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The Sleep-Tech Boom: Can We Measure, Map, and Hack Our Way to Better Zs?

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When it comes to improving sleep, do measuring apps and biohacks help or hinder? The answer isn’t the same for everyone.

Technology can undoubtedly ruin your sleep. So, isn’t it ironic that we’ve made more and more apps and tech tools specifically to help us achieve that storied slumber?

The sleep-tech boom is the result of our obsession with self-quantification and biohacking, which theoretically allow us to measure the effectiveness of our bodies and minds day in and day out with the hope of optimizing our bodily processes. And while many people have been helped by new tools that give them insight into improving everything from metabolism to posture, sleep can be tricky.

Blue Light Blues

Let’s be fair—every person is different, and some people are genuinely helped by electronic tools that allow them to relax before bedtime and prime their bodies for optimal sleep. And we probably all have known someone who can take a shot of espresso after a late-night meal and still fall asleep the minute their head hits the pillow. But if sleep is hard for you, your body is usually telling you something about how you spend your hours leading up to bedtime.

One big culprit in the struggle for sleep is our reliance on devices. These days, roughly 30 percent of Americans say they’re “constantly online”—and one suspects the percentage may be even higher. Putting aside the stress and strife we feel after doomscrolling through the news or engaging with social media, our phones and computers can affect our sleep even when they contain nothing but good news. That’s because devices emit blue light that can interrupt our circadian rhythm.

[Read: “Better Sex, Better Sleep, Better Health: 3 Reasons to Be Mindful of Technology in the Bedroom.”]

While these blue wavelengths can be beneficial for boosting our attention during the day, we don’t want to be stimulated before we go to bed. Once the sun goes down, blue light (even that emitted from full-spectrum, energy-efficient light bulbs) can inhibit the production of melatonin, an integral component in leading us off to dreamland. And while just about any light can have a detrimental effect on your sleep, blue light is the biggest culprit. So, if you’re using sleep apps that require your visual attention to your phone and they don’t seem to be working, you might want to explore something else or invest in blue-blocking amber glasses for the evening (if, like me, you find yourself incapable of staying away from screens in the hours before bedtime).

But sleep is different for everyone. In fact, some research has shown that the visual cue of creating a dimmer, cooler lighting environment in the evening can actually make some people sleepy.

Your Gut vs. Your Tech

Let’s say you’ve found a way to cut out blue light, but you’re still not getting the sleep you need. The frustration you feel might lead you towards the self-measurement movement, even if it’s just to try and gauge how much sleep you’re missing. And it just so happens that there’s an entire industry of tools designed to help.

While wearing a watch to bed might distract some of us, many sleep-tracking apps require some sort of wearable to send signals to your phone. But it turns out at least 1 in 5 Americans routinely use wearable biometric trackers of some sort, so wearing one to bed has become more common. And if you’ve used one of these trackers, you know just how alluring that data can be. Is this true insight into our body’s deepest secrets? Is this the objective data you’ve been looking for?

What happens when you feel like you got decent sleep only to check your digital data in the morning and find that the tech measured very little quality sleep? Do you stress about it? Do you choose your own instinct over your sleep app? And more importantly, do you let the data become a hindrance to feeling refreshed during the day? I know I did.

After suffering from chronic insomnia, I tried multiple sleep trackers, some that relied on a smartwatch or ring and others that simply had me put my phone under my pillow or next to me on the bed. And very rarely did they ever match up with my expectations in the morning. When I lay awake in bed, I tended to be quite still; when I slept, I triggered the devices with minuscule movements. In the morning, I worried about what the charts told me: Why did I think I got a good night’s sleep when the chart indicated I was restless all night? Why was I still so tired and cranky when the data told me I experienced 7 hours of stillness, shallow breathing, and other signs of a good night’s rest? In my case, it just turned out that the technology was wrong when it came to my sleep habits. But it took a few months to begin to trust my gut over my tech.

In the end, it was my phone that helped me sleep—but via an app that helped me practice meditation and other breathing exercises. It was doing the inner work that mattered, something that measurement apps had thwarted by convincing me that I should rely on other data.

[Listen to: “Breath-Focused Meditation for Deep Sleep.”]

And I’m not alone in my experience. Researchers have coined the phrase orthosomnia to describe people who become obsessed with getting an ideal night’s sleep. These are people who tend to themselves as having insomnia and seek out medical treatment based on sleep-tracker data. Their perfectionist quest for the ideal sleep chart may even result in them neglecting other measurements of a good night’s rest and can even cause sleeplessness due to stress.

As you can see, there’s such a thing as taking the quantified self too far.

When Sleep Tech Works

Gadgets that measure your breathing, heart rate, and movement during the night and crunch this data to produce a sleep score can help some people identify causes of sleeplessness and daytime fatigue, but the data isn’t perfect and the scores are often “guesstimates” that require a medical professional to interpret accurately. Aiming for a sleep score of 100 percent every night isn’t realistic, especially since none of these devices measure sleep directly. Instead, they measure surrogate activities that are indicative of sleep, such as movement. That’s why my sleep chart said I got a good night’s sleep when I simply laid perfectly still staring at the ceiling all night.

It’s also worth noting that the sleep market is worth tens of billions of dollars, so convincing you that a device is “scientifically proven” (a phrase that means almost nothing without more context) is a money-making mission for some companies. It doesn’t behoove them to simply tell you what you already know—that having a good sleep hygiene routine, limiting blue light, avoiding caffeine late in the day, limiting alcohol, or practicing relaxation techniques are crucial for combating sleeplessness. And it certainly isn’t beneficial for them to admit that the only way right now to get a good measurement of sleep is to participate in medical sleep studies that measure brainwaves with clinical-grade equipment.

My Data, Myself?

As technology improves, however, we will increasingly be faced with questions about how our data defines us, especially when it comes to following the path to self-improvement. Will a smartwatch app be able to tell you who you really are or how you really feel? Should the data it spits out override your own instincts? These are valid questions that are worth debating.

Plenty of people have made their lives better by biohacking their way to a happier and healthier life or better habits. Some of them have done it through obsessive quantification. Others have taken the data in relative stride and simply let it guide them towards better long-term habits. I’d argue that the latter approach is the more helpful one since there’s nothing “official” about the graphs and charts that sleep tech produces. But if there’s anything we’ve learned over the last decade of making medicine more personalized, it’s that different things work for different people.

Before you turn in, check out our guide to better sleep.

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