We are a nation of tossers and turners. According to a poll taken by the National Sleep Foundation, some 48% of Americans report occasional insomnia, with some 22% experiencing it every, or almost every night. Not getting enough sleep can impact everything from a person's health to their on-the-job safety to their career trajectory. So, it comes as no surprise that a multi-billion dollar industry has emerged in response to growing consumer demand.
The options for sleep aids range from the ubiquitous natural supplement melatonin to serious prescription drugs like Ambien, but it can be difficult to find the right balance of "gentle," "safe" and "effective." Go too gentle, and you feel like you just dropped $10 on a container of sugar pills. Too harsh and you end up sleep eating a jar of alfredo sauce or worse. (Do not google "Ambien horror stories" before bed.)
Enter former Peter Thiel fellow and Harvard dropout Ben Wu, inventor of sprayable sleep (and sprayable energy before that), who believes he and his team of experts have found the best balance yet in the form of a sleep aid you spray on your skin. After experiencing sleep problems for many years himself, and finding success with a topical caffeine product called "sprayable energy," it seemed like the next logical step to apply his knowledge of sprayables to the sleep aid market.
"It's not like I had any inherent trouble sleeping," says Wu, "and most people don't…but my life habits and the way the world is right now contribute to this problem. I'd pull all-nighters all the time, I'd always be on my laptop 10, 12 hours a day." These kinds of screen-based activities deplete the body of melatonin, a hormone it naturally produces to regulate its sleep cycle, and various other biological processes. "Even [exposure to] an incandescent lightbulb at just 50% brightness for one hour can reduce your melatonin output by 50%," notes Wu.
Wu already knew the natural way to fix this problem: don't use any screens for several hours before bedtime, eliminate stress from your life, and build a time machine and travel to the past. But for most people, a more realistic option (and the next most natural thing), is to supplement the body's melatonin production to get it back up to normal levels. Wu first found out about the substance from a close friend with lifelong sleep problems who had "tried everything on the market from Ambien to NyQuil and so forth, and nothing worked for him…until he started really doing the research and realized the problem was his lack of melatonin."
David Brown, PhD, board certified sleep psychologist at Children's Medical Center in Dallas, agrees with many of Wu's claims about melatonin. Dr. Brown always recommends trying it before using harsher methods, particularly if his patients need to reset circadian rhythms to go to bed earlier. Example: When teenagers have to go back to school at the end of the summer. "If someone had severe insomnia, and said they had never tried melatonin in any form, it's easy enough, and there are so few side effects associated with it that I would say, give it a try," Dr. Brown noted.
Although, he does admit that melatonin has some limitations. "It's a good thing, and a not so good thing, but the half-life of melatonin is very short. It's only around 45 minutes. That means 45 minutes after you swallow it, half of it has already been metabolized. So if you're going to swallow a pill, its primarily good for sleep onset. If you have difficulty maintaining sleep, if you wake up frequently during the night, melatonin's probably not going to help you in the long run," Dr. Brown says.
As far as Wu's claims about melatonin depletion, these are also backed up by research. "What he's referring to is a fairly new discovery in the retina," Dr. Brown explains. "There was a cell in there we never knew existed. It's a non-image-producing cell in the retina that responds explicitly well to blue light, which makes sense. We used to be awake during the day and sleep at night, the sky is blue, we're hardwired to be alerted by blue light." Dr. Brown recommends his patients wear blue light-blocking goggles for several hours before bed if they're going to be using electronics.
With that said, why is it better to rub melatonin on your skin than to take it orally?
According to Wu, melatonin pills come with several problems, including:
1.) They give you all the melatonin for the whole night at once. This does not do a good job of mimicking the body's natural melatonin production, which is more comparable to a gradual, low trickle than a single large dose.
2.) In an effort to circumvent the digestive system's harsh chemicals, most pills contain far too much melatonin, which can actually disrupt your circadian rhythm. "Your body's natural melatonin production is only about 30 micrograms," explains Wu. "The average pill is between 3-10 milligams."
3.) You are unable to tweak the dosage and find out what works for you, as the average melatonin pill "is designed in such a way that it only works when it's together."
In contrast, sprayable sleep seeps gradually into your bloodstream over time, contains far less melatonin, and allows you to customize the dose to suit your needs.
"They do make time release melatonin, and I guess the spray you found sort of addresses that issue," notes Dr. Brown, "where going through the skin gives you a continuous dosing, more like the body would normally do."
As it turns out, many substances that are able to enter the brain are also able to enter the body through skin cells. (Think of the urban legend about the guy who was never the same after running through the rain with a 10-strip of LSD in his pocket.) Like caffeine, melatonin is able to get through the blood brain barrier, a tightly packed row of red blood cells, that keeps things from entering the brain willy-nilly. "Something that can get through this barrier, and get into the brain, generally has a good chance of being able to get through skin membranes," explains Wu. Next, they found a harmless amino acid called tyrosine, in which the melatonin was sufficiently soluble, and sprayable sleep was born.
On that point, Dr. Brown notes, "I have not seen their data…but I am intrigued by the spray. The pineal gland is where melatonin is secreted, and even though it's part of the brain, it tends to be outside the blood brain barrier. And there's always a concern, which is, when we take exogenous melatonin, does it cross the blood brain barrier? But it must, because the pineal is outside that."
He does question whether the neck is the best place to apply such a spray. "There are a number of medications that can be put on the skin that get into the bloodstream, but you generally have to put them in highly vascularized areas of the body; for instance, the armpits are a great place. But with this spray, I saw that little video…they just say spray it on your neck. I would just love to see their data to see how much of that actually ends up in the bloodstream!"
The sprayable sleep team did several trials, both in vitro (on cells) and in vivo (on people), with no side effects to speak of, besides the desired drowsiness. This is in line with what we can expect from melatonin; trials on both rats and humans have failed to find any level at which it is toxic, and unlike many sleep aids, it's non-addictive. The only commonly reported side-effect: crazy ass dreams. "Melatonin does have a correlation with vivid dreams," explains Wu. "That could be either a good or a bad thing, depending on what you dream about." Maybe they should call it "sprayable dreams."
In an effort to collect some of my own data, I tested the stuff out on myself and three friends for a week. Two of the subjects had long standing sleep issues, while two had reported occasional insomnia. Three of the four people who used it reported vivid dreams (one involving the Deftones), and one of said dreamers was convinced it gave him a nightmare, which squares with the effects Wu stated.
Unfortunately, it didn't help either of the people with sleep issues; one continued to have trouble falling asleep, while the other woke up consistently at 4 a.m. "Sometimes it did work and made me feel rested, but I feel like it's mostly changed my sleep schedule," he remarked, "and not in a good way." But, for the two whose sleep issues could be classified as "mild," it did seem to help us fall asleep slightly faster, and sleep slightly better. I was even somewhat successful at my goal of getting to bed earlier, although this is a gentle sleep aid, so if you are hell-bent on staying up late watching Netflix on your laptop, it's not going to stop you. One night I dreamed of going to a Pilates class taught by Susan Sarandon, so extra points for that.
Dr. Brown is cautiously encouraged by these results, particularly the wacky trips to dreamland. "It at least tells you that the stuff is getting into your bloodstream, so they may be right about that," he allows. "The only downside I've only ever heard consistently is that [melatonin] gives people crazy dreams. I think people adapt to that if they use it long term, but I don't know that to be a fact."
As for the people with serious sleep issues, Dr. Brown is not surprised about them, either. "The main disorder that we use melatonin regularly with is delayed sleep phase syndrome, which is the circadian rhythm disturbace," he says, noting that there are all kinds of sleep disorders out there. "I generally don't use melatonin in adults unless they have a circadian rhythm disturbance. I use it primarily to change circadian rhythms in adults, and circadian rhythm problems almost always present as insomnia. There's really nothing wrong with the sleep, it's the timing that's shifted out of wack. And the way we re-align the clock is with a combination of melatonin and bright light [in the morning]."
For those who'd like to run their own trial, the spray is currently available for purchase on a dedicated Indiegogo page, which as of this writing has already raised $379,817 of its $15,000 goal, and racked up numerous positive testimonials. It's recommended for anyone who has a regular schedule and needs help falling asleep at the same time every night, as well as night workers who need help resetting their circadian rhythms. (It's not recommended for people who go to sleep at a different time every night, as it works with your circadian rhythms.)
They also have state-of-the-art sleep masks and blue light-blocking glasses (the same accessory mentioned earlier by Dr. Brown), for those so serious about a good night's rest that they don't mind looking dorky all evening. "[The response] has really shocked us," says Wu. "We were kind of afraid when we started that this was a much smaller need point than our first product, sprayable energy, and we were like, man it would really suck if we made this, and no one wanted it. But we're at 1,000+% of our goal right now…it's been really gratifying."