sleep disorder, you should speak to your doctor. However, if you are simply finding it hard to get a full and rewarding sleep, a comfortable bed, a cool, dark room, a soothing meditation app and a good routine can make the world of difference.

“So many people are stressed in their day-to-day lives and that has the biggest impact on their sleep,” Emma says. “So any tool that makes you feel happy, calm – that has a positive effect on your mental wellbeing – is also going to have a huge impact on your sleep quality.”

Our favourite sleep aids

1. Emma Sleep Diamond Mattress Topper

Diamond Mattress Topper, $540, from Emma Sleep

The Emma Diamond Mattress Topper, $540 (Queen size) from Emma Sleep is a less expensive way of upgrading your sleeping environment without spending $2000 dollars on a new mattress.


2. BeYou Sleep Pillow Mist

BeYou Sleep Mist, $42.90, from HealthPost

While our experts emphasised natural fibres for bedding and pyjamas, cooling sheets are silky-feeling and comfortable. Spritzing a little BeYou Sleep Pillow Mist, $42.90, a blend of essential oils including French lavender, will add calm to your wind-down routine.


3. Nodiee Sleep Assist Smart Pro

Sleep Assist Smart Pro, $134.95, from Nodiee

The blue morning light of the Nodiee Sleep Assist Smart Pro, $134.95, makes it easier to rouse yourself in the morning.


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