Alarmist headlines say tech at night interferes with sleep, but it can also do the opposite. Jenneth Orantia explains how apps can improve your naps.
The importance of sleep should come as no surprise. It’s your body’s way of recharging its batteries. But it doesn’t just “shut down”, there’s a lot of essential activity happening when you sleep — your body is busily re-energising your brain and repairing and restoring itself.
It’s common knowledge that the amount of sleep you get is important — seven to nine hours each night is considered ideal. But the type of sleep you get during those hours is also important.
Your body naturally cycles between REM and non-REM sleep (also known as light and deep sleep), and it’s during the deep sleep phase that your body is working its hardest to repair itself. Put simply, you want to get as much deep sleep as possible.
With the help of some inexpensive apps and gadgets and a few simple lifestyle changes you can boost the amount of deep sleep you get and substantially improve your quality of life.
What’s your baseline?
Your first step should be finding out how well you’re currently sleeping. Smartphones and smart devices have made sleep tracking very accessible, and while it’s not as accurate as a clinical measurement, it should be good enough to give you a benchmark of your sleep patterns. Just like with fitness, you need to know where you’re starting from if you want to track improvements.
Apps to nap to
Mobile apps are the easiest way to get into sleep tracking, and they typically do double-duty as a smart alarm clock. To track your sleep, the apps use either your phone’s motion-detecting accelerometer to monitor movement or microphone to listen to your breathing. Your phone needs to stay awake for the apps to function correctly, so you’ll need to plug it into the charger overnight.
The smart alarm function is an interesting bonus. That feeling of disorientation you sometimes feel when your alarm goes off is because you’ve been woken up while in a deep sleep. The smart alarm monitors for when you’re in a light sleep phase and goes off within a pre-defined 30-minute window ahead of when you need to get up.
Other features typically available in sleep tracking apps include detailed sleep statistics, the ability to compare your sleep data to other users and interaction with smart gadgets like the Philips HUE, which can progressively turn the light on to mimic the sun rising when you need to get up.
Gadgets for a good night
Using sleep tracking apps can be quite fiddly. A more seamless experience can be had with the latest fitness bands. Most bands released in the last year will automatically track your sleep without any thought or fuss. They come with algorithms that track movement and other vital signs and figure out when you’ve finally fallen asleep.
This is a better option than remembering to switch on sleep tracking at the very moment your brain is switching off to fall asleep. Models with built-in heart rate monitors can track your sleep using your heart rate, which is an even more accurate method of tracking sleep phases than movement or sound.
Sleep As Android’s detailed alarm clock settings include multiple ringtone options (including the ability to allocate your own music playlist) and a special CAPTCHA alarm that requires you to perform a few mental gymnastics before you can turn the alarm off.
Sleep Cycle’s sleep statistics make it easy to see at a glance how well you slept the previous night, with a sleep quality score that you can use to benchmark against previous nights as well as other Sleep Cycle users.
As well as showing the standard metrics for light, REM and deep sleep, the Fitbit app lets you check your sleep against your average, as well as benchmark it against other users of the same gender and age group.
If you have an Apple Watch, you’ll need to download a sleep tracking app to your iPhone that comes with a companion Apple Watch app. AutoSleep Tracker for Watch is one of the best options. As the name suggests, it automatically tracks your sleep through your Apple Watch using metrics like your heart rate.
One of the most recent software updates to the Huawei Watch 2 added a new sleep tracking function. Once it starts automatically tracking your sleep, you’ll be able to see your sleep stats through the Huawei Health app on your Android smartphone.
The AutoSleep app for Apple Watch is incredibly full-featured, using the same activity rings concept pioneered by Apple to measure your quality of sleep. The iPhone app also offers detailed metrics.
Tricks to sleep tight
Whichever method you use, you’ll be able to keep an eye on how much deep sleep you’re getting. You should aim for 1.5-1.8 hours of deep sleep per night. Here are a few tips to help you get a great sleep.
- Keep a sleep routine. Going to bed and waking up the same time every day keeps your body’s internal clock to the tight rhythm and helps you sleep and wake better.
- Avoid bright screens one to two hours before going to bed. The blue light in TVs, laptops, smartphones and tablets can suppress melatonin production, a natural hormone that tells your body when it’s time to sleep. The latest versions of iOS and Android let you change your display settings to switch off blue light at night.
- Simple lifestyle changes such as limiting caffeine and nicotine, avoiding big meals and alcohol before bed, and keeping your bedroom at about 18°C for ultimate comfort.
Check in regularly with your sleep tracking app to see whether your sleep is improving. You should start seeing some positive changes very quickly.