Tapping into a good night’s sleep

03/10/2014 12:00 AM

03/08/2014 10:56 AM

Insomnia is always a miserable experience, but at least it used to be an eclectic one. On long nights, a sleepless soul had options: toss and turn, pour a drink, smoke a cigarette, organize shoes, watch TV, count sheep, look out the window.

Now, the restless can reach for their smartphones and browse until the sun rises or sleep descends, mesmerized by something that provides stimulation without strain, distraction without effort. And it’s right there on the bedside table.

In late 2012, the American Medical Association issued a policy stating that “exposure to excessive light at night, including extended use of various electronic media, can disrupt sleep or exacerbate sleep disorders.” But even without the association’s corroboration, most of us understand intuitively that playing with our phones is about as sleep-conducive as bulldozing a plate of cookies. How, then, to explain the recent explosion of sleep-related apps?

Browse the iTunes store or Google Play and you'll find them by the dozen: offerings with names like SleepBot and eSleep, represented by icons of placid sheep or glowing moons. The offerings fall into two basic categories. One tracks sleep patterns through the smartphone’s accelerometer (the doodad that recognizes when your phone is upside-down), giving users a blueprint of their time in bed. The second promises to lull users to sleep with music, hypnosis or guided meditation.

If you’re the data-driven type, a sleep-tracking app surely appeals. By placing the phone next to you in bed and tapping a button, you record your movements and a sleep chart is created. But according to Clete Kushida, the medical director of the Stanford Sleep Medicine Center, these apps are hardly precise.

“Without EEG – brain wave activity – it’s very hard to tell different stages of sleep apart,” Kushida said. “People can stay still and the device will think the person’s asleep.” Still, “the advantage of these devices is that they can help individuals become more aware of a potential sleep problem,” Kushida said.

This is because we are not good at monitoring our own sleep habits, with or without a phone. “The reality of sleep is often at variance with the perception of sleep,” said Russell Sanna, the executive director of the Harvard Medical School Division of Sleep Medicine. “When you ask people how well they slept after they’ve been in a sleep lab, they'll give you an answer that’s often not a 1-to-1 correlation with the results.”

It doesn’t help that the pressure to maintain virtuous sleep habits has never been higher. A 2011 study published in Sleep, the journal of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies, suggested that the annual cost in lost productivity from insomnia is $63.2 billion in the United States, while a more recent finding published in Science magazine suggests that sleep cleans the brain of toxic proteins “like a dishwasher,” as one of the study’s authors put it. A recent Fast Company article called “Secrets of the Most Productive People” reported the long hours of slumber logged by Tory Burch, Pharrell Williams, Anthony Bourdain and other paragons of achievement.

Those stressed out by such standards may want to download programs like Deep Sleep With Andrew Johnson, which combines tinkly music with meditation directed by the host, with a Sean Connery accent. Sleep Fan produces white noise, while Sleep Pillow Sounds offers a more comprehensive menu of noises, including “luxury car ride,” “mother’s heartbeat,” “cold drink with ice” and four varieties of wind chime.

Tips offered by other apps include sniffing lavender oil, counting backward from 100, eating a banana, writing down problems, watching a slide show of nature-themed stock photos, replaying events from the day and pretending to float. When it comes to sedatives, there’s no one-size-fits-all.

But the chaotic range of advice may also point to a basic lack of awareness about sleep hygiene. “In my preschool years, we had a designated nap time, but nobody ever explained why it was important to take the nap,” Sanna said. “If sleep were a priority, we’d be teaching it to children in elementary school the same way we teach them about the food pyramid and the importance of recess.”

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