“Isn’t there an app for that?” Is technology a help or a hindrance when it comes to sleep

sleep technology

Dr Jonathan Bloomfield

While you may have noticed that some of my articles focus on the conflict between sleep and the modern lifestyle, it should be stated that public awareness of the importance of sleep has grown considerably in the last two to three years. Through the work of sleep experts, scientists, clinical psychologists and, of course, health and wellbeing brands like Mammoth, there has been an increase in media attention on the need to optimise sleep.

As this knowledge and understanding has become more mainstream, we have seen a raft of best-selling books and TV documentary programmes, turning sleep from being a passive pastime into the latest health and wellness craze. Not only that but we have also been introduced to a range of digital tools – from sleep trackers to meditation apps – that claim to help us optimise the time we spend in bed.

A response to technology

The 21st century has witnessed unprecedented advancements in technology as we have embraced the digital revolution on a global basis. Of course, there are many benefits to making the world a more advanced, connected and fast-moving place. Anyone who has traded in the traditional 9 to 5 job in favour of remote, flexible work will attest to the positives of cutting out commuting times and finding a better work–life balance. But it should also be noted that the introduction of mobile devices and 24/7 connectivity has squeezed the time that people put aside for sleep, rest and even simple relaxation.

It can be argued that placing mobile technology in the hands of billions of human beings in this era has hindered our wellbeing every bit as much a it has helped it. For instance, many of us now interact with our smartphones in excess of 80 times a day – far more often than we engage with many of our own family members.

This fast-paced and relentless world, brought to us via our devices and into our homes has led us to feel more stress and enjoy less sleep – an imbalance that can have a clear and measurable effect on our physical and mental state.

The sleep technology conundrum

As our awareness of sleep problems has increased, there has been a marked increase in the number of “sleep solutions” brought to market. This can be seen most clearly in the rise of wearables and wellness-centred apps that focus on our sleep. It is interesting to see how technology is now being utilised to counter issues such as sleep loss and the associated long-term health concerns. In fact, it is predicted that consumers will spend more than £60billion on sleep quantification tools by the year 2020.

Most sleep measurement tools do just that: they measure and report on patterns of sleep, and it is left to the user to decipher if the information is accurate or relevant to their broader wellbeing. While this can be interesting to observe, I think that without a deeper understanding of the numerous variables and factors, it can be challenging to extract meaningful insights or implement positive behaviour changes.

sleep technology
(image credit: createhealth.com)

It is important that we approach sleep apps and technological developments with caution and care. Certainly, some of the tools now at our disposal can be useful in helping us to focus attention on sleep and even curbing the time we spend away from our beds. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that people enjoy sleep meditation apps and like to log their sleep patterns. Yet, we should also be conscious of so-called “tools” that can worsen the problem.

Earlier this year, a group of clinicians in the US specialising in sleep disorders published concerns in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine arguing that self-monitoring of sleep can actually exacerbate an individual’s fear of sleeping badly. Ironically, one of the biggest problems people face in getting to sleep is worrying that they won’t be able to get to sleep, and so you can see how the use of tools can actually be counterproductive.

In more extreme cases, people may worry so much about their sleep data that they take the issue to their GP in distress. Researchers have now identified this trend as a new type of sleep disorder that they have coined as “orthosomnia” – an obsession with perfect sleep where anything less creates anxiety (which, in turn, is a major cause of insomnia).

My advice for those thinking of using tools on the market currently would be to try different solutions to find those that really make a positive difference. Try to be objective and don’t get too wedded to an app without clear evidence of its success. Alongside any tools or forms of software you may choose, I also always advocate adherence to a few basic sleep essentials. Try the following and you may well find that they enhance your sleep potential:

  • A regular evening routine.
    1. Learn how to “switch off”. Disconnect yourself.
    2. Protect your family time and your ME time. Value it.
    3. Physically unwind. Complete your exercise earlier in the day.
    4. Mentally relax and disengage.
  • A regular bedtime routine.
    1. Prepare for tomorrow
    2. Prepare for sleep
  • An optimal sleep environment.
    1. Welcoming bedroom
    2. Dark, cool, quiet
    3. Comfortable bed and bedding
  • A regular time to wake.
    1. Wake naturally if possible (without an alarm clock)
    2. Wake up, Get up
    3. Adhere to your sleep pattern 7 days a week
  • A regular morning routine.
    1. Healthy breakfast
    2. Complete at least light physical activity each day
    3. Seek out daylight