I Went to a Sleep Show to Cure My Terrible Sleep

Turns out sleep companies cares less about us, and more about our employers.
somnex sleep
The author at SOMNEX. Photos: VICE

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

When asked how much sleep one needs, Napoleon Bonaparte, patron saint of short-man syndrome, recommended "six [hours] for a man, seven for a woman, eight for a fool." Well, Napoleon, I average nine to ten hours of sleep a night, and if I didn't have to wake up to make money every day, you can bet I'd sleep even longer.

For many, though, sleep is a problem. According to a recent survey, the average British person sleeps for just six hours and 19 minutes a night—falling far short of the recommended eight—while The Sleep Council's 2017 Sleep Report revealed that more than a third of Brits have suffered from sleeping problems for more than five years.


Luckily, there's a rapidly-growing industry devoted to fixing those problems. Everything from holistic therapies to mindfulness apps to £11,500 [$14,910] mattresses are being touted as the panacea to our sleeping issues, and you can see why they're all increasingly popular: Too little sleep can lead to increased susceptibility to everything from the common cold and depression to strokes and heart attacks, as well as increased risk of obesity, cancer, dementia, diabetes, and high blood pressure. It also just makes you feel grim. All inconveniences that, traditionally, people have tried to avoid.

Although I average nine to ten hours a night, my quality of sleep is terrible. I wake up in the night; I suffer from night sweats, meaning I'm often awoken by pools of my own cold sweat (date me); and, in general, wake up feeling like I need to sleep for eight more hours. In short, I suffer from something called "nonrestorative sleep"—so when I see that SOMNEX, the "first ever exhibition dedicated to sleep health," is happening in London, I decide to go, to see if anyone can fix me.


Taking place over a weekend at east London's Truman Brewery, it hosts the full spectrum of supposed cures, from the natural (CBD oil, Ayurveda, hypnotherapy, essential oils) to the latest in apps, robots, and sleep technology.

I cuddle a £500 [$648] sleep robot that breathes in and out like a small animal and "replicates the proven benefits of sleeping with a partner." There is an "immersive zone" focusing on bed-time yoga, mindfulness, and how to nap effectively. There is "performance sleepwear," pajamas that cost £190 [$246] but look like they're from Primark, not—as I'd hoped and expected—Hugh Hefner's estate auction.


The author's view from the smart bed

I try a £31,000 [$40,180] "smart bed," which is truly horrifying. During the five-minute demo, blinds descend to trap me inside, while a voice tells me things like "you are present," "I have regulated the temperature for your children's breathing," and "appreciate the way she looks at you," while a built-in screen shows me images of happy wealthy people doing business deals, chopping vegetables, and being in love.

The bed has a built-in pressure sensor and measures your heart rate, breathing, and body temperature to create data algorithms promising the perfect night's sleep, if you can forget about the voice trapped inside the machine, cursed for eternity to whisper about children breathing.

After all this, I'm eager to speak to a human, so head to the walk-in "sleep clinic," where I find James Wilson, a.k.a. the Sleep Geek—a "sleep behavior, environment, and product expert." I tell him about my sleep problems and he recommends the usual: Avoid blue light and social media an hour before bed; avoid caffeine past a certain point in the day; create a sleep environment that is calm, comfortable, cool and consistent.


According to James, watching TV before bed isn't necessarily a bad thing—just make sure you have a blue light filter on and avoid watching stuff that requires intellectual engagement. He recommends stand-up comedy or a show like Friends, which a) is easy viewing; and b) you know exactly what's going to happen because you've seen it more than your own reflection.


As for tailored sleep advice for me personally, there is good news and bad. "I'm sorry to say that you have a job that makes it hard to sleep," says James. "Journalists usually have the sort of brains that just tick all the time." Oh good. "You've got to give yourself the opportunity to switch off—try to find little points of rest during your day… when you're doing your emails, try to do some breathing exercises," he recommends. "You're not actively meditating, but just getting into a pattern to try and reduce your anxiety and stress."

As for night-time, James suggests I should create a "proper routine that is focused on dropping heart rate and core temperature—maybe take a bath with magnesium flakes, do some yoga, or meditation. As you start that wind-down routine, you'll know you're ready for bed." As for my sweating, he recommends that I invest in breathable materials such as alpaca and bamboo to sleep in, or maybe a gel pillow and mattress topper.


The author's "wind-down routine" supplies.

I decided to focus on creating a "wind-down routine" and regulating my temperature in the hope that if I wrap myself in breathable materials like bamboo, rather than cotton or my own skin, the sweating will stop and I will fall into a deeper sleep. Without a spare couple of thousand dollars laying around to spend on temperature-regulating technology such as FreshBed or Moona, and not ready to face the heavily menopausal vibe of a cooling pillow, I order a pair of bamboo pajamas and some bamboo bedding.


Without wanting to sound like a paid-up mouthpiece for big bamboo, this shit is life-changing. It's both warming and cooling and has genuinely dramatically reduced the frequency and severity of my night sweats. Plus, it's soft and silky and makes me feel like a Persian princess, a feeling I am trying to access on a budget at all times.

I have also developed a wind-down routine, which I imagine would also work for you because it's bulletproof: A shower using a sleepy-time shower cream, followed by magnesium oil spray (or a magnesium salt bath with a few drops of jasmine and rose essential oils if I'm feeling fancy); a soothing chamomile-based sleepy drink; lavender-scented sleep balm on my pressure points; a spritz of chamomile and lavender essential oil pillow spray; and a largely unsuccessful attempt to not go on social media and rile myself up with all your terrible opinions and tragic fits before bed.


The strange thing about our current obsession with sleep is that, much like everything else, it has been embedded in the language of capitalism. Every sleep study mentions productivity, and much of the focus on the importance of good sleep is with the goal of boosting company productivity and work rate.

"Sleep loss is hitting your bottom line!" proclaims SHLEEP, a company with a cute name and an equally cute logo of a sleeping cartoon sheep, which specializes in corporate sleep solutions. Using infographics, it displays the global impact of sleep deprivation: In the UK, it's $50 billion, or 1.86 percent of our GDP.


The language of wellness and self-care has crept into the workplace, the insidious argument behind this trend being that well-rested workers who are getting enough sleep will work better. Much like your bank is now doing Mental Health Awareness day posts while damaging your mental health all year around by charging you extortionate fees for going over your overdraft, a huge part of the emerging sleep industry is interested in the importance of restorative sleep only inasmuch as it leads to more work during your waking hours.


The author in a nap pod

Napping on the go products—primarily targeted toward businesses, to maximize the efficiency of their workers—are everywhere at the expo: There are various nap pods using everything from sensory deprivation to sleep tonics to help increase focus.

After quickly trying out a "Metronaps" chair, I trial the 15-minute demo at the remarkably badly-named Pop&Rest x Nap&Up stall.


It's almost like a deluxe childhood fort, with a little shelf and fairy lights, plus a curved single bed. I put the headphones on, pull down the cover and am told to thank myself for taking this time for myself. "For the next few minutes, every thought will be replaced with one of positivity, inspiration, and rational thinking," the voice tells me.

I scoff while scrolling through my Twitter timeline with more calm than usual, a feeling perhaps aided more by the 1,000 mg CBD oil I've just sampled than the voice in my ear. "When you wake up you will be more focused and calm in the things that you do," it coos. I can feel myself becoming a better worker ant.


This is not what I was looking for. What's wrong with sleep for sleep's sake? Sleeping to forget that everything is bad and idiot regressive fascists are coming into power all across the world and the planet is going to explode in our lifetimes?

I want to know how to sleep more and do less. I want to know how to access a sleep so deep someone has to slap me on the face to wake me up. I want to sleep like Snow White after she bit into that poisoned apple. I don't want "performance sleepwear," a dystopian nightmare phrase that evokes the language of the capitalist system devouring us all even as I dream.

We have been doing far too much for far too long, so much so that we are fast using up all the resources on our planet and heating up our home beyond repair with our incessant, insane drive toward increased productivity. The Earth is burning. We've already done enough.

Instead, buy some magnesium oil spray and lie down—the longer the better.

Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.