We all know how important a good night’s sleep can be to our health and well-being. But research shows that between 10% and 30% of adults in the US suffer from chronic insomnia, with up to 48% of older adults affected. Now an enterprising team from the University of Texas at Austin has come up with an innovative solution which might help us all. Their temperature managed mattress and pillow combo is designed to hack the body’s natural circadian rhythms to trick us into falling asleep quicker and sleeping more soundly.
Their research, which is detailed in a paper published in the Journal of Sleep Research, shows that altering the temperature of different parts of the body dramatically affects our sleep patterns. Their test subjects fell asleep 58% quicker using the system and the quality of their sleep was ‘significantly improved’. The trick is to hit the body with different temperatures, using a warmer pillow, and a mattress with a cool middle section and warm outer area. The overall effect is to convince the body that we are feeling sleepy and encourage us to nod off quicker.
According to their report, the neck is an important body thermostat for humans, which is what the warm pillow targets. The mattress then manipulates body temperature to fool the body into slowing down. The mattress is designed to simultaneously cool the central areas of the body while heating up the neck, hands and feet, thereby increasing blood flow to dissipate body heat.
The test subjects were asked to go to bed two hours earlier than they would normally do, sometimes using the dual zone mattress and other times not. The results were striking. “Not only did lowering internal body temperature significantly shorten the amount of time required to fall asleep, it also resulted in significantly improved quality of sleep.” This is not the first time this team has juggled around with body temperature to influence sleep. They did a study back in 2019 which showed that having a warm bath 90 minutes before bed also improved sleep patterns significantly.
The project is part of a larger one involving Professor Kenneth Diller of the Cockrell School of Engineering, which is looking at the use of thermal management for general therapeutic devices. “It is remarkable how effective gentle warming along the cervical spine is in sending a signal to the body to increase blood flow to the hands and feet to lower the core temperature and precipitate sleep onset,” Diller says. “This same effect also enables the blood pressure to fall slightly overnight, with the benefit of allowing the cardiovascular system to recover from the stress of maintaining blood flow during daily activities, which is highly important for long-term health.”
The team has patented the technology and is looking for commercial partners to bring a product to market. They also hope the tech can eventually be extended to help people suffering from general high blood pressure problems.