You toss and turn in bed. You drift off, only to jolt awake from a stressful nightmare.
The importance of getting a good night's sleep is well known, but sweet dreams aren't always easy to come by.
The age-old quest for a better night's shut-eye has generated countless gadgets (from simple sleep masks to white-noise machines, and specialty pillows that emit relaxing sounds and scents) and given rise to popular folk superstitions (like dreams portend the future). Now dream-manipulation technologies are hitting the market: apps that claim to give you control over your dreams; glow-in-the-dark masks that train your mind to relax. But what works, and what doesn't?
We tested a few sleep remedies, from the high tech to the deliciously low tech, and found there are no easy routes to Dreamland.
Dream-inducing mobile apps
The promise:The ability to program your dreams. It sounds like an idea lifted from Inception. But several new iPhone apps, such as Sigmund, Dream:ON and Yumemiru, are designed to do just that. Before going to bed, you choose a dream scenario, including flying or walking through a forest, then place your iPhone next to your pillow. Once you've drifted into a REM state (the phone senses your lack of movement), the app emits ambient sounds or verbal stimuli to cue the desired images.
Dream:ON, launched by psychology professor Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire, also allows you to record your dreams afterward. Dr. Wiseman intends to collect this data to test the ability to influence dreams. He has personally experienced results. "The nature soundscape works very well for me, and gives me a very relaxing dream, often involving greenery," he says.
The test: After selecting a Dream:ON soundscape of a bustling city, I wake up with only vague recollections about eating candy – nothing city-related. I persist for several nights, alternating between using Dream:ON and Yumemiru (both are free on iTunes), and at last! A breakthrough – sort of. The night I choose ocean sounds, I have a panicky dream about being stranded at a ferry terminal. A direct influence? Maybe. Relaxing? Not a chance.
The expert assessment: We've all experienced incidents when outside stimuli, like an alarm or a television left on, penetrate our dreams. But these incidents generally happen in a non-REM state, when you're drifting in or out of your deepest slumber, says psychologist Jayne Gackenbach of Grant MacEwan University in Edmonton, who specializes in dream research.
"Incorporating [stimuli]into REM is very, very difficult," she says, noting she's skeptical about the efficacy of these dream apps. "Maybe it's not 100 per cent bogus, but I think it's overhyped."
She questions why people want to control their dreams, since dreams have an important role in helping to consolidate memory and process information. "Yes, you can change some things. You can have a certain sense of control, but this is your memory system. And you don't know what that's connected to," she says.
Sound Oasis Glo to Sleep mask
The promise: Train your mind to relax. These foam goggles have glow-in-the-dark stripes over each eye. To charge the stripes, hold the device up to a light source for about 30 seconds. Then, by gazing into the glowing stripes and taking long breaths, your busy thoughts are meant to dissolve.
"It distracts your brain from the worries of the day," says Troy Anderson, co-founder of Sound Oasis, which also sells other sleep devices, including white-noise machines.
The test: I follow the instructions and adjust the mask over my eyes. "Pretty sexy," my husband teases.
Focus. Breathe. The blue spots merge together and I get an irritating sensation at the back of my eyeballs, as if I were crossing my eyes. It forces me to close them, though I don't feel any sleepier. The soft mask is comfy though. I continue slowly breathing and eventually zonk out. In the morning, I find the mask metres away from bed. So deep was my slumber, I don't recall ripping it off.
The expert assessment: "Theoretically, it could work," says sleep expert Atul Khullar, a senior clinical consultant at MedSleep Canada and clinical assistant professor at the University of Alberta. "It comes under the concept of learning to relax yourself."
But a racing mind may be related to a host of problems that relaxation alone can't fix, such as stress, depression, anxiety, or a poor diet, Dr. Khullar says. "Insomnia needs to be properly evaluated."
The promise: Eat your way to vivid dreams. The myth that cheese gives you bizarre dreams or nightmares is so prevalent that the British Cheese Board released a survey in 2005 to dispel the notion. The study (obviously, to be taken with a large grain of salt) concluded that none of its 200 participants experienced nightmares from eating 20 grams of hard cheese before bed.
"In fact, most recorded a good night's sleep with pleasant dreams," the Board says on its website, adding that "the type of dream experienced appeared to be influenced by the type of cheese eaten." Cheddar reportedly gave participants dreams about celebrities. Those who ate Cheshire said they had dreamless sleeps.
The test-drive: I buy a semi-firm, Quebec, cow's milk cheese, based on its flavour. (Why not choose one that tastes good?) Before brushing my teeth and slipping beneath the covers, I eat a chunk the size of a small chicken egg. Sure enough, I do have a wacky dream that I'm helping a friend serve tables at his restaurant. The situation is absurd, and the patrons are neurotic. As I puzzle over a customer's nonsensical order, I wake up.
The expert assessment: While researching her book Freaky Dreams: An A-Z of the Weirdest and Wackiest Dreams and What They Really Mean, Wales-based author Adele Nozedar asked six volunteers to eat cheese, provided by a local cheddar company, for six nights. ("Please bear in mind this wasn't exactly a white-coat lab experiment!" she says in an e-mail.) The volunteers ate as much as they wanted immediately before bed.
Unsurprisingly, Ms. Nozedar discovered that the cheese itself didn't affect the sleepers' dreams. Rather, she attributed disturbed sleep patterns to the consumption of rich, hard-to-digest food. "Eating a heavy meal before bed would have the same effect," she says.
Certain foods do promote a better night's sleep than others. Dr. Khullar suggests eating a light snack of complex carbohydrates, such as a banana with peanut butter, to stave off hunger. Grandpa's old habit of drinking warm milk may help as well, since milk contains the sleep-promoting amino acid tryptophan. The levels are generally too low to have a noticeable impact, Dr. Khullar says, "but it can't hurt."