Most of us know about circadian rhythms and the sleep cycle. We have a basic idea of REM. We know it’s best not to wake up during a deep sleep. But all of this used to be academic. It wasn’t like you could watch yourself sleep. Alarm clocks were set for a certain time, and that time had nothing to do with how deeply you were snoozing.
But now, a wave of technology is helping everyday people understand their unconscious lives. Thanks to sophisticated apps, watches and even mattresses, you can independently adjust the way your body behaves at night.
An entire branch of medical science — polysomnography — helps diagnose sleep disorders, and it’s hard to say whether a free app can rival a specialist’s advice. As researchers at the University of Washington put it in a report, “Consumer Sleep Technologies: A Review of the Landscape”: “These technologies have the potential to both improve and impair collective and individual sleep health depending on method of implementation.” In other words, the jury is still out.
Still, many people believe that the right technology can positively affect sleep patterns, especially when used in a thoughtful and methodical way. Here’s some tech, including apps, trackers, gadgets and special smart mattresses, that may help you catch more Z’s.
Sleep apps are handy because there’s no need for extra hardware; you can download them onto your smartphone. The apps use the accelerometer in your phone to figure out what your body is doing. You place the phone near your body in bed, it detects when you toss and turn and it makes an educated guess about what sleep stage you’re in.
Ever wonder how your phone knows which way is up or how that digital compass can point west? That’s all your accelerometer. It detects which way your phone is oriented and can determine whether your body is moving around. The app gathers data based on your movements and gives you a report at the end of each cycle.
Perhaps the most helpful feature is the alarm clock. Just set a window of time that you want to wake up, and the app will determine when you’ve entered your “lightest” sleep. Unlike an old radio clock, the alarm tones are gentle and soothing, drawing you effortlessly from your dreams.
The Sleep Cycle Alarm Clock, with its sensitive movement detection, its range of low-key alarms and its easy-to-read sleep reports, is a popular option. Click here for more details and links to it in the Apple App or Google Play store.
Another option is the Sleep Time app, which uses a similar cycle-based alarm. Sleep Time also has a catalog of “soundscapes,” which replicate the noise of a natural environment, like a beach or a rainforest, to help you to fall asleep and wake up. Soundscapes also be helpful for people with insomnia. Click here for direct links to Sleep Time in the Apple and Google stores.
Some people live in noisy buildings or neighborhoods, and they need an alternative to the sounds of honking horns and slamming doors. The Relax Melodies app offers a range of subtle sounds, such as music, ambient noise or “meditation sessions.” All of these soundscapes are designed to put the listener in a restful mood and even encourage sleep. Click here to check it out.
Sign up for any race, and you’ll find hundreds of runners synchronizing their fitness watches. But they’re not just for athletes: Millions of people are investing in high-tech watches to help them track their steps, monitor their heart rates and improve
their sleep patterns. Even the cheapest models, like Letscom Activity Tracker and Wesoo K1 Fitness Watch, have built-in sleep monitors.
There are lots of advantages to fitness watches: They feel very natural on your body, so you don’t have to share a bed with your phone. And if you’re active, you’re already downloading your data, so you can add your sleep report to your miles run and calories burned.
The market is saturated with fitness watches, but the two dominant brands, Fitbit and Apple Watch, make sleep tracking easy:
Fitbit, thanks to its early development and sleek designs, is still the best-known name. Like a phone app or high-quality sleep monitor, it detects your movements while you sleep. Like the Sleep Cycle app, it figures out your particular “sleep stages.” When you’ve gathered enough data, Fitbit provides “insights” into how your sleep patterns compare to others of your age and gender.
Apple Watch, curiously, doesn’t have a sleep tracker built into it, but you can download the app of your choice from the iTunes store.
Sleep trackers are everywhere, and they come in a range of designs: Some are panels that you stick under your bed. Others are bracelets, sculptures and even a glowing sphere. Unlike your
phone, the trackers are specifically designed to study your sleep patterns, and as unobtrusively as possible. Click here for a list of the best non-wearable sleep trackers you can buy.
Each device uses “actigraphy” to document your physical movements during the night. For example, the Beddit Sleep Monitor is a long white strap that you can fasten to your bedsheets. You barely notice its presence, and it senses when you’re shifting or rolling over. Many trackers also can also record your heart rate and whether you snore.
The idea of a smart bed may seem like science fiction, but if you’re willing to spend the extra money, these high-tech mattresses can change their firmness based on your physical needs.
The leading brand is Sleep Number, whose mattresses are famous for changing their firmness. Sleep Number uses a matrix of smaller pockets that inflate and deflate as the night wears on. These mattresses can isolate certain parts of your body, providing a firm surface for your shoulders and a softer surface for your legs, or vice versa.
One of the most significant advancements is the elevating mattress, which can be a lifesaver for people with severe snoring and even sleep apnea. When the bed detects snoring, it will rise
automatically toward the top, shifting the sleeper’s head. When you download your data, Sleep Number will even give you a score for how well you slept.
The sleep tracker by Eight Sleep is a cover that you pull over an entire mattress. In addition to a smart alarm system, it has a warming feature that can be set on a timer. You can use the Eight Sleep app to monitor sleep patterns and recent exercise.
You can even connect your Eight Sleep mattress to your Amazon Echo. Feeling a little chilly? Just tell Alexa to warm up your mattress, and the temperature of your cover will rise. Welcome to the future!
How else can you use tech to better your body, mind and spirit? Be sure to listen to or download my podcasts, or click here to find it on your local radio station. You can listen to the Kim Komando Show on your phone, tablet or computer. From buying advice to digital life issues, click here for my free podcasts.
Learn about all the latest technology on the Kim Komando Show, the nation's largest weekend radio talk show. Kim takes calls and dispenses advice on today's digital lifestyle, from smartphones and tablets to online privacy and data hacks. For her daily tips, free newsletters and more, visit her website at Komando.com.