These days, the fad among the leaders of tech startups is to boast “I don’t have time to sleep, I’m too busy working!” But it has been pointed out by many that this type of thinking is detrimental and self-destructive. If you don’t sleep, you are setting yourself up for a serious fall someplace down the line, and your productivity can take a hit too.
Arianna Huffington, owner of the Huffington Post, has led the way with her advocacy on getting a good night’s sleep (she posts and tweets under#sleeprevolution). Her book on the subject is well worth reading if you ever get the chance, and it is good to see someone of Arianna’s prominent stature take a public stance on such an important public health issue.
Why Getting a Good Night’s Sleep is Important
Our bodies need sleep. There’s no way around it. It would be nice if we could all function like Commander Data in Star Trek, and not need any sleep at all. But since we are not androids, we have to have our shut-eye for reasons of health.
Most experts recommend a minimum of 8 hours a night, although a lot of people manage on much less than that. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously only needed 4 hours a night when she was in office, and she was in charge of running a country for 11 years. This need for less sleep has now beenattributed by scientists to a “gene variant” which has jokingly been dubbed the “Thatcher Gene.”
But the vast majority of us need 8+ hours a night. Benefits of more sleep include better memory, longer life span, better concentration and focus, a healthy body weight, lower stress, and a lower chance of developing depression. When we are sleeping, the body restores and rejuvenates itself, it grows muscle and repairs tissue, and memories in your head are processed. During the day, the brain takes in so much information, so much imagery, and so many experiences, that it needs to process everything from short-term memory to long-term memory. This is called “consolidation.” This is why when you wake up in the morning, your head feels completely clear, and you feel focused.
Apps To Try
As usual in this “there’s an app for that!” world, there are countless apps to try out, that promise to help you sleep, or monitor your sleep so you can see what’s working and what’s not. I decided to become the MakeUseOf guinea pig to see which apps really do what they say on the tin.
Fitbit (free, relies on wearable)
I had been using Fitbit for the past three years, until last week when it suddenly died on me. This is a shame, because when it comes to sleep tracking, Fitbit does it extremely well.
By wearing the wristband, Fitbit is able to tell when you are in a resting state (or you can simply tell it by double-tapping the front of the band, then double-tapping it again when you wake up). It monitors and records all the times you move so it can work out how much sleep you actually got. You will be shocked when you see how much you were awake during the night without even realizing it.
You can set a sleep target and watch as you go over the line. If you meet your target, you get a nice star all for yourself. Isn’t that worth it?
Sleep Cycle (free)
One of the toughest parts of waking up is finding the right moment to do so. If you are in a really deep sleep phase, and suddenly you have to get up for work, with the alarm blaring, then you are going to feel very tired indeed. This is where you find out exactly how it feels to have an elephant sitting on your head.
But what if there was an app that monitored your sleep cycles, and then woke you gently during one of your light sleep phases? That’s what Sleep Cycle does. Your phone sits on your nightstand and it listens to you sleep, calculating the best time to wake you from your peaceful slumbers.
To quote the Guardian newspaper:
“The result is so gentle and lovely it feels like being woken up by a mermaid stoking your hair or a unicorn nuzzling your toes.”
The free plan gives you some audio tones to wake up to, and you can decide how long you would like the wake-up phase to take (maybe you would prefer a gradual wakening up by the mermaid, instead of her slapping you in the face?).
Sleep Time ($1.99)
Here’s a competitor to Sleep Cycle, with the big exception being the cost of $2. Sleep Time needs to be placed in the bed next to you (whereas Sleep Cycle sits on your bedside table). Since I sleep with my phone anyway, that part wasn’t difficult.
Sleep Time doubles as an alarm clock, and it will wake you at the optimal moment with the sound of rain, or waves crashing. For me that’s not that great, since the sound of running water makes me want to run to the bathroom double quick.
Pillow offers a lot of features, and all for the very reasonable price of zero. It also integrates nicely with Apple Watch, iCloud, and the Health app. Combining Pillow with the Health app will allow you to compare your sleep with other aspects of your health to get a better overview.
This one also sits on your pillow and monitors your sleep, waking you up at the optimal time with a gentle sound (you can also set it to a “nap mode” if you only want 20 minutes kip). When you wake, you can see stats on your sleep, and it tracks all the noises you make during the night (such as talking out loud or snoring — possibly an invaluable feature if you suspect you may have sleep apnea). You can also leave notes of your own for a particular day if there is anything you want to remember.
Finally, there is a “sleep lab” which gives you lots of tips on how to fall asleep better (such as turning the lights off, and no caffeine before bed).
Now we’re moving away from sleep trackers on the pillow, and looking at something different.
Pzizz is a free, simple, but very powerful app which helps you sleep. It does this through the concept of “binaural tones”, which calm the mind and make you relax. And due to its patented algorithm, it never plays the same tune twice. So every time you use it, you are guaranteed a new binaural tune. Choose between a power nap and a full night’s sleep to get the right tones.
Some people are sceptical of the effectiveness of binaural tones, but I have honestly found them to be useful. And if you are finding it hard to sleep, what do you have to lose by trying it out? The app has been praised by NBA player Roy Hibbert in an interview to Sports Illustrated, so somebody other than me seems to like it at least.
Sleep Better (free)
Sleep Better belongs to the well-known Runtastic family of apps, and calls itself a “smart alarm clock”. It also tracks the quality of your sleep, and optionally uploads it to the Apple Health app.
Some interesting features include a dream diary, moon phases, and keeping a note of your caffeine and alcohol consumption. You can also say if you’ve had a stressful day, not sleeping in your own bed (such as a hotel bed), and if you had a late dinner. All of these things can significantly affect your sleep.
Sleep Meister (free)
Self-described as the “Number One Top Health & Fitness App In Japan,” Sleep Meister does the usual sleep tracking as well as a few other things.
First, it records your sleep talking, so you play Sigmund Freud the next day and figure out why you had such a restless slumber. Also, if your spouse is packing their bags and moving out, and you don’t know why, Sleep Meister might explain it that you muttered the name of your mistress in your sleep.
The tunes available though could be updated a bit as I am not sure if I would want to be woken up by the Looney Tunes song. I am also mystified as to the Automatic Tweets feature, where tweets are posted when you wake up and go to sleep. Why would you want to notify your followers about that?
It also has a music player which stops when you fall asleep, which is nice.
Efficient Ways To Help You Sleep
To finish off, let’s briefly cover some effective ways to drop off to sleep, apart from these apps.
Keep The Room Totally Dark
If there is any light coming into the room, the brain convinces itself it is morning and that you should be up. Total darkness keeps your body clock in sync, and besides, who can sleep with the light on? Not me for sure. If necessary, invest in a good face mask.
Keep The Room Totally Cool
If the room is too warm, then you are going to start getting all hot and sweaty. That is not going to help you relax. So adjust the thermostat until you find a temperature which is cool, but tolerable.
This goes with the whole “keeping cool” side of things. And if things get too chilly, cuddle up to your partner. No partner? No problem. Cuddle up to your teddy bear.
Sleep With Earplugs In
If light doesn’t disturb your sleep, then noise probably does. You can solve this problem in a flash by putting earplugs in. They can be a bit uncomfortable at first, but after a while they work wonders.
Turn The Screens Off!
Stop using all computers, tablets, and smartphones at least one hour before bed. Also don’t go to sleep with a television on in the bedroom. If the flashing screen doesn’t play havoc with your eyes, the noise will most certainly play havoc with your ears.
The whole sleep issue is complex, and with many strands. Doctors don’t pretend to know everything about sleep, but research is proceeding at a rapid pace, and new discoveries are being made all the time. In this era of “apps for everything,” the ordinary Joe Public can monitor and analyze their sleep, without needing to have “MD” at the end of their name.
What apps do you use to monitor and analyze your sleep?