There is no getting away from it – we all need to sleep. And while sleep habits vary from person to person, the importance of sleep is universal. Go for a few nights without a decent amount of sleep and you could find yourself feeling grumpy, overwhelmed and rundown.
“Sleep occurs to enable the body and the brain to do repair work,” says sleep therapist Jeremy Walker.
“When we sleep our sensory input slows down or stops. Non-primary functions such as breathing, heart rate and blood pressure all slow down, as does waste production.”
On top of this vital repair work, the brain also uses sleep as a chance to “file” information and organise memories.
While there is no doubt that sleep is important, many of us have poor sleep habits that could be wreaking havoc with our general wellbeing.
According to a recent Sleep Health Foundation study, as many as 30 per cent of Australians complain of insufficient sleep on a daily or near-daily basis. So it is not surprising that we are increasingly turning to technology in an effort to improve the way we sleep.
The popularity of sleep apps shows the extent to which we all value a good nights sleep. There are more than 200 sleep apps available in Australia and New Zealand that offer a variety of functions from simulating the sunrise to tracking movements and sounds during the night in order to provide an array of sleep data.
Some apps such as best selling Sleep Cycle use this data to rouse users during a period of light sleep, meaning that they wake feeling more refreshed. The reviews are almost evangelical. “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,” said one commentator in the Guardian.
But while these apps might be popular with users, some experts are dubious about the benefits that sleep apps can deliver. Dr Alex Bartle from the Auckland Sleep Well Center says that sleep tracking apps vary in accuracy, but are unlikely to provide accurate data. “Sleep is a bit too complex to monitor via an app,” he says.
Dr Bartle also notes that sleep apps can be disruptive. “Users will be concentrating on what is happening with their app rather than concentrating on what is happening in their brains. It is teaching bad habits,” he says.
This can become problematic for some people. “People that take the information as gospel can start panicking about the amount of sleep they are getting,” he says. This is apparent from the rising number of people presenting at the sleep clinic worried about the sleep data they have recorded.
“One man came in last week telling me that according to his sleep app he was only getting three hours of sleep a night. He was really anxious about it,” Dr Bartle recalls.
But Dr Bartle notes than someone who was operating on only three hours sleep wouldn’t be functioning well at all. It was obvious to him that the data was wrong.
According to Dr Bartle, another issue is that people using sleep apps can be tempted to look at their smart phones during the night to see how they are doing. “Apps can be very disruptive to people that are trying to fall asleep,” he says. “
Time To Screen Technology
Despite this, the habit of taking smart phones, and other screens such as lap-tops, tablets and TV’s into the bedroom is on the rise.
In 2013 the National Sleep Foundation in the U.S. commissioned a survey of 1,500 randomly selected adults in six countries (The U.S., Canada, Mexico, Germany, Britain and Japan) in order to understand the effects of bedroom environment on sleep.
The results, which were published last September, found that more than fifty per cent of respondents in the U.S., Canada and Britain, and two-thirds in Japan, used a computer, laptop or tablet in the hour before bed. In addition to this, at least two-thirds of all respondents watched TV in the hour before going to bed.
What is the impact of all this screen time on sleep? According to Dr Sarah Loughran from the Australian Centre for Electromagnetic Bioeffects Research, screen time has several negative effects on sleep.
One important factor is the light emitted from the screens of devices such as smart phones and tablets. Dr Loughran notes that certain types of light can disrupt and suppress the release of sleep hormones such as melatonin. This is important to note because melatonin plays a vital role in the regulation of our sleep-wake cycles and the bodies 24-hour circadian rhythm.
But technology is causing disruption in other ways too. For example the time that is spent using technology before going to bed. “Using technology before bed can lead to delayed bed times and therefore there is less time available for sleep,” says Dr Loughran.
In addition to this, watching TV, checking email or even scrolling through social media can excite or stimulate the brain. “This results in the release of hormones such as adrenalin, which are not conducive to sleep and may make it more difficult to fall asleep,” Dr Loughran explains.
Taking technology into the bedroom not only impacts a person’s ability to fall asleep at bedtime, it can also be disruptive during the night. While checking email in the middle of the night used to be a trait associated with workaholics, these days with the prevalence of smart phones and other portable devices, checking email during the night is surprisingly common.A 2012 U.S. study commissioned by Lookout found that of those that take their smart phones into the bedroom, a whopping 54% check their phones if they wake in the middle of the night.
40-year-old Vanessa Beattie admits to using her smart phone if she wakes during the night. “[When I wake in the night] the first thing I do is check my phone for the time. Then I go to the loo, and then I come back to my phone to check emails and Facebook.
“I have friends in the UK so there is always something going on in my Facebook feed no matter the time of day,” she says.
Beattie realises that it is a “bad habit” but the urge to check her phone overrides her desire to go back to sleep.
For sleep specialists such as Dr Sarah Loughran this is a worrying trend. While technology might play a role in helping us sleep, it also has numerous negative effects on both the quantity and quality of the sleep we are getting.
“I think technology has the potential to have large and detrimental impacts on sleep and wellbeing,” she says. “It is an issue that we all need to address, and soon.”