Some people sleep like a bear in deep hibernation, while others may find a restful night’s sleep elusive. As we get older, it’s not uncommon for sleep to be harder to come by. I, for one, used to sleep more soundly than I do nowadays, and this frustrates me to no end. I know many people who wake up several times per night or stare at the ceiling for an hour waiting to fall asleep. But thanks to some new innovations in sleep technology, I have an easier time both falling and staying asleep. Being a science geek (and a brain geek), sleep—and the technologies surrounding it—is an area that absolutely fascinates me,
I started dabbling in this area a few years ago when I bought a Zeo. Remember those gadgets that you would strap onto your forehead at night? Yes, I owned one. I still do, in fact, and the thing still works, despite the fact that the company has, sadly, gone out of business. I love tracking my sleep, despite looking more than a little geeky at bedtime having a sensor attached to my head. The sensor not only tracks how much sleep you are getting, but more importantly, the type of sleep: deep sleep, light sleep, and REM sleep.
The Quantified Self (QS) movement is all about measuring and tracking everything you can in relation to your body, “but to what end?” you may ask. There’s an expression that goes: “That which gets measured gets managed.” It’s true in business, and it’s true in life, and we should apply this to our sleeping habits. Once I start tracking my sleep metric I can work to improve it. By making changes to my nighttime routine, what I sleep on, what I wear, the amount of light I am exposed to in the morning, and how I wake in the morning, I can tweak certain variables to help me get a good night’s rest.
How many of us actually measure anything scientifically about our sleep? I would wager a very slim minority. Many of us count calories, megabytes, and minutes of time at work with high levels of scrutiny—why ignore one of the most basic and important functions of our lives?
A study done by The University of Maryland Medical Center reports that 50% of people have sleep difficulties, and that 65% of us don’t get our prescribed 8 hours of sleep per day. This should come as no surprise when you consider how demanding our lives have become in this technology-infused culture. Without adequate rest, we become more susceptible to illness, poor cognitive function, traffic accidents due to drowsy drivers, and even increased risk of an early death.
Tech time is displacing pillow time, to the point where somewhere between 25% and 35% of those who have a smartphone, laptop, or tablet check Facebook in bed. Using these devices before bed has been shown to reduce melatonin levels and disrupt your ability to fall asleep. While there are technologies that are detrimental to our sleep, there are also a number of technologies (such as the aforementioned Zeo) that are helpful in getting a satisfying night’s rest. Let’s have a look at some of them, starting with the tracking devices:
1. Sleep Monitors
Despite my love for the Zeo, I’d suggest you go with another monitor, one that’s not discontinued (obviously). A monitor that directly measures brainwaves will provide the greatest accuracy, such as a bedside EEG unit. Be warned, the price is steep—ranging from $600 and up.
For something more affordable (between $100 to $150), there’s Fitbit Flex and Jawbone UP24, which seem to be bearing the latest torch in sleep analytics. Instead of being worn on the head like an EEG monitor, they are worn around the wrist, and use movement during sleep as an indicator of sleep patterns. This isn’t as accurate of an approach, but it turns out to correlate pretty well.
Your least expensive (and least accurate) option is to use your iPhone or Android phone and a sleep tracking app like Sleep As Android, Sleep Cycle, Sleep Bot, or Sleep Time to measure your nighttime sleep movements. You simply leave the phone on your bed to “feel” for movement during the night.
2. Smart Alarms
If you’re like most people, you wake up with an alarm. They can be jarring to say the least, especially if you happen to be in deep sleep. Most alarms have no regard for your sleep cycle. And they disturb your partner, to boot. Enter the aforementioned Fitbit Flex and Jawbone UP, both of which will wake you by vibrating on your wrist so only you wake up and not your partner. Nice! Even better if the device is aware of your sleep cycle, so that you are awakened during light sleep within a time window that you specify. That’s where the Jawbone UP surpasses the Fitbit Flex. The UP has such a feature, called a “Smart Alarm.” The Zeo, too, has this (called SmartWake). As do the various aforementioned smartphone apps. Why Fitbit has yet to include this capability, I don’t know, but let’s hope it’s forthcoming.
My fiancée has experienced sleep difficulties as of late, stemming from her new Invisalign “braces” and the resulting clenching she’s doing at night while wearing them. Investigating this problem led me to another fascinating technology called SleepGuard, a biofeedback monitor for those who clench or grind teeth. This makes more sense to me than a plastic night guard, which merely works to stop the wear on the teeth without addressing the muscle tension from clenching/grinding and its ill effects.
The machine, which is worn as a headband monitor, sends out tiny beeping sounds during the night whenever the wearer clenches his or her teeth. The beeping gradually gets louder if they do not stop, and eventually works as a type of subconscious brain training to stop the habit.
The biofeedback headband also lets you quantify how much you clench in total during the night. According to the inventor of SleepGuard, Lee Weinstein, if you clench more than about 100 seconds per night, the clenching is likely blocking your transition to REM sleep. By cutting down on the clenching you can increase REM. More importantly, if you clench more than about 100 seconds per night and get migraines, Weinstein asserts you have about a 90% chance of being able to prevent your migraines by reducing the clenching.
4. Wicking Sheets & Sleepwear
Some would argue that any bed setting is only as good as the “linens” or sheets accompanying. SHEEX is a personal go-to line for me, mostly because their fabric is much more breathable and cooler than traditional cotton sheets. The fabric wicks away excess moisture from our sweating bodies while we slumber—a big need for those of us who live in hot and often humid climates. SHEEX also has a sleepwear line (T-shirts, shorts, and the like) made with the same fabric.
5. Sleep Mask
Light can be pervasive and inescapable in our bedrooms, particularly in cities. Tempur-Pedic’s contoured SleepMask is a nifty solution: complete darkness without being restrictive or uncomfortable, and more chic than the frilly and lace-embroidered monstrosities you used to see gracing Aunt Edna’s bedside table. It’s helpful when traveling, too.
6. Blackout Blinds or Shades
Instead of a sleep mask, you may prefer to use blackout blinds or shades to prevent light from entering the room in the first place. Blackout blinds are less disruptive to your sleep than a mask that attaches to your head and can pinch or slip off during the night. Blinds have moveable slats, whereas shades are one piece of material that raises and lowers, making shades, generally speaking, better insulators of light.
Blackout blinds/shades typically employ a special material, such as mylar or aluminum lining, to serve as a light barrier. They also prevent light leakage by having no gap around the edge of the shade, thanks to a special channel that captures the edge of the shade.
If blinds or shades aren’t going to work because of the size or shape of your windows, consider blackout material-lined curtains.
7. Contoured Pillows
Pillows are often undervalued as part of the sleep set, but consider this: they support your head, your neck, and by extension, your spine. Sunken, depleted pillows can lead to headaches, kinks or pain in the neck and shoulders. The problems are exacerbated by sitting at a computer for hours on end, inactivity, and the sedentary lifestyle common to many 21st century individuals. Contour pillows are shaped to provide optimal support. They come in different shapes and sizes, so it’s important to choose the right one for the type of sleeper you are. For instance, if you sleep mostly on your stomach, don’t buy one that’s designed for those who sleep primarily on their backs.
8. Cooling Gel
I’m a fan of memory foam, but gel takes it to another level. Not only does the gel conform nicely to your body, its cooling properties keep you from sweating while you sleep. Sweating at night is definitely to be avoided if you want a good night’s rest. The cooling gel is added to a memory foam base in both mattresses and pillows. A word of caution: avoid using a mattress pad on a gel mattress, as it will interfere with the gel’s cooling properties.
I recently made the mistake of purchasing an inexpensive gel pillow. When I got home and opened my new pillow, much to my horror, I was greeted by a noxious scent that didn’t diminish even after two days of airing it out. I had to return that nasty thing! Lesson learned: beware of cheap knockoffs. Quality is worth the investment, especially when it involves your sleep, where you spend a huge chunk of your life. I ended up buying a fantastic gel mattress and gel pillows from Technogel, a Dr. Scholls brand. Who would have guessed that Dr Scholls made beds!
Bring on the Tech!
Sleep is too important for your health to not take seriously and address the causes of your tossing-and-turning. Your brain and other organs need sleep time for repair and rejuvenation. A good night’s rest is an investment in a healthier mind and body, and hopefully longer life. Better living, or should I say, better sleeping, is possible through technology!