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 an array of gadgets are marketed 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" (www.health.harvard.edu/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."
Cost: Prices start at about $10.
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.
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.
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.