I’ve tried a mattress with water cooling and another that sways like a boat. I’ve worn brainwave-measuring helmets and rested on pillows that nudge you when you snore.
In the hunt for better sleep, I’ve even snuggled up with a robot.
For the gadget industry, sleep is the new exercise – solvable with data. What Fitbits and Apple Watches did for getting moving, consumer tech now wants to do for getting Zs.
A third of us suffer from sleep problems, a symptom of unhealthy diets, stress and too much time staring at screens.
So does any of it work? This year at CES, the tech industry confab, I met makers of more than a dozen sleep gadgets that promise to make you feel, perform and look better.
And at home, I’ve been testing the Tesla of snooze, a $5,000 Sleep Number 360 P6 smart mattress and frame. It monitors sleep and makes micro-adjustments to the mattress all night – an automated Princess and the Pea.
Fitbits alone didn’t make Americans skinny, and these gadgets alone won’t make us well-rested. But when I asked four sleep doctors about the rise of sleep tech, their view was cautious optimism. “I am fairly excited these are creating a more educated populace and patients that are more engaged,” says Dr. Rohit Budhiraja, sleep clinic director at Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Fitness watches have for years claimed sleep-tracking functions, but the tech is improving beyond what you can measure on a wrist.
Few consumer sleep gadgets have been cleared by the Food and Drug Administration or are backed by rigorous validation. But some are built on insights from real sleep science. “A lot of devices that are coming out may provide some benefit,” says Dr. Rachel Salas, a professor of Neurology at Johns Hopkins. Some try to fix the bedroom by making it a more comfortable place. Others try to fix the sleeper through data that teaches better habits.
Much of it is promising to some degree – the question is what’s worth it.
Dr. Seema Khosla, who runs the tech committee of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, tries sleep gadgets herself and understands the appeal of data. But she doesn’t like how some use proprietary algorithms doctors can’t access or understand. “We embrace technology and think it is great, but we are asking that it be validated,” she says.
Just knowing you spent $5,000 on a bed also might keep some up. The doctors I spoke with recommend not buying anything until you’ve taken their free advice: Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. We sleep better in cooler rooms and ones with as little light as possible. And the biggest sleep distraction may be your smartphone, so leave it just in earshot outside the bedroom.
Plenty of people think they get 8 hours – until they start measuring. Recording sleep lets you experiment to figure out what helps.
Sleep Number embeds sensors throughout its mattresses, which start at $1,000. They measure each side of the bed for movement – a proxy for restful and restless sleep – as well as heart rate and respiration. The best part: Without futzing with apps, it activates every time it feels someone in the bed and saves data to the cloud.
The smart bed has been a moderate improvement over my dumb bed, though its makers say it takes weeks to really kick in. It has helped me be mindful about getting to bed on time and how exercise and eating impact my sleep.
But it left me a bit restless at first, perhaps because I laid in bed ruminating about turning my sleep into data. (There’s already a term – orthosomnia – for becoming so obsessed with quantifying sleep that you actually lose sleep.)
For $150, there’s a new FDA-listed wireless tracker called Beddr SleepTuner that measures even more. Pop the postage stamp-sized sensor on your forehead (via a medical-grade sticker), and in addition to recording your head’s movement, it reads the oxygen in your blood and tries to identify when you stop breathing.
That can help you understand why you might be waking up unrested – also an indicator you should see a doctor about sleep apnea.
And there’s a free app called SleepScore that tracks sleep stages using sonar. Place a phone running it by your bed, and it listens for waves bouncing off your body to identify when you’re in light, deep and REM sleep.
One big downside: You have to leave your phone close to your bed.
The doctors I spoke with have concerns about the accuracy of these measures – particularly for sleep quality – and warn none can either identify or clear you of a disorder.
Think of the scores as a way to track your sleep over time, not a way to figure out if you’re normal.
The other challenge is turning all that data into action. SleepScore, owned by medical device maker ResMed, charges $6 per month to see your trends and get recommendations. For such a pricey bed, Sleep Number makes you do most of the deciphering.
CEO Shelly Ibach says her app will add better recommendations later this year, and the long-term goal is to connect bed data with other sources, such as exercise from an Apple Watch, to generate highly personalized advice.
The inventor of a foolproof way to stop snoring will become a billionaire.
Until then, there are a few intriguing gadgets – if you can stand bringing them to bed with you.
Bose makes $250 noise-masking headphones called Sleepbuds to help the long-suffering bed partners of people who snore.
For the snoring perpetrator, there are several aggressive connected pillows. The $300 Smart Nora and the 10Minds Smart Motion Pillow use microphones to listen for snoring, and activate pumps or motors to shift your head to positions where you’re less likely to snore – all without waking you up.
When I tried the 10Minds version at CES, it felt like someone (you know who you are) was assertively but lovingly shoving my head to the side.
Another device, the $125 Hupnos, is an eye and nose mask that listens for snoring. It first tries to get you to turn your head by subtly vibrating.
But if you keep snoring, it’ll send air pressure through your nose to ensure your airway remains open. Ah, the things we do for love.
The red flag: Snoring can be associated with sleep apnea, a serious condition where you aren’t getting enough oxygen.
Using one of these devices may cover up the real problem, so it’s worth seeing a doctor.