(Flood G./Flickr)
(Flood G./Flickr)

By Kathy Shield

If you go to Apple’s App Store and search “sleep,” you’ll net over 2,000 results. Many of these apps play soothing white noise for a set period of time to help you fall asleep; others are simply alarm clocks. But many track your sleep, providing you with data about your nightly sleep quality, your average sleep time and more.

I must admit, I use Sleep Cycle to track my sleep, and my mom uses FitBit. So when sleep experts answered questions on KQED’s Forum Wednesday, I was more than happy to listen in.

Stanford’s famous sleep scientist, Professor William Dement, joined the panel and described one discovery of his original research that apparently led to the technology to track sleep: “During rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the body is completely paralyzed except the eyes and the diaphragm.”

So what sleep trackers measure is this: movement. Since different movement patterns correlate with different types of sleep, the sensors in our smartphones can provide data on our sleep depth. They use what scientists know about sleep patterns to turn motion into nightly graphs like these:

Most nights, my sleep patterns resemble a “normal” pattern, like this one:

will insert caption here.
My sleep pattern from a random night in July.

But events like the South Napa Earthquake that happened early Sunday morning can interrupt even the deepest sleep. The quake hit at 3:20 a.m. Check out the spike between 3 and 4 a.m. here:

another caption here?
My sleep pattern the night of the earthquake.

(By the way, note my “sleep quality” in the first slide, versus the night of the earthquake. It went from 84 percent to 39 percent.)

The data these apps give us are certainly useful, but they aren’t anywhere near the level of accuracy that researchers can get in the lab, the guests on Forum said.

That’s because labs can track brain waves and give much more accurate depictions of your sleep. Still, apps give good insight, allowing us to understand natural sleep rhythms and start correcting poor sleep patterns, as UC Berkeley neuroscience Professor Matthew Walker explained. But he also warned that we need to keep some distance, lest “we start to become the Woody Allen neurotics of the sleep world.” Becoming neurotic about your sleep is likely to make it even harder for you to get a good night’s sleep.

Sleep apps such as Sleep Cycle aren’t the only technology we use that impacts our sleep. Experts, including Walker, often warn us to avoid technology in the hour before bedtime. Use of technology can make it harder for you to fall asleep. Here’s why:

  • The light emitted by computers and other devices alters your biological rhythms, telling your body to wake up when your body should be getting ready to sleep.
  • Using technology is stimulating, and it increases cognitive activity that your body naturally lessens in the hour preceding bedtime.

New Sleep Medications Safer 

Previous iterations of sleeping pills -– barbiturates –- were dangerous, and that history is weighing on current patients. Dr. Rafael Pelayo, also a specialist  at Stanford in sleep science, says the newest sleeping pills are rarely detrimental to your long-term health. But the fear of the medication worsens sleep quality.  “People are desperate to sleep,” he said. But when they worry about the effects of their medication, they become hypervigilant. This vigilance wakes the brain and counteracts the effects of the medicine. So perhaps the confusion isn’t so much myth as self-fulfilling prophecy.

During the hour on Forum, the guests swatted away myths about sleep. See which ones you believe are true:

  • Myth: Needing to urinate at night is just part of getting older.  Needing to pee at night may be a sign of sleep apnea, which essentially means that you’re fighting for air while you sleep. Because of the increased force needed to pull air into the lungs, it means increased force pushing on the bladder — which makes you want to go to the bathroom. A major sign of sleep apnea is snoring. If you snore and feel like you never get enough sleep, you may want to check with your doctor.
  • Myth: More sugar makes for worse sleep. “That’s pretty much bogus,” Pelayo said. “It’s not the diet. It’s the lifestyle.”
  • Myth: Women going through menopause must suffer poor sleep. Yes, insomnia can be caused by hormonal fluctuations, but can be solved. If menopausal changes are causing insomnia the guests recommended seeing a doctor or sleep specialist.
  • Myth: A nightcap can help you get to sleep. “That’s a remarkably bad idea,” Walker said, and added that you’re just sedating yourself. Besides, drinking alcohol at bedtime often helps you fall asleep, but worsens sleep quality.
  • Myth: Snoring isn’t anything to worry about. Snoring, especially in children, is indicative of sleep apnea and nighttime breathing problems. Once again, this is something the doctors recommend be checked.

Regardless of your sleep habits, the most important thing is to wake up well rested. “You don’t leave restaurants feeling hungry,” Pelayo said. “You should not wake up in the morning feeling tired.”

Sleep deprivation isn’t something to be proud of, and all three scientists caution that it can be dangerous. Drowsiness while driving can cause accidents, and sleep disorders can lead to impulsive behaviors, up to and including attempting suicide.

Sleep deprivation, Walker says, is worn as a badge of honor, and that creates a public health crisis in need of a fundamental shift in understanding.

In that spirit, I’m off to take a nap.

Sleep Apps, Myths and More: Strategies for a Good Night’s Rest 29 August,2014State of Health

  • jaworskirob

    I’ve encountered people who seem to proudly wear the Badge of Sleep Deprivation. I consider them fools, walking around like zombies, not being able to keep a thought straight in their head. I wonder sometimes if my annoyance with them, once I learn that their sub-par performance is a result of their sleeplessness, is perceptible to them. Most likely, it is, and I reckon I should work on that as they should work on getting a decent night’s sleep.

    Of course, having a young baby in the house is a different story when it comes to SD (sleep deprivation). Not much getting around that, as it comes with the territory. Thankfully, it’s typically temporary, though while in the midst of it, it can feel like forever.

  • Dr Mark Burhenne DDS

    That snoring isn’t anything to worry about it one of the biggest health myths plaguing us today.

    What makes me sad is that when people are diagnosed with “mild” sleep apnea, or even “moderate” sleep apnea, it’s not a big concern. Why do we accept this mediocrity? And why not treat something when it’s “mild” so it doesn’t get worse later on or so that the “mild” effects don’t add up over a lifetime?

    I ask all my patients to find out how well they’re sleeping because it’s a matter of life and deat: http://askthedentist.com/how-to-find-out-sleeping-well/

  • ForrestReid

    Not all sleep-deprived people are proud of it. Some of us (myself and some friends included) have had insomnia going on for decades, and have tried to get help for it for just as long. Most of us have given up. What do sleep organizations and doctors and scientists doing sleep research give us? They tell us terrible stories about what will happen to us because we don’t get enough sleep. They give us the same “sleepy hygiene” talk they’ve been giving for over 25 years. For those of us who’ve tried everything and sought help everywhere we could afford to — we have given up hope that the medical community will ever help us. We only feel yelled at and blamed for our own problems. Doctors do not test us for the multiple variables that contribute to sleep and wakefulness. We have to wait until our 40’s before we will even be given a sleep study, and all we get out of that is a cpap (a wonderful thing to be able to breathe, but I still don’t get enough sleep). There is some research into new medicines, because that is where the money is. But medication takes many years for testing, FDA approval, and even more years before our insurance will cover it. I’ll be well into old age or dead by then. In the meantime, why can’t we get tested for the many contributors to sleep problems? Things like levels of a variety of hormones, nutrients like magnesium, neurological issues, etc. Sleep is a complex function involving the entire body, yet so-called sleep specialists test only for sleep apnea and RLS/PLMD.

  • Momella

    There is some flimsy writing here. For example, it is a fact –not a myth–that menopause can interrupt sleep. If you had written “Myth: women going through menopause can’t do anything about their interrupted sleep,” it would be accurate. And the old “talk to your doctor” is just a punt.

    • You make a fair point. I am updating the post. But in this case, the guests on the show did not make specific suggestions, they just said that people don’t have to suffer — and that people should consider seeing a sleep specialist. Thanks for the comment!

  • Advisor_37years

    I hate these sleep drive-bys-there are countless reason for sleep problems, most not addressed here. PAIN is a major issue for many people; chronic illness; arthritis; bursitis; itching; hiccups; restless leg syndrome; I can go on and on. These are the complaints my friends and family talk about, that their doctors don’t address. I have yet to see a comprehensive article that addresses solutions to anything other than sleep apnea or snoring.

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