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The Complete Guide to Sleep Aids That Work, Those That Don’t and Those That Can Change Your Life

Rip Van Winkle is the title character in a short story about a man who slept for 20 years. Poor guy had the misfortune of sleeping through a rather eventful period: the American Revolution. When he woke up, it was pretty discombobulating.

Imagine going to sleep in colonial America — with the jaunty three-pointed hats, terrible tea taxes and an occasional “pip pip cheerio” of your oppressive British overlords. Wake up 20 years later, and bam! It’s all talk of liberty this, inalienable rights that and a puzzling fixation on bald eagles.

Take it from Rip. When your sleep is disordered, your whole life is disordered.

While Mr. Van Winkle’s two-decade nap sounds pretty long, the average human sleeps for 25 years! Sure, our sleep is broken up into manageable, daily chunks usually — not one extremely confusing nap. But that statistic highlights something we all know implicitly: You need the right quantity and quality of shut-eye every day to feel human. Great sleep changes everything.

In our modern society, you’re much more likely to have life-altering problems if you sleep too little, not too much. From weight gain to irritability, from an increased risk of cardiovascular and gastrointestinal problems, to an elevated risk of divorce — the problems that can arise when you’re sleep deprived are vast and troubling.

Have trouble sleeping? Unfortunately, you’re in good company. According to the American Sleep Association, 50-70 million U.S. adults have a sleep disorder.

Our lives are overscheduled. Our screens are omnipresent. A whopping 90 percent of Americans drink beverages containing caffeine every single day, and more than half of all American adults consume 300 mg of caffeine each day — earning it the designation of “America’s most popular drug” by a massive margin.

How do you improve the quality of your sleep in a world like that? Luckily, there are a number of readily available sleep aids that may help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer. We’ve recapped the most promising ones below.

Read about them, share your thoughts in the comments and try ‘em all for yourself.

Just don’t blame us if they work so well that you fall asleep for the next 20 years and miss a major revolution or something …

Sleep Secret #1: Invest in the Right Mask

Let’s begin by discussing one of the least intrusive sleep aids.

Masks require no prescription. They work by a mechanism that’s incredibly easy to understand — and biologically proven. They’re generally pretty cheap.

And finally, they make for one fun sleepover accessory.

Masks might seem silly. They’re lightweight, they render the wearer blind and their fabric real estate is often used for whimsical decoration, like a “Do Not Disturb” sign, creepy printed pictures of animal eyes or the words “Sleeping Beauty” spelled out in rhinestones.

A 2010 study performed on patients staying in a hospital’s intensive care unit sought to confirm and quantify the impact of both eye masks and earplugs on the quality of a person’s sleep. The results were conclusive and dramatic:

Subjects had poorer perceived sleep quality, more light sleep, longer rapid eye movement (REM) latency, less REM sleep when exposed to simulated ICU noise and light (p < 0.05). Nocturnal melatonin (p = 0.007) and cortisol secretion levels (p = 0.004) differed significantly by condition but anxiety levels did not (p = 0.06). Use of earplugs and eye masks resulted in more REM time, shorter REM latency, less arousal (p < 0.05) and elevated melatonin levels (p = 0.002).

In layman’s terms — eye masks and earplugs not only promote longer and more restful sleep, but they also work to promote the existence of sleep-inducing nocturnal melatonin while decreasing the levels of the stress hormone cortisol. They also helped minimize sleep disturbances — such as waking up in the middle of the night, having shorter rapid-eye movement periods, etc.

If you’re having trouble sleeping, investing in a well-fitted, comfortable set of eye mask and earplugs is a great first step. Hot pink “I Woke Up Like This” bedazzling on your mask is, of course, strictly optional.

Sleep Secret #2: Take a Closer Look at Your Pillow

In ancient Egypt, people slept on stone pillows.

And you thought yours was “firm”!

Obviously, Cleopatra and her peers didn’t have access to the luxurious foam- and feather-stuffed pillows that we have. Perhaps thousands of years from now, someone will chance upon this article and feel pity for us, finding the seemingly soft pillows of our modern era to be quite primitive compared to what the future holds.

Till then, you can take comfort in the fact that science proves pillows help sleep. Whether they’re made of stone, down feathers, stuffing or anything else — elevating your head above your body helps “support the head and neck in a neutral position to minimize biomechanical stresses on cervical structures whilst sleeping … associated with waking cervical symptoms.”

The 2010 study cited above studied whether the internal composition of a pillow — polyester, foam regular, foam contour, feather or latex– would promote different types and frequencies of waking symptoms in asymptomatic subjects.

Despite the wide variety of pillow types in the study, a few themes emerged. First, the feather trial pillow performed the worst. It performed so poorly, in fact, that a number of study participants opted to discontinue participation in the study during the time they were assigned to sleep with the feather pillow. The latex pillow performed best. The foam contour pillow performed no better than the foam regular pillow.

Unless you recently bought a new pillow or are some kind of upholstery enthusiast, these results may not mean much to you. But the most interesting piece of information uncovered by the study was this: In cases where participants used their own pillows (the control), that sleep setup did not necessarily guarantee the best outcome. People using their own pillows still suffered waking headaches and scapular/arm pain, as well as wakeups attributed to that discomfort.

The implications are quite interesting. These results can be interpreted to mean that many people are using pillows that are suboptimal for their anatomy and/or sleep habits.

If you’re having sleep trouble, consider your pillows. Are you using them because they’re empirically proven to give you a great night’s sleep, or are you using them out of habit and convenience? The answer could change your sleep.

Sleep Secret #3: Don’t Fear the Machines

For this final category, we will address any sleep aid tool that uses either batteries or electricity.

It’s a broad category — including everything from white noise machines to continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines.

White noise machines work on the principle that natural, repetitive sounds help us block out not only ambient distractions but also the mental disruptions that keep us awake. White noise is the most common term, but the category includes other frequencies of soothing sound — including brown noise and pink noise — as well.

A 1990 study performed on the most difficult group of sleepers, neonates, found that “80% of participants fell asleep within five minutes in response to white noise, compared with only 25% who fell asleep spontaneously in the control group.” Conclusion: White noise may help mothers settle difficult babies. It follows that white, brown and pink noise may help non-neonates — e.g., adults — fall asleep faster, though personal preference must be considered.

You’ve probably heard of a CPAP machine. CPAP machines are positive airway pressure ventilators, designed to hold people’s airways open in order to prevent breathing issues such as sleep apnea. Another type of sleep machine is the PEEP (positive end-expiratory pressure) machine, which also works to hold the airway open in order to prevent disruptive breathing abnormalities.

A study by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine found that CPAP therapy reduces fatigue and increases energy in patients with sleep apnea. If you use a CPAP or are considering one, you’re in great company: celebrities such as Shaq, Amy Pohler and William Shatner use them.

And while we already covered the mask category above, we’ll return to it to address the “lo-fi” sleep aid that aims to do the same thing as CPAP machines: masks and straps. This category includes nasal masks that go over the nose, “nasal pillow masks” that fit under the nose and full masks, which cover the mouth and nose. We group them with CPAPs in this section because their objective is the same — to correct breathing abnormalities and solve problems related to sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea is a Very Big Deal. Distinct from the other sleep troubles we touched on in this article — problems falling asleep, difficulties staying asleep, disrupted REM, etc. — sleep apnea won’t just make you feel like crap. It can also lead to heart attack, heart arrhythmias and strokes.

Having issues with your breath starting and stopping during sleep? Can’t stop snoring? Always wake up tired? If you suspect you’re suffering from sleep apnea, you can’t afford to delay addressing this problem. A CPAP machine, breathing mask or PEEP machine may prove transformative for your sleep — and your life.

About Dream Again

Dream Again is dedicated to helping people with sleep disorders — primarily sleep apnea — understand the root causes of their sleep disorder. We provides service to help you become diagnosed and obtain sleep therapy — all from the comfort and convenience of their own home.

At Dream Again, we believe that “All Night Long” isn’t just a great Lionel Ritchie song. It should be your new sleep status quo. Great sleep changes everything. We want to understand your personal sleep situation so we can guide you to the best night’s sleep of you life. And then we deliver it right to your door.

Is your sleep less than a dream? Take our quiz! You’ll find out how your sleep stacks up against what’s optimal. If things are less than perfect, you’ll learn what you can do to get better rest, starting tonight. Click here [insert link to quiz] for your exclusive analysis.