Seven ways to buy a good night's sleep – from as little as £5 a month
The medical dummy in the bed is criss-crossed with wires, electrodes and sensors while being watched by two 3D kinetic cameras, radar and under-floor motion sensors, all of which are connected to a control room where large screens monitor six other bedrooms.
This is the Sleep Research Centre in Surrey University, one of Europe’s most advanced sleep study facilities, and senior sleep technologist Giuseppe Atzori tells me the equipment hooked up to the plastic test subject represents the gold standard when it comes to collecting data about sleep, or polysomnograms. It makes my Fitbit watch look primitive.
“We do use some of that technology,” Giuseppe tells me, “but the problem for research is that you can’t access the raw data.”
Academics at the centre are currently using their state-of-the-art facility to research the relationship between sleep and circadian rhythms, and cognition and dementia. It is not yet known which way the interaction goes – whether poor sleep causes or exacerbates dementia or if dementia leads to poor sleep. Either way, the implications for anyone with a sleep disorder are concerning.
Sleep and health are intrinsically linked. In Matthew Walker’s 2017 bestseller Why We Sleep, the ominous first page explains how poor sleep is linked to a range of diseases. Routinely sleeping for less than six or seven hours a night, he warns, “demolishes your immune system”, doubling the risk of cancer. The gloom continues when you consider that according to researchers in the field, anywhere between 10 and 30 per cent of people report frequent sleep disruption; and numbers are believed to have grown during the pandemic.
No wonder then that the sleep industry, which includes specialist bedding, apps, devices and supplements, was worth around £360 billion globally in 2019 rising to £486 billion by next year, according to Statista. The business is all geared towards helping us reach the sleep Holy Grail of eight hours a night. Except that, like the 10,000 steps and the eight glasses of water we are told we should all aim for daily, the sleep target is arbitrary. Some need more, some less.
Prof Derk-Jan Dijk, founder of the Surrey Sleep Research Centre, shrugs at the eight-hour goal.
“Just because you had a poor night’s sleep for one or two nights doesn’t mean you are going to develop dementia,” he says. Nevertheless, most smartwatches now use algorithms to analyse heart rate and movement and estimate how much you’ve slept and what quality your sleep has been. These scores are as much a part of the daily goals of health-conscious people as step counts.
At the top end of the sleep monitoring wearable market is the Oura smart ring, a favourite of celebrities such as Prince Harry, Jennifer Aniston and Gwyneth Paltrow. The stylish £292 titanium rings include infrared LEDs that measure resting heart rate, heart rate variability and respiratory rate. They also feature red and green LEDs to track heart rate around the clock and overnight blood oxygen saturation (SpO2) measurements. To get the full benefit, owners can subscribe to a membership for around £5 a month.
The ring is waterproof and has the advantage of being less cumbersome and more robust than a watch. Having tested one for over a month I can confirm that it does everything my Fitbit Sense does, but in a more convenient form and with an emphasis on sleep, for which wearers are given a score, as Caroline Kryder, Oura’s science communications lead and product marketing manager, explains.
“Sleep Score includes seven different personalised elements known as Sleep Contributors that help you answer questions such as: did you get enough sleep? Did you get enough REM sleep? Did you get enough deep sleep?”
Wearers are notified of changes to their sleep patterns with a message.
The experts are divided about the value of tracking sleep. Lisa Artis, deputy CEO of the Sleep Charity, says that while more awareness of sleep and sleeping habits is a good thing, it can also be problematic for some.
“Sleep trackers can be a useful tool for looking at your general sleep patterns and can be an incentive to improve sleep habits, but recent research shows that tracking your sleep could be doing more harm than good. There is a name for it: orthosomnia,” she says, which is defined as an obsessive pursuit of optimal sleep driven by sleep tracker data. “Unlike eating five portions of fruit and veg daily, you can’t make yourself sleep for eight hours. If people pressure themselves to sleep better, the likelihood is they won’t.”
While trackers are one common element of the sleep industry, sleep aids are another booming business. Products range from the £2,295 Eight Sleep Pod 3 Cover – a smart mattress cover that automatically adjusts temperature to keep you comfortable, tracks your movements through the night and gently vibrates to wake you up – to chamomile-infused chewy sweets. For chronic insomniacs, very few of these gadgets and devices can offer a cure, however.
“Paradoxically, insomniacs buy these gadgets but are generally the people they won’t help,” says Tracy Hannigan – known as Tracy the Sleep Coach. “I encourage people with chronic sleeping problems to stop trying gadgets and tracking sleep as insomnia is essentially a fear of not sleeping and is driven by anxiety. The more people try to control the situation with gadgets, the worse it gets.”
Tracy, a recovered insomniac, uses a psychotherapy technique called cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia (CBTI), which is designed to break patterns of behaviour. For acute insomniacs who experience short-term poor sleep and those who want to optimise sleep, she advises planning ahead for busy days to reduce anxiety.
“Indoor hobbies such as crafting, puzzles, knitting or scrapbooking are a good idea,” she says, “as is taking a warm bath an hour and a half before bedtime. And make your bed a nice place to be.”
Some practical equipment, such as eye-masks and noise cancelling headphones, are also sensible if you are going to be sleeping somewhere with novel noises or raised light levels. At the more unusual end of the market are devices that claim to alter brainwaves and guide the brain through different levels of sleep. Back at the Surrey Sleep Research Centre, Prof Dijk says that he has so far seen no scientific evidence to establish the effectiveness of these devices. There is evidence, though, that certain sounds and frequencies can affect brainwaves and brain activity, particularly in mindfulness and meditative practice where sounds such as waves and rainfall have a relaxing effect.
So is all this technology just creating confusion and noise? The Sleep Charity’s Lisa Artis suspects that may be the case. “We really should be enjoying sleep, not trying to micromanage it,” she concludes.
If you do want to explore the burgeoning world of sleep gadgets, rather than throwing everything at the problem as those with sleep issues are apt to do, the trick is to find the one that’s best suited to your issue.
Our verdict on the gadgets...
For night-shift workers/frequent travellers
Drowsy light-blocking sleep masks, £69, promise to take “your beauty sleep seriously”. With double padded silk and total face coverage they certainly look the part.
The verdict: With their almost total face coverage it’s a bit like wrapping your face in a sumptuous silky duvet. The mask offers almost virtual blackout, but the silky texture means it can sometimes slip off during the night.
If you’re a worrier who wakes up in the night
Zeez, £300, is a small pebble-shaped gadget designed to be placed under the pillow where it emits low-power electromagnetic pulses designed to mimic the brainwaves of a good sleeper.
The verdict: I slept well during the very limited two-night trial that I tried it. It was impossible to know if my brainwaves were altered.
If you live by a busy road
Kokoon headphones, £160 (down from £267), are designed to be worn during the night and connect to an app with relaxing soundscapes. They can recognise when you are drifting off and fade audio or replace it with white noise.
The verdict: Great if you’re disturbed by traffic noise. Or you’re one of those who have to listen to something before falling asleep.
If you want to track your sleep
The Oura ring, £292, works well to track sleep. You even get a score. Sleep records are broken down into seven “sleep contributors” which are each scored either with a time, percentage or rating. Under each contributor there is a description and tips for improving that particular element of sleep. For example, last night I had 15 minutes of latency, which is the amount of time it took me to drop off. This, the app tells me, is within the ideal range and if I had trouble falling asleep I could do something relaxing in low light.
The verdict: The app is easy to navigate and detailed, but it can be confusing at first.
If you have trouble dropping off
Popular sleep app Pzizz, £48.99 a year for access to the full library, with limited guided sessions for free. I tried it when I needed to get to sleep early one night and the developers have certainly thrown the calm soundscape book at the free session I used. It was a greatest hits of sleep sounds, with waves, Buddhist prayer bowls, wind, birdsong and a Celtic sleep poem. The narrator’s voice was quite hypnotic. My cat dropped off within five minutes. I wasn’t far after him.
The verdict: Relaxing and effective.
For snorers, or if you live with a snorer
Silicone gum shield, from £10.99 to £120. If snoring is a problem for you and your bed partner, as it is with me and my wife (I’m the snorer), first find out which type of snorer you are. Generally, there are four types: nasal, mouth, tongue or soft palate.
I’m a soft-palate snorer. When I sleep the soft palate at the back and roof of my mouth relaxes and causes an obstruction. For this type of snoring, I have found the best option is a mandibular advancement device, which is a silicone gum shield that brings the lower jaw forward. They are not 100 per cent effective every night and other factors contribute, for instance if alcohol or a big meal has been consumed before bedtime.
The verdict: Unpleasant and uncomfortable to wear at first, but you do get used to them, and it’s a price worth paying if the alternative is a sleep divorce in the spare room.
If you’ve tried everything
SleepHub, £349, is a sound-based system comprising a touchscreen and two speakers which claims to “modulate sleep patterns using acoustic stimulation”.
“It consolidates sounds that lead the brain through a normalised sleep pattern throughout the night,” explains Dr Chris Dickson, executive chairman of Cambridge Sleep Sciences, which makes the system.
Does it work? “Out of a group of people with insomnia, 92 per cent claimed a benefit, with an additional two hours and 35 minutes sleep over three weeks,” says Dickson.
The verdict: I used the device for a few nights and did notice more vivid dreams, an indication of increased REM sleep.
For more ways to improve your quality of sleep, read the Telegraph Recommended guides to the best mattresses (including the best mattresses for back pain), the best pillows (including the best pillows for side sleepers), the best duvets and the best wake-up light alarm clocks.