Millions of Americans rely on sleep-tracking watches or touch/haptic-sensitive apps as an attempt to better understand how they sleep. But is the obsession in charting REM cycles and sleep stages actually helping us sleep better? Or is it giving rise to worsening sleep anxiety?
Before artificial lighting, our ancestors’ days revolved around the sun. They rose at dawn and went to bed after the last sliver of light disappeared below the horizon. During winter days of more darkness, waking up in the middle of the night wasn’t a source of concern as it is today. Rather, they would often sleep in two sessions, separated by a couple of hours of calming activities, like prayer and reading, in the middle of the night. Looking to understand this phenomenon, researchers conducted a replicative study in 1995 that tried to simulate pre-electricity winter nights with dark, windowless rooms in an extended nighttime environment. They found that the natural two-part sleep sessions had measurable sleep benefits. Men and women were placed in dark rooms for 14 hours to simulate pre-electricity winter nights and discovered that while many woke up in the middle of the night, it still resulted in elevated and more sustained levels of sleep inducing hormones like melatonin.
The invention of electricity gave birth to modern marvels like florescent lights, the internet and smartphones, and sleep became a nuisance to productivity. The 14-hours of sleep compressed into less than seven, affecting sleep hormone production, and people who worked late and woke up early were perceived to be more productive and successful.
Only recently has the sleep movement gained momentum and importance in the public sphere. But with the zealousness to experience higher sleep quality and quantity, has the pendulum swung too far?
There’s no doubt that Americans need more – and better – sleep. According to the National Sleep Foundation, more than a third of adults don’t get the recommended seven hours of sleep a night. And with a focus on quality over quantity, many people turn to apps and trackers to monitor and chart REM and sleep cycles, hours of sleep, and more.
However, research has shown that accelerometer-based fitness trackers are neither as accurate nor as reliable as consumers assume them to be. In some cases, it could give false security to people who have actual sleep disorders or create the inverse; convince people who generally have normal sleep patterns that there is a problem.
Ironically, the more effort and focus into tracking sleep, the more anxiety we may experience when approaching bedtime. This trepidation surrounding the very thing that is supposed to reduce stress undercuts the benefits reaped from understanding how we sleep.
“People with concerns about their sleep may paradoxically develop a hyper-vigilance about their sleep, which may be exacerbated using these devices,” said Dr. Rafael Pelayo, clinical professor at the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic and Adaptive Sound Technologies Inc. adviser. “As apps do not have access to our brainwave patterns, they may reach erroneous conclusions from them. While tracking sleep isn’t inherently bad, people sometimes use the data to self-diagnose. If you have health concerns regarding your sleep, you should seek professional advice instead of relying on these activity monitors.”
Obsessing on the sleep metrics not only keeps people from falling asleep but also can cause more problems than it solves.
Our hyper focus to track sleep also welcomes screens into the bedroom, a proven barrier to falling asleep. Not only do light-emitting devices negatively affect the quality and quantity of sleep – the subconscious stress of having a device that continuously notifies us of everything from work emails to social media notifications distracts our brain from falling asleep.
Try practicing healthy sleep habits like not drinking caffeine before bed and leaving your smartphone charging somewhere outside the bedroom. For people who sleep in a particularly noisy environment, or a very quiet environment, a high-quality dedicated white noise machine can help neutralize disruptive noises and help you drift off to sleep better. These simple steps will help the body and mind naturally relax and achieve better sleep in many cases. And while we can’t always stick to the sun-up, sun-down schedule of our ancestors, we might be able to make the bedroom a sanctuary, rather than treating ourselves as subjects in a test lab.