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Understand the Limits and Benefits of Consumer Sleep Technology

Photo: Courtesy of Gregory Pappas

Douglas B. Kirsch, M.D.

President, American Academy of Sleep Medicine

Today, there are a seemingly endless number of consumer devices focused on helping you sleep longer, better and smarter. Advertisements for a multitude of smartphone apps, wearable trackers, bedside monitors and other gadgets promise to enable you to “hack” your sleep to optimize your time in bed.

This emphasis on sleep is a positive development. Healthy sleep is essential for health, safety and well-being; it should be one of your top health priorities. But do all these sleep-related gizmos really help?

According to a recent position statement from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, consumer sleep technology is improving rapidly, but most of the current sleep trackers lack validation and have only limited accuracy. These apps and devices can provide general estimates of sleep duration and quality, but they tend to struggle to produce precise information. They also offer little guidance on how you should interpret the data that they generate.

There also can be a downside to this technological quest for perfect sleep. Although sleep is an intricate and beautiful biological process, the reality is that it is never perfect. Even a “great” night of sleep includes brief arousals that can occur without your awareness. Hence, some people become obsessed with their “imperfect” sleep data, which can reinforce sleep-related anxiety and contribute to insomnia.

So how can you use technology to sleep smart? First, you need to recognize its limits. Sleeping is a behavioral pattern, and behavior is hard to change. No app or wearable device is going to make you go to bed. You must choose to prioritize your sleep. In fact, you may discover that technology is hindering your sleep. It can be hard to wind down at night when you are texting friends, checking social media, playing video games or binging your favorite show. Powering up your sleep may require you to power down your devices earlier at night, preferably an hour before you plan to go to bed.

Light is another important factor that can affect your sleep. Mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets emit bright, blue-wavelength light that increases your alertness. Smart tools such as screen filters or internal settings for mobile devices can help limit this blue light at night, or you can try wearing amber-tinted glasses. Innovations in LED technology also have sparked the development of smart lighting systems, which can adjust the color temperature of the lights in a home to limit nighttime alertness and promote nighttime sleep.

There also can be benefits to using technology to assess your sleep. Consumer sleep devices can help you track your bedtime and wake time so that you can identify patterns in your sleep/wake schedule. Maybe you’ll realize that you have an inconsistent wake time (which can lead to your body not knowing what time to get sleepy), or that you’re not allowing yourself enough time in bed to get seven or more hours of sleep on a regular basis. Sleep trackers also can help you set goals, such as going to bed earlier, and assess your improvement over an extended period. Remember, the number one cause of daytime sleepiness is self-determined insufficient nighttime sleep; you have a choice to make every night to get enough sleep to be productive and effective the following day.

Consumer sleep technology also can help you in other ways. In addition to maintaining a consistent sleep/wake schedule, you should develop a relaxing bedtime routine and create a soothing bedroom environment. A wide range of devices, from meditation apps and sound machines to bedding with temperature controls, can help promote relaxation, which in turn may lead to a better night of sleep.

Keep in mind that these consumer sleep technology tools are no substitute for a medical evaluation. You should talk to your doctor about any ongoing sleep-related problems, such as snoring, pauses in breathing during the night, ongoing insomnia or excessive daytime sleepiness. Your doctor may refer you to a board-certified sleep medicine physician and the team of healthcare professionals at an accredited sleep center for a comprehensive sleep evaluation.

With or without the help of technology, it is always smart to sleep well.

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