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THE HEALTHY SKEPTIC

You are getting sleepy ...

Can matching breathing with a pulsating blue light really help insomniacs?

August 29, 2011|Chris Woolston

Falling asleep should be easy, but a lot of us manage to turn this natural process into a nightly struggle. When our minds get stuck on everything we need to do tomorrow, everything we neglected to do today and every other thing that we can't do anything about in the middle of the night, sleep can seem like a hopeless goal. And when we start worrying about not getting enough sleep -- well, at that point we've really got our work cut out for us.

Lousy sleepers have inspired a booming industry of supplements, relaxation CDs, white noise machines and other products that supposedly quiet the mind and encourage rest. If you've been watching daytime talk shows or infomercials lately, you might have heard about the NightWave, a device from Coherence Resources Inc. that promises to put people in a sleepy mood with the help of a pulsating blue light.

Users of the NightWave are instructed to project the light onto a wall or ceiling in an otherwise dark room. Then they're supposed to synchronize their breathing with the pulses of light. The rhythm gradually slows down, and -- if all goes according to plan -- their breathing will slow down too and they'll drift off to sleep. The basic program lasts for seven minutes, although you can choose a 25-minute option if you need more time.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, August 30, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
NightWave: The Healthy Skeptic column in the Aug. 29 Health section incorrectly identified Keith Wymbs as chief executive of Coherence Resources Inc., which makes a sleeping device called the NightWave. He is the firm's chairman.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday, September 05, 2011 Home Edition Health & Wellness Part E Page 2 Features Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
NightWave: A Healthy Skeptic column in the Aug. 29 Health section incorrectly identified Keith Wymbs as chief executive of Coherence Resources Inc., the company that makes a sleeping device called the NightWave. Wymbs is the company's chairman.

The NightWave, sold mainly through the company website, costs about $50.

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The claims

The NightWave website says that the device "eliminates tossing and turning and helps you fall asleep naturally." In an infomercial, inventor Stephen Parsons says the NightWave is like "your own personal sleep coach."

Keith Wymbs, chief executive of Coherence Resources, says the product "can be a little challenging at first." He explains that matching one's breathing to the light requires some concentration. But over time, he says, the process becomes easier and more automatic. "It's most useful for people with anxiety and people with active minds. We've had a ton of positive feedback from users."

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The bottom line

Although the website says the NightWave is "recommended by sleep doctors," it's safe to say that it hasn't exactly taken the medical field by storm. Dr. Clete Kushida, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University Medical School and a past president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, had never heard of the device until last week.

The claims behind the NightWave make some sense, Kushida says. Several well-established sleep treatments -- including meditation and guided relaxation with a CD -- promote slow, rhythmic breathing. But that's only one part of the process of falling asleep, he adds. "I don't know of any evidence that slowing down breathing patterns itself will induce sleep."

He speculates that the NightWave might help some people fall asleep, but he also thinks there are other, cheaper options. "In my opinion, it's just a relaxation device," he says.

He believes that anything that calms the mind -- even the old counting sheep trick -- could work just as well for some people at considerably less cost.

In a sense, the NightWave is like a sleep therapist who encourages you to relax and watch your breathing, says Dr. Lara Kierlin, a psychiatrist and sleep therapist in Portland, Ore., who wrote an article on nondrug treatments for insomnia in a 2008 issue of the Journal of Psychiatric Practice. People who have trouble staying focused during relaxation therapy may find that the blinking light really helps, she says.

But many people suffering from insomnia have problems that no flashing light can solve, Kierlin adds: "There are many, many reasons why people have trouble falling or staying asleep." She says that people with sleep problems should stick to the basics, including avoiding naps, keeping the room cool and quiet and using the bed only for sleeping or sex -- no reading or working on the laptop.

If sleep is still an issue, a blinking blue light is definitely an option, Kushida says. A solution? That's another question.

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Curious about a consumer health product? Send an email to health@latimes.com.

Read more at latimes.com/skeptic.

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