Sleep scientists and physicians have been urging the public to get more sleep, and bemoaning the lack of priority that this important function earns in our daily schedule, but that all may be changing as the popularity of fitness trackers and sleep trackers continue to rise. The sales of these devices, which some view as a novelty, has been booming, and that’s not a bad thing. The more people are realizing how little sleep they are getting, the more attention they are paying to educational materials about how much sleep they need, and they’re starting to take action.
Fitness trackers are generally small devices – often a small bracelet – that measures daily activities such as distance walked, calories burned, and altitude climbed. Many of these “quantified self” devices also measure sleep. Over 3.8 million have been sold worldwide in the last year and that number is expected to rise by another million or so by the time the 2014 holiday gift-giving season is over.
The devices have been criticized by many in the sleep community because they question their accuracy, but now those criticisms are being quieted as the interest in sleep is rising. Sleep physicians greatest concern is that society is not getting enough sleep. Study after study has shown that those w sleep six hours per night or less have an increased risk of high blood pressure, and women who sleep less than four hours per night are twice as likely to die from cardiovascular problems as those who sleep more than four hours per night. Lack of sleep has been linked to a number of serious health issues, including diabetes, obesity, stroke, and an immediate impact on both physical and cognitive performance. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stresses the need for between seven and nine hours of sleep per night.
That’s backed up by sleep doctor, Michael Breus, M.D., who says, “There’s a physical restoration component to sleep, including healing, as well as a mental restoration component. During REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep in particular there’s a cleaning process to get the trash out of there, and a strengthening process that occurs for the more important memories.”
Regarding the amount of sleep that an individual person needs and the use of the sleep trackers to measure sleep, Dr. Irshaad Ebrahim of the London Sleep Centre says, “Anything that allows you to wake up feeling refreshed in the morning is what you should be aiming for, but it’s not all about time. It’s about the quality of the sleep, whether you complete sleep cycles.” Regarding the monitors he says, “They’re not measuring sleep – simply motion. Not muscle tone, brain waves, heart rate or eye movement. You cannot infer quality of sleep from motion and tell what is crucial REM sleep and what is not. People can become obsessed about their sleep through these gadgets doing them a disservice, worrying about it and in turn getting less decent sleep and having a negative impact.”
But not everybody expresses the concerns that Ebrahim does, and many believe that the monitors are doing some good. Breus says, “They pique people’s curiosity, and it gets them to ask, ‘How is my sleep?’ That’s the best thing about them. I wouldn’t say they are dangerous, but it’s a garbage in, garbage out situation, and it’s impossible to make recommendations without good data.”
Perhaps the most encouraging thing about the use of the fitness monitors is that they are causing people to want to know more about sleep, and to improve the sleep that they’re getting. One user indicated that though they were happy to see that they were actually sleeping more than they thought that they were, they also noted that when they drank alcohol their sleep was more disturbed, and this gave them something to think about.
One of the ironies of the use of the fitness monitors is that they require the use of devices that include the notorious blue screens that sleep experts say we should not be utilizing within a couple of hours of going to sleep. Smartphones, tables televisions and laptops all emit a specific blue light that triggers the brain to think that it’s day time and makes us more alert – this blue light has been indicated as one of the biggest culprits getting in the way of modern society getting the sleep it needs. Health care advocates warn that they should be avoided in the same way that coffee and alcohol should, and cut out well before turning in.
There are a number of devices outside of the apps and bracelets that are trying to take advantage of the consumer’s renewed interest in information on their personal sleep habits. There are units that get strapped onto the chest, and a new entry on the market actually slides under the bed sheets and is said to measure respiration, temperature and heart rate. According to Breus, patients are definitely collecting information and showing it to their physicians. “I get patients showing me their sleep data on smartphones. But I can’t tell them what I don’t know. The data isn’t good enough to give them a diagnosis. They could be useful for tracking sleep trends over a longer period of time, to see when something changes, though.”
The kind of equipment that provides more useful data is the type of sophisticated device used by sleep therapists – they track brain waves, muscle tone and eye movement to determine the phases of sleep that the patient is in, and measure the duration of their various sleep cycles. Many of the products that are expected to be released to consumes in the coming months may offer some of these measurements, including brain wave patterns.