By Kathy Shield
If you go to Apple's App Store and search “sleep,” you’ll net over 2,000 results. Many of these apps play soothing white noise for a set period of time to help you fall asleep; others are simply alarm clocks. But many track your sleep, providing you with data about your nightly sleep quality, your average sleep time and more.
I must admit, I use Sleep Cycle to track my sleep, and my mom uses FitBit. So when sleep experts answered questions on KQED's Forum Wednesday, I was more than happy to listen in.
Stanford’s famous sleep scientist, Professor William Dement, joined the panel and described one discovery of his original research that apparently led to the technology to track sleep: “During rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the body is completely paralyzed except the eyes and the diaphragm.”
So what sleep trackers measure is this: movement. Since different movement patterns correlate with different types of sleep, the sensors in our smartphones can provide data on our sleep depth. They use what scientists know about sleep patterns to turn motion into nightly graphs like these:
Most nights, my sleep patterns resemble a "normal" pattern, like this one:
But events like the South Napa Earthquake that happened early Sunday morning can interrupt even the deepest sleep. The quake hit at 3:20 a.m. Check out the spike between 3 and 4 a.m. here:
(By the way, note my "sleep quality" in the first slide, versus the night of the earthquake. It went from 84 percent to 39 percent.)
The data these apps give us are certainly useful, but they aren't anywhere near the level of accuracy that researchers can get in the lab, the guests on Forum said.
That's because labs can track brain waves and give much more accurate depictions of your sleep. Still, apps give good insight, allowing us to understand natural sleep rhythms and start correcting poor sleep patterns, as UC Berkeley neuroscience Professor Matthew Walker explained. But he also warned that we need to keep some distance, lest “we start to become the Woody Allen neurotics of the sleep world.” Becoming neurotic about your sleep is likely to make it even harder for you to get a good night's sleep.
Sleep apps such as Sleep Cycle aren’t the only technology we use that impacts our sleep. Experts, including Walker, often warn us to avoid technology in the hour before bedtime. Use of technology can make it harder for you to fall asleep. Here's why:
- The light emitted by computers and other devices alters your biological rhythms, telling your body to wake up when your body should be getting ready to sleep.
- Using technology is stimulating, and it increases cognitive activity that your body naturally lessens in the hour preceding bedtime.
New Sleep Medications Safer
Previous iterations of sleeping pills -– barbiturates –- were dangerous, and that history is weighing on current patients. Dr. Rafael Pelayo, also a specialist at Stanford in sleep science, says the newest sleeping pills are rarely detrimental to your long-term health. But the fear of the medication worsens sleep quality. “People are desperate to sleep,” he said. But when they worry about the effects of their medication, they become hypervigilant. This vigilance wakes the brain and counteracts the effects of the medicine. So perhaps the confusion isn’t so much myth as self-fulfilling prophecy.
During the hour on Forum, the guests swatted away myths about sleep. See which ones you believe are true:
- Myth: Needing to urinate at night is just part of getting older. Needing to pee at night may be a sign of sleep apnea, which essentially means that you're fighting for air while you sleep. Because of the increased force needed to pull air into the lungs, it means increased force pushing on the bladder -- which makes you want to go to the bathroom. A major sign of sleep apnea is snoring. If you snore and feel like you never get enough sleep, you may want to check with your doctor.
- Myth: More sugar makes for worse sleep. “That’s pretty much bogus," Pelayo said. "It’s not the diet. It’s the lifestyle.”
- Myth: Women going through menopause must suffer poor sleep. Yes, insomnia can be caused by hormonal fluctuations, but can be solved. If menopausal changes are causing insomnia the guests recommended seeing a doctor or sleep specialist.
- Myth: A nightcap can help you get to sleep. “That’s a remarkably bad idea," Walker said, and added that you're just sedating yourself. Besides, drinking alcohol at bedtime often helps you fall asleep, but worsens sleep quality.
- Myth: Snoring isn’t anything to worry about. Snoring, especially in children, is indicative of sleep apnea and nighttime breathing problems. Once again, this is something the doctors recommend be checked.
Regardless of your sleep habits, the most important thing is to wake up well rested. “You don’t leave restaurants feeling hungry," Pelayo said. "You should not wake up in the morning feeling tired.”
Sleep deprivation isn’t something to be proud of, and all three scientists caution that it can be dangerous. Drowsiness while driving can cause accidents, and sleep disorders can lead to impulsive behaviors, up to and including attempting suicide.
Sleep deprivation, Walker says, is worn as a badge of honor, and that creates a public health crisis in need of a fundamental shift in understanding.
In that spirit, I’m off to take a nap.