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Illustration by Brian McGovern for Racked
Illustration by Brian McGovern for Racked

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Sleep Tech Might Be Messing Up the Very Thing It's Trying to Help

Remember when bedtime prep meant a little tooth brushing, some face washing, and then lights out? That routine has gotten more complicated in recent years.

Remember when bedtime prep meant a little tooth brushing, some face washing, and then lights out? That routine has gotten more complicated in recent years.

Now there's a whole lot to do before getting under the covers, like sync your Fitbit to monitor sleep patterns, activate a special alarm to wake you up at the most optimal time, and cue up your sleep lamp so you can enjoy fake sunlight in the morning.

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From the hundreds of sleep apps available in the iTunes store to the never-ending pages of sleep-related gadgets on Amazon, it's clear we're in the throes of a national obsession with sleep. What started as a market with relatively simple products like sound machines has morphed into an enormous specialized industry where technology promises to control everything from REM cycles to dream recollection to morning grogginess.

Why are we all so preoccupied with sleep (and why are we resorting to talking pillows and brainwave-reading headbands)? It's pretty simple, according to experts: People today aren't getting enough of it. Although sleeping is a basic bodily function, it's not often seen as a priority in a world where distraction and stimulation abound. Plus, the sleep we do manage to capture is often scattered and interrupted.

"We're a sleep-deprived nation. People think sleep is like recharging a battery when it's much more complicated than that," says Rubin Naiman, an Arizona-based sleep specialist. "There's a mechanical and technical manner to sleep, and people can overcome some fundamental sleep issues if technology is used in the service of nature."

"Sleep apps are a great way to form a new habit," adds Malin Eriksson of North Cube, the company behind Sleep Cycle, the App Store's most popular sleep app which monitors sleep cycles to wake up users during the lightest phase. "People like to analyze sleep patterns to improve their sleep and find certain correlations. You can take sleep notes before bed and see what the difference was, like if you had coffee or worked out or ate late."

Sleep Cycle is among the most popular sleep tracking apps. Photo: Sleep Cycle

Sleep is a $32 billion industry, according to analytics firm MS Health, and with the recent flood of expensive gadgets, bedroom aids, and more, the category saw an average yearly growth increase of 8.8 percent from 2008 to 2012. The price of luxury mattresses are steeper than ever (ones from Swedish mattress maker Hästens retail for some $31,000), and sleep specialty stores have popped up all over the country. One such chain, Got Sleep, has 10 locations in California, Washington, and Idaho, and sells everything from masks to slippers.

Sleep-related technology in particular has exploded over the years, focusing on three basic areas: recording and tracking sleep patterns through motion sensor technology (as seen in the Fitbit and smartphone apps), creating soundscapes to lure you into slumber, and optimizing bedroom light. The market is overflowing with things like the $49 Sound Oasis sleep therapy pillow, which allows you to listen to the soothing sounds of a tropical waterfall via an iPhone plugged into the pillow's port. If you prefer to wake up with the sun, a $99 halogen lamp can provide a "natural sunrise simulation."

But are apps and gadgets the answer? Since the '90s, the amount and quality of sleep the average American gets has diminished, according to Naiman; he attributes this directly to technology. In 2011, a National Sleep Foundation poll found that 63 percent of people have trouble sleeping and that 95 percent use computers, phones, and televisions before bed. It's stats like these that make sleep experts like Naiman question the success of sleep tech to begin with.

With apps, there's the issue of blue light, which is emitted by cell phones, laptops, and TVs, and has been proven to screw up your Z's. Back in 2012, the American Medical Association's Council on Science and Public Health stated that "exposure to excessive light at night, including extended use of various electronic media, can disrupt sleep or exacerbate sleep disorders." That same year, researchers from New York's Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute found that exposure to bright screens at night can reduce levels of melatonin—the hormone that regulates sleep—by 22 percent, which could very well be the reason for all that tossing and turning.

Naiman explains that the light sends signals to retinal receptors, which in turn send signals to various parts of the brain, telling the brain it's daytime: "The consequence is that it yanks us into the world of waking. We're basically electronically dosing ourselves with messages that it's day even if it's 1am, and it's a huge problem."

Sound Oasis offers a sleep therapy pillow. Photo: Sound Oasis

He also adds that gadgets which promise to monitor sleep and wake users up when they are out of the deepest parts of their cycle are "silly" because those phases occur during the first portion of the night, so the "device is doing something that's going to happen anyhow." Plus, there's the question of whether it's smart to be sleeping with a cell phone in the first place. A 2008 study published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Progress in Electromagnetics Research Symposium found that radiation from cell phones delays and reduces sleep—even though some three-quarters of people ages 18 to 44 sleep with their phones, according to a QualComm poll.

Dr. Russell Rosenberg, the founder and director of the Atlanta School of Sleep Medicine and Technology, notes that sleep tech won't do anything "magical," but can help people become more aware of their sleep issues.

"If a person has a real sleep problem, it's unlikely a gadget will resolve it, but it could lead to a better behavior," Rosenberg says. "It's not perfect, but it could motivate people to keep better sleep. I recommend them to people because it's one way to keep track of their sleep health and try to improve it."

Rosenberg also explains that most sleep specialists do not recommend sleep tech for children. Last year, Rosenberg was part of a group of professionals that ran the National Sleep Foundation's annual research project. Their analysis found that technology in the bedroom was the main reason kids don't get adequate sleep, which is essential for growth, learning, creativity, and mood. This year's "Sleep in America" poll corroborated that the duration and quality of sleep for children who have gadgets close by tend to suffer.

"The increasing prevalence of electronics in children's bedrooms creates a culture of evening engagement and light exposure that negatively impacts sleep time, sleep quality, and daytime alertness," the National Sleep Foundation's study notes. "As adults, we are subject to these influences and our children are particularly susceptible."

Naiman maintains that those looking to fix their sleeping problems should not resort to sleep tech but instead shift some fundamental habits.

"Most of these apps try to tweak our way to a healthy sleep when in fact, we need to transform our lifestyle to get sleep," he says. "It's not a simple makeover, but the most important factor in our day is the hyper-arousal and our pace. A lot of people operate in a high-frequency beta and are moving so fast, they get addicted to being at that frenetic level and this affects sleep."


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