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Photography Tim Walker, British Vogue

Sleeping aids are at an all-time high, but do they actually work?


TextOlivia Cassano

I can’t get no sleep

Every so often we’re reminded that we’re not getting enough sleep. Just about every headline or study from the past decade agrees that an increasing number of us aren’t getting those essential eight hours of rest, sending us into a collective panic (which doesn’t help). We’re obsessed with sleep - or lack thereof - both the quality and quantity of it. But despite all the products out there promising to help us catch more z’s, is better sleep satisfaction still, excuse the pun, a dream?

“Research in Western populations highlights a trend in our average sleep duration declining over the past 50 years, and there is a growing population of people being diagnosed with insomnia and other sleep disorders,” says Samantha Briscoe, lead clinical physiologist for The London Bridge Sleep Centre. “Some studies put the figure as high as three-quarters of adults experience daytime sleepiness, with one third believing their daily activities and ability to function fully are affected.” Brits especially have a big problem with sleep, and insomnia is thought to affect at least a third of people in the UK.

Shitty sleeping habits have become an inevitable byproduct of modern life, especially for millennials, known lovingly as the burnout generation. My bedtime routine includes a cup of chamomile tea, CBD oil drops and a spritz of Biocol melatonin under my tongue, lavender pillow mist and “Airplane Cabin” ambient sounds from a white noise app playing from my iPhone. I’ve become one of those people, but apparently, I’m not alone. “Insufficient sleep is easily accepted into this generation as simply being part of life or ‘the norm’,” Briscoe tells Dazed Beauty. “When it becomes a problem then people seek out a quick fix. There is an app for everything or a pill you can take.”

If you’re tossing and turning every night, doing the math trying to figure out how many hours of sleep you’ll get if you fall asleep *right now*, it’s understandable that you’d be tempted by all the sleeping aids available on the market today. From silk pillowcases to bedtime bath soaks and CBD pills, there’s no shortage of products promising to ameliorate your sleeping habits. Not only that, but they’re trendy now. Cult Beauty has a whole section dedicated to sleep improvement, offering £85 pillssupplements and something called “dream dust”. Even affordable memory foam mattresses are being marketed to young people as the cool new thing, quickly becoming YouTubers’ and influencers’ favourite type of #spon posts. When a mattress becomes a must-have lifestyle accessory, you know the situation is dire. In fact, the rise in availability of different sleeping aids has pushed the market to a valued $2.3 billion and includes everything from supplements to apps and high-tech gadgets (like this €500 futuristic headband).

"Our work lives are getting more stressful which can ultimately keep people awake at night"- Samantha Briscoe, The London Bridge Sleep Centre

“Sleep has been enveloped by the wellness industry as integral to being both a ‘well’ person but also your most productive and successful self,” says Lucie Greene, trend forecasting expert and worldwide director of JWT Innovation. “Arianna Huffington even wrote a book about this. It’s become an obsession, not least among millennials who are registering record cases of fatigue and anxiety.” And yet, how many millennials have the disposable income to spend £85 on sleeping supplements, or even £18 on a pillow spray?

The proliferation of sleeping aids expands even beyond the wellness industry, into tech and even hospitality, where sleep is being sold as a luxury experience. “It’s no longer medical companies owning this space. From smart mattresses at CES, the tech show, that optimize temperature, light and position to your sleep needs, to heated sleep masks that use heat and vibration to help you sleep. Circadian rhythms are another focus,” Greene adds. “Hotel chains like Six Senses adapt rooms with circadian rhythms in mind to help guests recover from jet lag and sleep better. You also have light brands like Caspar that promise to mimic your circadian rhythm.” Your circadian rhythm is that internal 24-hour clock that keeps track of your sleep-wake cycle, and it’s what gets messed up when you have jet lag. But unless you have a couple of grand to spend on a teched out hotel room or turbocharged mattress, you’ll have to find another way to recalibrate your sleep cycle. Luckily melatonin supplements, a much more affordable option, are the only proven thing to help regulate your internal clock according to Briscoe, albeit temporarily. “Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone and plays a role in regulating our sleep-wake cycle. [It] can decrease the time it takes to fall asleep, increase total sleep time, maintains sleep through the night, and can provide short term relief from insomnia and jet lag.”

Given that the major sleeplessness culprits are stress, anxiety and smartphone dependency, none of which are going away anytime soon, how effective are all these fancy products, really? “The mindset of today’s society is to work hard and play hard and we are heavily technology-driven, perhaps even technology-addicted,” says Briscoe. “We have grown into a culture of filling all the hours of the day with activities, with sleep being the first thing to get sacrificed when we are short on time. Our work lives are getting more stressful and with longer hours, which fuels anxiety disorders which can ultimately keep people awake at night.”

“Repairing the damage from poor sleep habits and long periods of sleep deprivation takes work" - Samantha Briscoe, The London Bridge Sleep Centre

It's all too common nowadays to rely on supplements or fancy tech to "fix" our problems as if the consequences of excessive alcohol, caffeine and social media consumption merged with Brexit anxiety and the overall sense of impending climate change doom can be erased with a silk eye mask. More and more brands are taking notice of how modern life is contributing to what many are referring to a “sleep epidemic”, exploiting a gap in the market and birthing the phenomenon of sleep hygiene: the behaviours and environment we make for ourselves intended to promote better quality sleep. In this respect, Briscoe believes most sleep aids on the market can create a placebo effect that trick the brain into sleeping better. “Some of the sleep aids on the market have a good basis in helping with sleep hygiene,” she says. “Most aim to ensure we are well balanced with vitamins and minerals needed for optimal health all round or focus on relaxation and de-stressing of our mind to aid good sleep. The bottom line is that if the consumer believes the aid is working to improve sleep, then it is worth continuing with it.”

But before you go book that room at Six Senses, invest in a €500 headband, or snort some snake-oil infused supplements, Briscoe adds that good sleep hygiene can be achieved at little or no cost, mostly by implementing a consistent bedtime, avoiding technology before bed, and monitoring your intake of stimulants like caffeine and alcohol. “Repairing the damage from poor sleep habits and long periods of sleep deprivation takes work,” Briscoe cautions, but it’s definitely doable. “It can be difficult to implement new routines and form new habits, we suggest our patients start with small changes, gradually building new routines and sleep habits.”

Chances are you’ve heard all this before, and deep down we all know those organic pills from Holland and Barrett won’t really do anything unless we’re willing to implement lifestyle changes too. Although it’s true that a comfortable sleeping environment can help, good sleep comes from an overall balanced life, not some magic bath soak you bought in Space NK. But I’ll be damned if you try and take my lavender pillow spray.

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