These days you> can barely turn on the news without being bombarded with the latest on America's "sleep-loss epidemic." But while health-conscious boomers fret about links between sleep deprivation and problems like obesity and heart disease, many aren't keen to start popping pills. After all, what about side effects like amnesia and "sleep eating"? Enter a whole raft of new age-style treatments that range from mildly touchy-feely to downright wacky.
According to the most recent sleep study by the National Institutes of Health, insomnia is one of the top 10 conditions most commonly treated by the $47 billion "complementary and alternative medicine" industry. You can sign up for a $795 Beauty Sleep Boot Camp or, if you prefer something more private, drop $500 on a few months' worth of sessions with a personal sleep coach. Sound like too much work? You could always pamper yourself to sleep with a "slumber massage" or foot-rubbing reflexology session. (Hotels and spas have gotten on board, promoting sleep-themed offerings like Miraval Resort's $2,140 Healthy Sleep and Dreams.) There's "sleep yoga" for gym bunnies, snooze-inducing CDs for the musically inclined and a full menu of "complementary" medical options, like energy therapy, guided meditation and acupuncture -- after all, nothing says "Sweet dreams!" like a face full of needles.
But this new age slumber party hasn't gone over so well with some doctors.
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine has come out against herbal supplements and other over-the-counter sleep aids, a view shared by specialists like Neil Kline, a Lancaster, Pa., sleep physician who calls the data on such products "limited and biased." And although massage and soothing music can certainly help people relax, says David White, professor of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School, they haven't been tested as insomnia treatments. What's more, sleep physicians point out that because insomnia often goes hand in hand with other illnesses, people who skip the doctor risk missing a potentially dangerous medical problem.
Could a sleep coach or an afternoon playing human pincushion really be our ticket to a solid eight hours? With little hard data to be found, we decide to try a few of the most popular techniques ourselves. We're skeptical, but if it means some serious shut-eye, we're ready to be proven wrong.
A Shot at Western Medicine
Since we've always had a thing for clipboards and lab coats -- and we want to rule out any genuine medical problem -- the first stop on our snooze quest is more traditional: an overnight stint at Manhattan's Sleep Disorders Institute. One of roughly 3,500 U.S. sleep labs whose ranks have more than doubled since 2001, it's accredited by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, a stamp of approval earned by less than half of sleep centers.
Pricetag for our assessment: $1,900.
As we enter the Institute with our overnight bag in hand, the lab's dim, maze-like corridors give off a distinct horror-movie vibe. Our drab, windowless room has little more than a bed, a few chairs, and the camera that will record our every toss and turn. Then starts the real fun -- the wiring. It's a two-technician process that involves taping electrodes and tubing to our legs, face and chest; cinching a couple of vice-like straps across our torso; and, our personal favorite, a pair of tubes threaded up our nose. Only when we're fully decked out like Frankenstein's monster can we lumber to bed, where our new electronic pj's will measure our every heartbeat and eyelid flutter.
About a week later the results are in: No apnea, as our doctor had suspected. But our REM sleep is below normal, meaning we spend too much time awake or in the earliest stage of sleep, cutting short the part of the sleep cycle linked to mood regulation, learning and memory. (No wonder we're always losing our keys.) Diagnosis? Psychophysiological insomnia.
Translation: We worry too much. Our doctor recommends a crash course in "sleep hygiene," basic bedtime rules that include no reading in bed, napping nor late-night e-mailing, paired with cognitive-behavioral therapy to tackle our inner worrywart. Insomnia, we are told, tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy; the more we agonize over not sleeping, the less likely we are to drift off to dreamland. Therapy aims to break this cycle by helping people lose bedtime anxiety. The catch, of course, is that it takes months. We decide to keep looking for a quicker fix.
Put Me to Sleep, Coach
Which is how we end up back in our office, sitting in front of our computer -- perfectly still, eyes squeezed shut and hands resting in our lap.
Sure, we have a deadline looming, a phone that won't stop ringing and an overflowing e-mail in-box, but right now we're working on our zzz's -- on strict orders from sleep coach Jae Gruenke. For $110 a session, we've hired Gruenke to teach us something called the Sounder Sleep System. Its original creator, Michael Krugman, used his experience with yoga, martial arts and the Feldenkrais Method, a movement therapy often used by dancers, to create exercises designed to help people sleep. According to Krugman, the system's slow movements, or "mini-moves," help calm insomniacs' overstimulated nervous system, allowing them to relax and drift off. Krugman teaches the technique in multiday "sominars"; certifies teachers like Gruenke to spread the gospel; and hosts a Web site selling CDs, books and DVDs.
And lately, he's had some competition. In fact, several sleep gurus have emerged in recent years, each with a patented system. Former ad exec Robert de Stefano, for instance, began teaching "sleep skills workshops" at high-end spas and resorts about three years ago and sells "yoga sleep ritual" DVDs and music that he claims helps listeners start snoozing 60 percent faster. Other sleep mavens come from a more traditional medical background, like Michael Breus, a clinical psychologist who has swapped sleep tips with Oprah, has his own line of pillows and helps develop aromatherapy products for Bath & Body Works.
We meet Gruenke in her Manhattan office, where we first learn a daytime mini-move, which entails little more than clasping our hands, flexing our wrists and breathing softly -- avoid that deep Darth Vader nonsense, she says, since too much oxygen actually revs up the system. Our first homework assignment is to do this several times a day in order to lower our overall stress level and jump-start a successful bedtime. Then we're ready for the advanced class, a session on a makeshift bed in the middle of Gruenke's office. When we've settled in, she hits the light and pulls up a chair; we're hoping for "Goodnight Moon," but nope, just more mini-moves. We learn a couple for back-sleepers (hands in a triangle on the stomach) and one for the side (arms around a pillow, thumbs wiggling), and though we're feeling pretty relaxed, we're not convinced it's enough to conk us out. To our surprise, Gruenke agrees. "The goal is not to try to sleep," she says, since the act of trying usually elevates one's anxiety level. Rather, the moves should simply feel good, "like eating ice cream." We like frozen desserts as much as the next girl, but it's sleep we're after, so it's time to move on.
Rebooting Our "Biofield"
Wondering if our New Yorker impatience is part of the problem, we hop a plane to California, birthplace of mellow. We're headed for the Four Seasons Hotel in Westlake Village, a posh but inspiringly sleepy suburb on the outskirts of Los Angeles. The hotel recently launched a Sleep Well package, which combines spa treatments, in-room extras like specialized pillows and sound machines, and a variety of "complementary therapies" from the California Health & Longevity Institute. The institute, a sort of one-stop medical shop, offers treatments ranging from radiation to Botox, all in surroundings that exude English country estate more than dingy doctor's office. We've booked a $300 double session with Barbara Savin, whose laundry list of qualifications includes certified clinical hypnotherapist, gentle energy touch master, prana psychotherapy practitioner and life coach.
Unlike the scarf-and-patchouli-wearing figure we'd envisioned, Savin greets us in the waiting room sporting immaculately coiffed hair and a Hillary Clinton-esque pantsuit. Her office is in the Evening Primrose Suite, where we settle into a pair of yellow chintz armchairs better suited to taking afternoon tea and scones than discussing my bedtime habits. Our treatment will begin with healing touch, followed by hypnotherapy. Healing touch, ironically, often involves no touching, just the manipulation of the energy, or so-called biofield, that practitioners say surrounds the body. The idea is that unbalanced or blocked energy could be part of what's keeping us up and that, essentially, our biofield needs rebooting. As for the treatment itself, Savin says, "you may feel a tingling sensation or a tightness. You could feel hot, you could feel cold, or you may not feel anything at all."
With that, Savin dims the lights, cues up a soothing CD and has us take a moment to focus on our goals. Then we close our eyes and the treatment begins (we think). After about 10 minutes of feeling nothing, we sneak a peek; she is waving her hands over our torso like Mr. Miyagi teaching the Karate Kid that wax-on, wax-off maneuver. Aside from the occasional hand on our hip or knee, that's the whole 50 minutes, just the breeze from her swirling palms and the unexpectedly loud rumbling of our stomach. In our postsession debriefing, she tells us she cleared a chunk of blocked energy (bottled-up stress) from our head and shoulders. Our growling stomach, she says, was just our body processing the released energy. Possibly, though, it may have also had something to do with skipping lunch.
Next up: hypnotherapy. We wait for a swinging watch or at least "You are getting very sleeeeepy," but instead, Savin just asks us to focus on her voice. It begins well enough, as we visualize calming scenarios like resting in a peaceful forest, but it soon takes an unexpected turn as she leads us to a dark stairway into the earth. We can't help but get a little edgy here, since we've always considered mysterious stairs into the abyss pretty much the opposite of relaxing. But determined not to wimp out, we find ourselves descending as we count backward from 10. When we reach the bottom, Savin croons that we should now be asleep. At that, we feel a spark of triumph (our mind is too powerful to be swayed!), only to lose track of what exactly happens for the next few minutes.
Therapists say that hypnosis calms the brain, making it easier to release emotions, such as the fear of lying awake. They also say that it makes us more open to suggestion, which may be why Savin repeatedly intones that we will now be able to sleep easily. Unlike many alternative therapies, hypnosis has been researched as a sleep treatment, with one study showing that, for some insomniacs, it actually outperforms drugs in the long term.
It's too soon to know whether Savin's affirmations took, but not remembering part of the session is probably a good sign.
Mini-moves. Tranquil forests. Unblocked energy. While we haven't found our insomnia cure-all, we've definitely amassed a full arsenal of bedtime relaxation tools -- which we're sure will come in handy next time we're tossing and turning at 3 a.m. But our quest is not quite over. Soon after we return to our hotel room, we open the door to welcome Bette, the Four Seasons' spa technician who will preside over our final treatment, the $225 Sleep Well in-room facial. Settling onto the massage table, we can barely believe what a relief it is not to be covered in electrodes, visualizing our "special place" or even reciting our personal sleep schedule to a stranger for the millionth time. In fact, the toughest question Bette asks us is how much pressure we like with our massage. So how was the facial? We're not sure -- we must have dozed off.