HEALTH NEWS

Can Technology Really Help You Sleep Better?

Written by Shawn Radcliffe on February 24, 2016
sleep devices

Poor sleep is a problem for tens of millions of Americans.

It’s not an issue to be taken lightly. Lack of sleep has been linked to several chronic health conditions, including diabetes, depression, obesity, and poor quality of life.

While there are many things that can cause you to toss and turn all night, technology is often blamed for disrupting our slumber.

“We’ve artificially created this environment where the last thing we do before we lay down is check our Facebook status or the news or whatever it is,” Leslie Sherlin, PhD, co-founder and chief science officer of SenseLabs, told Healthline. “That’s not the way our body was designed in order to maximize sleep.”

So, to save us from the sleep-depriving effects of technology, many companies have turned to — you guessed it — technology.

Read More: What You're Doing to Sabotage Your Sleep »

Promises, Promises

An ever-growing number of devices and apps promise to help you rate, track, monitor, and improve your sleep.

But can these products actually help you sleep better?

For some sleep experts, the answer is a resounding … it depends.

When it comes to technology and sleep, “it’s individual and it’s not always obvious what’s helping and what’s causing a problem,” Dr. Carl Bazil, PhD, director of the Epilepsy and Sleep Division of the Department of Neurology at Columbia University and an attending neurologist at the Columbia Comprehensive Epilepsy Center, told Healthline.

It would be impossible to cover every type of sleep technology, so here are some of the ones most commonly talked about.

But before we begin: If you frequently have difficulty falling or staying asleep, or wake up tired in the morning, talk to your doctor or a sleep specialist to rule out more serious medical conditions.

Read More: Is Technology Causing a Lifetime of Pain for Millennials? »

Dealing with the Electronic Blues

Electronic devices are often blamed for disrupting sleep because of the blue light they emit. This is true for computers, smartphones, iPads, eReaders, and some televisions.

“If we’re exposed to that type of light within an hour to two hours before bed, it suppresses the melatonin rhythm,” Rebecca Scott, PhD, research assistant professor, Department of Neurology in the New York University Langone Comprehensive Epilepsy Center-Sleep Center, told Healthline. “So what happens is the brain doesn’t get the signal that it’s actually nighttime and time for us to go to sleep.”

This can produce a kind of “jet lag.” Even if you are tired at night, you may still be too wired and alert to fall asleep.

“There are easy solutions to blue light from electronics,” Bazil said. “Obviously you can turn off your device, but you can also pretty easily dim it.”

Some devices and apps automatically turn down the blue light in the evening, shifting toward warmer colors.

The iPhone, iPad and iPod touch displays running iOS 9.3 beta all include this feature — called “Night Shift.” If you have another device, many apps are available that claim to do the same thing.

If you want to block blue light from all sources, there are simple solutions.

“A quick and dirty way is just to wear blue-blocking glasses,” Bazil said.

A lot of research has looked at the effect of blue light on melatonin and sleep quality. But less is known about whether blue-blocking glasses or color-shifting apps can help you sleep better, or if all the products work equally well.

“At this point, there hasn’t been enough research to really say for sure, ‘These glasses, for this period of time will protect you against the blue light from using your iPad an hour before bed,’” Scott said.

If you think the light from your electronic device is keeping you awake at night, try going unplugged one to two hours before bedtime.

“Sometimes I even have people set an alarm for themselves as a reminder,” Scott said. “Reminding yourself, ‘OK, I’ve got five more minutes, let me just wrap everything up.’”

There are also apps that block you from logging into Facebook, Twitter, or email at certain times of day. And you can even plug your WiFi router into a power strip with a timer so it shuts off a few hours before bedtime.

Read More: Artificial Light Associated with Obesity »

Winding Down Before Bed

Blue light is not the only way that electronic devices can keep you awake.

“I think that the number one problem with devices is not the device itself or the light,” Bazil said. “It’s mental stimulation.”

Watching a certain type of movie or checking your work email before bedtime can send your mind into crisis mode, which can be difficult to come out of.

“Sleep isn’t automatic, you need to wind down,” said Bazil. “You need to convince your brain that it’s OK to sleep, that there’s no crisis going on.”

What one person may find stimulating, though, another may find relaxing. For some, it’s watching television. For others, reading a book.

For people looking for a technology solution, many relaxation and meditation apps can help you prepare for sleep.

“There are smartphone apps that I think can be quite helpful,” Bazil said. “They can walk you through some of the techniques that we’ve used in sleep medicine for a while to try and help with the process of shutting you down.”

Sherlin’s company created an app called SenseSleep that uses simple breathing techniques to encourage sleep.

“This is just so basic. This is just like breathing,” Sherlin said. “We’re not giving people sleep aids. We’re just saying, ‘Hey, why don’t you take three minutes and just breathe in a healthier way.’ And people are reporting dramatic results.”

Many of these meditation and breathing techniques are not new. Some have been used in yoga for hundreds of years.

But the apps, Sherlin says, are a way of “meeting the client or the customer where they are.”

In spite of the ease of using an app to help you sleep, these techniques may not be mastered overnight — even if you are awake all night.

“Any kind of meditation or relaxation programs can certainly be helpful for people,” Scott said, “but that’s something that someone should really practice and build up to.”

In the end, whether technology keeps you awake at night or helps you sleep is individual.

But technology can give hope to even the most sleep-deprived by helping them learn how to modulate their own system — mind and body — with simple, proven techniques.

“If people are unhappy with the experiences that they’re having in life, they’re in control of it much more than they think,” Sherlin said. “I think it’s empowering to people, the knowledge that ‘I can change this if I don’t like it.’”

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