Sleep Techniques That Really Matter
We live in a golden age of possibly unnecessary health gadgets, including several new market entrances aimed at optimizing our sleep, or at least providing us with a lot of data describing it. We asked several sleep experts what is useful and what is not. Here’s what they liked:
Anything that reminds you of sleep is important.
“The best thing [sleep technology] does] is to alert people to the fact that sleep is important and you need to be aware of your sleep,” says Dr. Sarah Benjamin of the Johns Hopkins Sleep Center.
She and another sleep expert we spoke to, Charlottesville-based Neuroscience and Sleep Medicine Dr. Chris Winter , loved the idea of the free Shleep app, which gives you little tips and lessons on how to sleep better. (Neither had time to check all of the tips in the app, but both said what they saw looked like sound advice.)
“Everything about sleep looks pretty simple at first glance,” says Dr. Winter, since most of us just need to get our asses to bed on time. “But sometimes you need to see it in different formats or hear it differently for it to catch on.”
I watched Schlip’s Sleep Habit Quiz trying to guess how many hours I sleep on weekends and weeknights, and admitted that I sometimes use my phone in bed. The app then launched a ten-day course of lessons led by a cartoon sheep for me on ways to keep me on my phone late at night.
Reality check of how much you sleep
None of our experts give proper attention to the breakdown of sleep trackers into what kind of sleep you sleep at night. “A fitness tracker can over-generalize light sleep,” says Dr. Benjamin, making his patients think they’re not sleeping well when they actually spend most of the night in N2 sleep , which is perfectly normal.
She notes that medications and aging can also affect your sleep patterns, so there is no single ideal sleep architecture that everyone can aspire to.
But any sleep tracking device – be it a bed pad, a headband, or a microphone that sits by your bed and listens to your breathing – should give you a good idea of when you sleep. “The good thing about [the sleep tracker] is that it’s telling the truth,” says Dr. Winter. You might think you are getting enough sleep, but if the app tells you that you went to bed late every night this week, you know what you need to do.
Sleep tracker data can also help start a conversation with a professional should you decide to seek help, but again, your total sleep is likely to be one of the most important metrics. “If you have severe sleep apnea and sleep for 10 hours but it’s not recovering, you need to treat that sleep apnea,” says Dr. Benjamin.
I was skeptical that smart alarms – the ones that say they can wake you up at the right time in your sleep cycle – are all so useful, but both of our experts said they make sense. “People usually feel uncomfortable waking up during REM sleep,” says Dr. Winter. At this stage, your body is paralyzed, so the gadget can wait for you to move a little before waking you up.
It also helps your partner fall asleep if your alarm can wake you up without distracting the person sleeping next to you.
But you might sleep better with less technology.
Getting a bunch of data won’t help if you don’t know what to do with it. Dr. Winter, who has consulted with sleep technology companies, is optimistic that sleep gadgets may soon offer a more detailed interpretation of what’s wrong with sleep, and point out issues that might be issues that you should discuss with your doctor. But if we just get a lot of data about our sleep without any explanation of what is going on, he says, then whatever the app or gadget does helps us “admire our problems.”
None of the experts wanted to completely discount the sleep gadgets we talked about, so if a $ 400 headband helps you sleep , there is probably nothing wrong with using it. None of the newer gadgets have a lot of data to support their effectiveness, however, so it’s really up to you whether or not you really get a good $ 400 sleep.
However, sometimes what you need has nothing to do with additional technology at all. As the Shleep app told me, fiddling with screens or flashing lights at night is not what you need to sleep. Dr. Winter says there is a danger of focusing on “brighter, sexier” foods that promise to improve your sleep, instead of simple activities you don’t pay attention to, like getting more sunshine in the morning or buying a more comfortable pillow .