It all started innocently enough when I bought afitness and sleep tracker.
Soon after, the first thing I did each morning — even before getting out of bed — was to check the Misfit companion app on my phone to see how I’d slept that night.
At first, it was exciting to get insights into my sleep.
But then I started to tally the number of hours I’d slept, focusing on the “restful sleep” hours I’d banked. I found the figures cropping up in my mind throughout the day as I yawned or felt the slightest bit tired.
In the evenings, I would lie awake as the minutes ticked by, thinking about how I hadn’t yet drifted off and what it would mean for my sleep goal. I began to obsess late into the night about what I saw as my ever-accumulating sleep debt and its effect on my ability to function properly.
It turns out, the very technology I turned to for a more restful night of sleep had become my biggest source of stress. And I’m not alone. Researchers studying the use of sleep trackers at Rush University Medical School in Chicago have even given the related anxiety a name: orthosomnia.
My flirtation with tech as a sleep aid comes amid a burgeoning market of tech gadgets and apps promising to help you get a good night’s rest. There’s technology to get you to sleep, to regulate your breathing when you’re asleep and to wake you up again, taking the shape of wristbands, waist bands or sensors under your mattress. Some silently observe you from your nightstand.
Even tech giants have gotten in on the craze. Apple has introduced a night shift mode on the display that’s supposed to better transition you for some shut-eye. At CES earlier this month, there was an entire sleep tech marketplace, and I counted the launch of at least six new products, including a mattress sensor from Nokia, a clunky looking sleep mask and a peanut-shaped robot that you’re supposed to hug.
“It’s just sort of this Wild West kind of mentality,” said W. Chris Winter, a neurologist and sleep doctor speaking to me on the phone from the show in Las Vegas.
There’s reason to be concerned about the lack of rest. The results of health impact studies on sleep are the stuff of many people’s nightmares — lower levels of emotional intelligence, poor decision making, mood disorders, obesity, diabetes, cancer and more.
The problem is figuring out if any of this sleep tech works, or if companies are just capitalizing on a hot trend. Winter said that as education and technology improves, the good stuff will stick around and the rest of it will become a footnote in tech history.
Ultimately, you have control over the quality of your sleep, and these products can only offer support. But that isn’t stopping companies from cranking out new products.
Waking up to a new generation of sleep tech
Ever since sleep trackers started to flood the market in 2012, there have been multiple attempts by academics and journalists to establish which tracker is the most accurate. But rather than accuracy, the real issue with sleep trackers until now has been providing people with useful data they can act on. Otherwise, you just risk getting overwhelmed by the data.
Winter said he was impressed that some of the products unveiled at CES were starting to give people the interpretive piece of the puzzle that until now has been lacking. That’s important because not all tech solutions work for all people. Take a mattress pad that cools you down — it’s only helpful if you’re an overly hot sleeper. Winter said it’s important for people to understand their sleep problems.
One of Winter’s tech tools of choice for helping his patients is the neurofeedback meditation headband Muse, which he uses to help patients who may have trouble falling asleep, whether they’re chronic insomniacs or athletes who get worked up before a big game.
“It takes that helpless feeling of being in bed, not being able to stop thinking about things that you have no business thinking about at one o’clock in the morning, and turns it into not only into a skill that you can practice, but you can actually see your progress,” he said.
As well as providing feedback to users, Muse is unusual for sleep tech in that you use it in the daytime, not when you’re about to go to bed.
Trouble switching off
It might seem contradictory to all the advice out there, but the majority of sleep technology is designed to be used right before you close your eyes for the night, and some tech negotiates this contradiction better than others.
“This meditation is best listened to if you’re not going to use your phone afterwards either to check messages or set an alarm,” says Lucy Gunatillake in her soft British accent, introducing the most popular session, Fade, on meditation app Buddhify.
Buddhify, which I’ve used successfully on and off for years, has six meditations in its “Going to sleep” collection, and six more in its “Can’t sleep” collection. All begin with the same messaging about not looking at your phone again after pressing play, but Fade takes an even more head-on approach to addressing our relationship with technology than the others.
“Often just before bed we actually do something that’s quite stimulating, such as watching TV or spending time online,” Lucy continues. “What that means is our brain gets really activated and we wonder why it can take us such a while for our brains to fall asleep.”
Even though the recommendation from sleep medicine researchers is to avoid screen time entirely before bed, research shows that most people end their evening in front of a screen, said Ph.D student Liese Exelmans, who is researching the effects of binge watching at KU Leuven in Belgium. The combination of blue light plus cognitive stimulation from the content on our screens makes it hard for us to fall asleep quickly.
Fade gets you to combat this by focusing on switching down each of your senses one by one with the intention of leaving your brain less stimulated by the end. A little like Muse, it is helping your brain learn the skills to wind down. Lucy’s husband, Rohan Gunatillake, who wrote the meditation, thinks it’s no surprise that Fade resonates so much with people given how stimulated we are from all the light and information we absorb before bed.
“It’s only natural given the mental momentum of a day full of content and distraction that our minds need a bit of help to nod off,” Rohan said in an email.
If you really wanted to sleep better you would…
All of this research begs the question of whether introducing yet more technology into our lives is really the best solution to better sleep. Winter, for one, finds the idea of downloading apps specifically to help you get to sleep “incredibly ironic.”
“I still very much believe in a very sparse sleeping environment.” he said. “I don’t like a lot of technology around the actual act of sleeping.”
I may not check my sleep data every morning before I get out of bed anymore, but my first (and last) interactions of the day still involve my phone. After I’ve snoozed as much as I can, I check my work email, my personal email, Twitter and Instagram. My day is bookended with technology, which according to researchers is a big no-no.
“It has become almost unmanageable to avoid media before bedtime, but we should be able to do so in bed,” said Exelmans. We lack self-control late at night, she said, so be aware of that. Her research confirms some of what many of us already suspect to be true: that what media you consume and how you consume it just before going to bed can be just as disruptive to sleep as the blue light from your phone. Exelmans work focuses on binge watching, but similar research is also under way into the effects of social media.
The key to finding sleep tech we can healthily embrace may be making it more unobtrusive. “The technology I think that’s going to be successful in the future is a little bit more stealth or at least removed in the process of sleeping,” Winter said.
Winter and all of the sleep researchers I talked to were ultimately happy that technology is making people think and engage more with how and why they rest. Even Kelly G. Baron, one of the authors of the orthosomnia study, said that she’s glad people are excited about making their sleep better.
Baron’s key advice: spend more time in bed.
Like many of the experts I spoke to, Baron’s suggestion equates to common sense. It’s about being smart and being willing to examine your own behaviors to establish what’s working for you and what’s not. I felt validated when I found her research about orthosomnia, but I didn’t wait for science to tell me that tracking my sleep wasn’t the way to go for me.
It took me a couple of months before it clicked. Obsessing about my sleep was turning me — a person who loves to rest so much that it’s a standing joke among family and friends — into an insomniac. I took off my Misfit, and my sleeplessness soon vanished.
Next on my agenda: getting real about late-night binge watching and social media use. Changing habits is never easy, but when it comes to my sleep, it’s worth the effort.
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