technology sleep

Could technology be the answer for those of us who need more sleep?

There are a number of products on the market that make that claim.  They fall into two broad categories:

  • “Sleep trackers” that, like fitness trackers, measure and record what your body does at night and provide you with feedback on how much and how well you’re sleeping.  Some include alarm controls that wake you only during the lighter phases of sleep.
  • Smartphone apps that alter aspects of the environment – typically noise.  They may work by masking harsh noise or by providing soothing noises to induce sleep.

Products in the “sleep tracker” or “sleep monitor” category range from  99 cent smartphone apps to sophisticated sensor systems that monitor a wide range of physiological events and cost hundreds of dollars.  The products vary in appearance, battery life, ease of use, and the claims they make about the value of the information they provide.

Sleep experts tend to agree that this product class includes items that provide real value.  They also say that it’s best to keep expectations modest, given the current state of technology.

Neuroscientist Chris Colwell, a professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and director of the sleep disorders laboratory there, says that sleep trackers and related products can be useful in the sense that they make people aware of how much they’re sleeping. 

“They’re pretty accurate in measuring the duration of sleep, and how many times you woke up during the night,” he said.

Dr. Raj Dasgupta, a physician with multiple specialties (internal, pulmonary, critical care, and sleep medicine) who serves as the associate director of the sleep program at USC’s Keck Medical Center, takes a similarly positive view.

“These devices actually promote sleep at night,” he says.  “In a society that practically rewards sleep deprivation, anything that promotes sleep at night is on my good side.”

However, the makers of some devices may promise more than contemporary technology warrants, Colwell says. 

In his view, sleep trackers now on the market “are not very good at measuring stages of sleep,” he says. “I wouldn’t put too much weight on that aspect.  Still, I expect the technology will keep getting better.”

Both Colwell and Dasgupta take a benign view of apps that alter the sleep environment and do so inexpensively.

“You want a cool environment, an environment that is on the dark side,” Dasgupta says.  “And there’s certainly little downside to white noise or soft calm music, if those are your preferences and if you find that they help you make the transition to sleep.”

Common Sense and Warning Signs

Technology only takes you so far, however.  Both Colwell and Dasgupta stress common-sense measures and smart choices in enhancing the quality and quantity of your sleep.

Diet makes a difference, Dasgupta notes.

“Watch your caffeine,” he says.  “Don’t have your meals too close to bedtime.  Some foods promote heartburn.  Avoid them.”

Colwell wants you to understand the matter of blue light. 

“Human beings have been waking up to the blue light of dawn for a very long time,” he says.  “Blue wave light tells the brain to wake up.  Well before going to bed, turn off that blue light-emitting laptop and read a book instead.”

Some sleeping problems can reflect serious underlying disorders.  Both Colwell and Dasgupta urge greater awareness and attention to the problem of obstructive sleep apnea. 

Warning signs include waking up unrefreshed after a long sleep, heavy snoring, and waking up with choking and gasping sensations at night.  People experiencing these symptoms should consult a physician.

The bottom line?  Tech can help.  So can common sense.  Finally, both Colwell and Dasgupta would like to see sleep get more respect.

“Taking pride in doing without sleep is a mistake,” Dasgupta says, “because in the end, a good night’s sleep will make you smarter and more productive at work.”