20 INNOVATIONS for 40 WINKS
—-by Dr. Oliver Finlay—–
As society drew a collective deep breath after the first two years of dealing with the outbreak of the COVID pandemic, there was a noticeable shift towards focussing on mental and physical health and wellbeing both in and out of the workplace. Millions resigned from their roles, in recognition of the fact that long commutes and hours sat at a desk in service of a boss that was ambivalent to their needs was no longer how they wanted to spend the best years of their lives.
A few months down the line, the tech and venture capital worlds collided to create a boom in a wide range of AI-informed and immersive Web 3.0 technologies, the coincidental timing with the global spotlight on health, the gaze shifted quickly to the fields of recovery, sleep, and longevity. An embryonic industry, that over the last ten years has seen the meteoric rise of such products, brands, and services as FitBit, HeadSpace, and Therabody, has consequently experienced a recent boom in start-ups eager to join the billion-dollar movement.
Last year, The Big Sleep, an article I wrote about the importance of sleep and the simple steps that can be taken to improve quality of sleep, garnered more interest and comments than any other article I have written for Iconic Concierge. It quickly became apparent that most people I know have issues with their sleep and the reasons each gave were wide ranging. Knowing how partial our readers are to gadgets and hacks, I thought I’d scour the market for some of the latest innovations in tech, materials and nutrition that can support the habits and practices I shared in The Big Sleep and get to work reviewing some of them.
Preparing For Bed
Before you slip under the covers, there are several key steps you can take to prepare your body and mind for a restful night. For most of us, our days are a whirlwind of to-do lists, deadlines, and tightly timed meeting schedules. Consequently, by the time the evening comes, our stress levels are high, and our brains are over-stimulated. Whilst some people turn to yoga or a gentle walk to wind down, others prefer to relax in front of the television or with computer games, which doesn’t necessarily help reduce the levels of the stress hormones, cortisol or adrenaline, coursing around our bodies. This matters because on a physiological level both cortisol and adrenaline block the body’s natural production of melatonin, the hormone that helps with the timing of your circadian rhythms, which you can think of as your 24-hour internal clock.
Sleep expert and Associate Professor of Sport and Exercise Science at La Trobe University, Australia, Dr Matt Driller, underlines the importance of observing your current daily light exposure and understanding how that impacts your circadian rhythm. Our forefathers went to bed when it got dark and got up when the sun rose but our 21st century lifestyles aren’t conducive to synching with our body clock, and so we need to consider the impact of artificial light on our brains and put strategies in place that help manage the disruptions.
Whilst there are melatonin supplements available, they are known to interact with other medications, cause side effects and cause drowsiness in the morning. Additionally, a study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine reported that over 70% of melatonin supplements contained significantly different amounts of melatonin than what was listed on the label, whilst some also detected the unreported presence of the controlled substance serotonin, which is used in the treatment of several neurological disorders.
As an alternative, there are natural products that you can take that promote relaxation, reduce the levels of circulating cortisol, and promote the body to secrete melatonin. These products tend to contain tart cherry juice (which naturally contain melatonin and tryptophan, which helps the body produce melatonin), ashwagandha (reduces cortisol), magnesium bisglycinate (which helps relax the mind and muscles), valerian root and passionflower (which both modulate GABA secretion, a neurotransmitter that is involved in sleep regulation). Additionally other products provide key omega 3 oils that reduce inflammation and support brain recovery whilst you are resting.
My experiences with sleep supplements were mixed. I found some wonderful tasting concoctions, that did indeed help me feel more relaxed and sleep well. However, some of them demand ingesting not-insignificant volumes of fluid shortly before bed and so I was soon getting up more frequently in the night to empty my bladder!!
Niyama Wellness: Hey Relax Magnesium Powder is very tasty, with natural pineapple flavour and contains tart cheery juice, magnesium bisglycinate and GABA and after a few days, I certainly felt I was drifting off to sleep more quickly. [www.niyama-wellness.ca]
Niyama Wellness: Sleep Like Buddha comes in capsule form and contains passionflower and tryptophan to promote sleep. I did feel it supported a deeper sleep but during the first week I did notice my mouth was very dry during the night and in the morning. [www.niyama-wellness.ca]
MUD\WTR: :rest is a delicious rooibos chai, with turmeric, cinnamon , ashwagandha, valerian root, passionflower, reishi and turkey tail mushrooms. It promotes relaxation whilst also containing some potent anti-inflammatory ingredients to support recovery. As the evenings started to cool, I enjoyed a warm drink in the evening but had to drink it a couple of hours before bed to ensure the relaxation it induced was not countered by the need to get out of bed in the middle of the night. [MUDWTR.com]
Purica: Evening Calm is another warm drink base but what I liked about this is it only required an espresso-style shot, so the fluid volume was quite low. It also contained ashwagandha and reishi, to relax the body and mind. [Purica.com]
Purica: Magnesium Bisglycinate is again a warm drink base that has an effervescent raspberry experience, and I really liked the effect this had on reviving my tired legs after a long day on my feet or an evening gym session. [Purica.com]
BrainLuxury: DELTA has been developed to support deep sleep by providing the precursor nutrients that enable the natural creation of melatonin and serotonin. It comes in a test-tube style container and contains omega 3 and other fatty acids, tryptophan, vitamins D and E, zinc, and magnesium, which promote calm and sleep onset, extends deep sleep, and supports neuroplasticity. It’s a citrus taste, thanks to the natural lime and lemon juice and I definitely slept deeper with this, whilst feeling energised in the morning, but it does need to be kept refrigerated, which makes it difficult for travel. [BrainLuxury.com]
Aside from the nutritional supplements, there is also some interesting technology out there that has an impact on the nervous system by helping to restore balance between the parasympathetic branch (which promotes a state that allows us to rest-and-digest) and the sympathetic nervous system branch (that prompts us into fight-or-flight in response to acute stress). The chronic stress many of us experience through the demands of work and overstimulation create a bias towards sympathetic nervous system activation, which makes it physiologically harder to focus, meditate, relax, or sleep.
Apollo: Neuro is a wearable device that emits a gentle vibration, which prompts the secretion of the hormone oxytocin. This increases parasympathetic activity and allows the body to relax into a calmer state. I used this at various points in the day but a couple of hours before bed I used the Relax and Unwind setting and then in the hour before bed switched to the Sleep and Renew setting. You can use it in during the night, but I don’t like having things on my wrists or ankles in bed. This certainly became more and more effective with continued usage, although the battery life is not long, and the app had some glitches. [ApolloNeuro.com]
BLACKROLL: Mini Foam Roller quite surprised me, as it looks rather unimpressive…it’s just a small foam roller, but it’s perfect for rolling out your feet and in just spending 5 minutes doing that as I brushed my teeth before bed, it allowed me to ease out the reflexology point that is related to the adrenal gland and is always sensitive after a stressful day. [BLACKROLL.com]
This section particularly focusses on some of the advances in material technology out there that help minimise light, reduce noise, regulate temperature, and provide the ample amount of spinal support. I tried ear plugs, clothing, pillows, sheets, blankets, and mattresses and was amazed by the advances in materials since I last invested in my bed.
Unfortunately, I needed more time here, as I was unable to trial some of the products that I was particularly interested in from Sheex and TheraCrown. But come chat to me in a few weeks and hopefully I’ll have some more insight here.
QuietOn: QuietOn 3 earplugs were perhaps the biggest surprise package for me, as I notoriously hate sleeping with earplugs in. However, these noise-cancelling ear plugs not only reduced the ambient noise, which any of you living in downtown Vancouver apartments will attest to but were so comfortable that I often had to check they were still there. [QuietOn.com]
Cozy Earth: Linen Bedding, made from 70% viscose from bamboo and 30% linen were, quite simply, the most impressive of all the impressive products I trialled. The pillowcases and sheets were so cool and breathable to the extent I haven’t overheated once since I put them on my bed, despite this trial starting in the heat of the summer. They are wonderful and I just wish I had more than one set!!! [CozyEarth.com]
Rest: Cooling Comforter is made using a remarkable material called EvercoolTM, that feels cool to the touch and wicks moisture away from the body. No more sweating under blankets or duvets, this is a fantastic lightweight cover that certainly helped me stay cool throughout the night. [RestDuvet.com]
BLACKROLL: Ultralite Blanket is another comforter that deserves a mention. It’s made from Celliant®, which regulates the body temperature and transforms body heat into full-spectrum infrared energy. This improves the quality of sleep and promotes muscle recovery during sleep. I didn’t overheat with it and as a bonus, it packs into a well-designed carry bag that makes it small enough to travel with. [BLACKROLL.com]
GhostBed: Faux Down Pillow is a very comfortable pillow that matches the comfort of my more traditional down-filled pillows but has a microfibre gel fill that makes it breathable and stopped my head getting hot. It’s also allergen and dust-mite free, which for someone that can get quite congested with certain pillows, was a big relief. [GhostBed.ca]
Dagsmejan: NattcoolTM Sleep Wear, was another surprise for me. Without aiming to share too much information, I have always slept naked to prevent overheating. However, the NattcoolTM material is 8x more breathable than cotton and transports moisture away from the body 3x more effectively. It conformed to my body, and I didn’t get tangled up or feel restricted in any of the items, t-shirts or shorts. Habit-changer. [Dagsmejan.com]
Brooklyn Bedding: Spartan Mattress has won awards for mattresses most suited to athletes, and I can see why. I’ve been reticent to leave my coil-springed mattress behind in favour of the foam mattresses out there and I was hesitant to trial this, but I needn’t have worried. It’s described as a hybrid mattress, so it does have zoned coils, providing enough lumbar support but there are also 2 layers of memory foam that give additional contouring. The reason it has won the awards is that it incorporates Far Infrared Ray (FIR) technology into the cover, which draws heat away from the body, before converting it to infrared energy and reflecting it back to improve blood flow, aid muscle recovery and promote a more restful sleep. I was concerned this would cause me to overheat but an additional cool tech panel helps maintain the ideal sleep skin temperature of 88°F. [BrooklynBedding.com]
BLACKROLL: Recovery Pillow is yet another example of exemplary German design, that focusses on simple design innovation as opposed to fancy technology to create incredible products, that at first don’t look all that remarkable. My first impression was that the pillow was too small and that my head would fall off in the night. My second impression was coloured by my negative experience of other memory foam pillows which have each given me neck ache. The design incorporates different contours and heights into a breathable memory foam, so the pillow works for back, front and side sleepers alike. The foam is supportive, doesn’t over-heat and ensures the size is big enough for a comfortable night’s sleep, whilst being small enough to roll up into its travel case to take on the plane. I’m so impressed with this company!! [BLACKROLL.com]
TURMERRY: Buckwheat Pillow is a sobakawa pillow, which is traditionally used in Japan to provide excellent cervical support. The buckwheat hulls mould to the shape of the head and neck and are very supportive. The pillow is also very breathable and thanks to its filling has a long life, as there is no soft filling to bed down or clump together over time. The nature of the filling also allows you to adjust the size and amount of support to your personal needs by adding or removing some of the buckwheat hulls. I’ve always had issues finding the right balance between support and comfort, but this pillow is wonderful. [www.Turmerry.com]
AYO: AYO is the world’s first circadian health wearable, which uses LEDs emitting blue light, mounted in a spectacle top frame. The device can be worn for a short session in the morning to help the align the brain’s biological clock, by stimulating the light-responsive cells and boosting wakefulness, mood, immune and metabolism. Whilst I wouldn’t wear them in public, these are easy to use and certainly helped boost my energy levels first thing. [GoAyo.com]
BrainLuxury: GAMMA, a more recently released product than DELTA, has been developed to support brain neuroplasticity and focus. Like DELTA, GAMMA has a citrus base and is packaged in a test-tube style container, that requires refrigeration. I really liked this and did feel it helped my morning productivity, which can be a little sluggish some days. [BrainLuxury.com]
Reviewing & Monitoring Sleep
One of the most competitive areas in the sleep technology sector is the monitoring of sleep, which is understandable because without understanding the current quality of your sleep, it is hard to know whether you need to do much to improve it. Additionally, if you can’t evaluate changes in response to interventions, how do you know if your efforts are being well directed?
Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most controversial areas of the sector. Lab best tests are, not surprisingly, the gold standard and the variability between the products on the market is significant. This is because there are different methods of collecting data, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, whilst each company has its own proprietary algorithms to analyse and interpret the data. Thus, the strength of the sleep evaluation and subsequent recommendations depend on the quality, validity, and reliability of the raw data and how appropriate the algorithms that interrogates that data are.
Withings: Sleep Tracking Mat, slips underneath your mattress at chest level, and uses advance sensor technology to monitor your sleep cycle, heart rate, and any snoring. You get an arbitrary sleep score in the morning, which reflects how long you slept, how long it took to fall asleep, how many interruptions you had during the night and how regularly you go to bed at the same time. I liked this because I didn’t have to wear anything, and the results were clearly illustrated. [Withings.com]
WHOOP: 4.0, is a wrist-worn band that tracks your blood oxygen levels, skin temperature readings and heart rate metrics (rate, resting rate and variability) to help build an understanding of your body and its responses to your lifestyle choices. Using AI, it builds a picture of your sleep behaviours, calculates how much you need and suggests when you need to go to bed based upon when you need to get up. It can also wake you at an appropriate time in your sleep cycle that is close to when you need to get up. The depth of data and the ability to relate activity levels to sleep and recovery requirements is fascinating for a scientist like myself, but I don’t love having to wear something on my wrist the whole time and I already wear a watch during the day. Having two items taking up my physical real estate was annoying. Additionally, there may just be too much information for some people. [WHOOP.com]
Apple: iWatch, is, as you’d expect, another wrist worn device that, like the WHOOP, uses LEDs and photodiodes to capture biometric data. As it’s a watch, it doesn’t take any getting used to, but again, I wouldn’t normally wear it in bed. The data reports aren’t as insightful as WHOOP, which may appeal to some people, whilst not satisfying others. [Apple.com]
Now, here’s the problem. None of the three devices agreed with the other and so, without being able to test these in a lab, comparing their data to the gold standard, medical grade equipment, I just don’t know who to trust. The Whoop even reported my best night of recovery by far after a particularly disturbed sleep thanks to consuming an abnormally large amount of caffeine before going to bed one evening. That just didn’t make any sense, as I felt exhausted.
The best research papers I found on the topic highlight issues with every device but concur in the observation that the Oura 3, a ring wearable, is currently the most accurate solution on the market for sleep monitoring. I was unable to trial one of these for this study.
To this extent, sleep consultant, Anna West’s advice aligns with the conclusion I shared in my previous article, which is that the basics of sleep hygiene, sleep duration, routine and environment are the foundations upon which you should build your sleep habits. The technology is a bonus and as I discovered, you only have two wrists and a finite bandwidth to delve into app reports, so you can’t use everything. I’d advise you get the basics right, then find a couple of products that help resolve the critical environmental issues you have and increase your understanding of their impact at a level that makes sense to you. There is a fine balance between becoming more aware and intentional about your sleep and becoming obsessed, which is actually more likely to create sleep disruption.