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Tips, technology and apps for better sleep

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Much like the food you eat, the water you drink and the air you breathe, getting adequate sleep is crucial to living a long and healthy life. However, due to the busy nature of modern life, it’s easy to miss out on the sleep you need. As a matter of fact, over one-third of working adults in the U.S. don’t sleep enough. The issue is so pervasive and severe that some experts have classified insufficient sleep as a global public health crisis.

There are many reasons for insufficient sleep, but increasing technology use is thought to be a major contributor. With access to artificial lighting and additional entertainment, it’s now easier for people to stay up later than they ever could before.

Though modern technology can be detrimental to sleep, it can also be beneficial if you have access to the right tools and know how to use them appropriately. With the help of these solutions and small shifts in your habits, you can make sure that your devices help, rather than hurt, your sleep.

How technology affects sleep

Your technology usage may affect your sleep due to the following factors:

  • Blue light: Smartphones, televisions, tablets and other devices emit blue light, an energizing type of light that interferes with your circadian rhythm. Your circadian rhythm determines when your body is ready to wake and go to sleep, relying on external stimuli to make the appropriate signal. Exposure to blue light suppresses the production of the sleep hormone melatonin. This can help you stay awake during the day, but if you use devices that emit blue light at night, it can be significantly more difficult to fall asleep.
  • Interactivity: Many devices, including smartphones, require a high level of interaction. Compared to passive technologies like television and radio, this can encourage your brain to remain awake and engaged while you continue to use your devices. Further, some kinds of interactive technology may be emotionally stimulating. For instance, you may play a video game that causes an adrenaline rush or see something on social media that is upsetting. If you have a strong emotional reaction right before bed, you may struggle to get to sleep.
  • Distractions: Similarly, using technology may be distracting and might cause you to stay up later than you should. It’s all too easy to get engrossed in an enjoyable activity, such as watching a television show or playing a game and forget about your bedtime.
  • Disruptive notifications: Between text messages and social media apps, your smartphone likely receives several different notifications. However, research suggests that leaving your notifications on at night can interrupt your sleep and have greater short- and long-term impacts on your health.

Not only do roughly 90% of surveyed Americans use technology in the hour right before going to bed, but the short- and long-term effects of poor sleep are downright dangerous. To protect your health, it’s crucial to find the appropriate balance between technology use and adequate sleep.

Smartphone settings to improve sleep

Technology doesn’t have to be detrimental to your sleep. It can even be beneficial for your overall health. You simply have to use the right devices in the right way if you want to improve the quality and duration of your sleep.

Most smartphones come equipped with a variety of health features and settings created specifically to assist users with sleep (and if your phone doesn’t have them, it’s worth investing in a newer, smarter model). Check your device to see if it has some of these common settings that can help improve your sleep:

  • Decrease blue light: Many smartphones now have built-in filters to reduce your blue light exposure. Some introduce red or orange light instead; because it does not have the same melatonin-suppressing properties as blue light, it may be a safer alternative when using your devices after dark. These filters typically operate on a schedule, activating after a certain time in the evening until a set time the following morning. If your phone does not have this feature built-in, you can download an app — such as Twilight or Iris — to achieve the same effect.
  • Dark mode: Most smartphones also have some kind of “Dark Mode” to reduce the overall brightness of your phone screen. Rather than using the default light-colored background, you can make the background dark. This may be more soothing to your eyes if you’re using your phone in the dark. By going into your settings, you can turn Dark Mode on manually or schedule it so it automatically turns on and off at specific times of the day and night. Individual apps may also offer a similar dark mode setting that you can activate as needed.
  • Mute notifications: To avoid being woken up in the middle of the night, mute your phone’s notifications. You will still receive them; your screen simply won’t light up to signal the arrival of a new notification. You can also customize notification preferences for each app on your phone.
  • Go silent: Put your phone on silent at night. Notifications will still come in and your screen will light up, but you won’t hear a beep or feel a vibration when they arrive.
  • Do not disturb: “Do Not Disturb” mode functions similarly to muting notifications, in that it will prevent any new notifications from grabbing your attention. However, you can customize the settings to allow some notifications to come through. If you worry about emergencies in the middle of the night or certain people need to be able to reach you at any time, Do Not Disturb mode may bring you more peace of mind — and therefore make it easier to sleep — than muting notifications or putting your phone on silent.
  • Monitor phone usage: Thanks to features such as Apple’s “Screen Time” and Android’s “Digital Wellbeing,” you can now track your screen time from your phone. Though they were created to help parents manage their kids’ screen time, you can use these features to improve your sleep habits. Check how much time you spend on certain apps or certain kinds of apps. From there, you can set limits to how long and when you can use these apps, creating reminders to log off or blocking you from using them altogether.
  • Use reminders: Use your phone’s notifications or alarm features to log off each night. Set recurring reminders so you know, each night, when you need to put your phone down or start getting ready for bed.
  • Turn your phone off: Finally, consider turning your phone off completely before going to bed. It’s a simple but effective way to ensure you don’t use it when you should be trying to sleep.

Simply put, mobile devices have great potential to help you mantain a healthy lifestyle — you just have to know how to use yours appropriately. These settings may help and there are additional pieces of technology designed to make your phone an even more powerful sleep tool.

Apps to help you sleep

There are countless smartphone apps created to support health and wellness — including those that may be able to help you sleep. Though each app is unique, they commonly have features that track and analyze your sleep, play soothing music or meditations or provide white noises that drown out disturbing sounds. These apps may be helpful if you have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep or you consistently wake up without feeling fully rested.

The app that works best for you will depend on the specific difficulties you’re encountering with your sleep. It may take some trial and error to determine which app is right for you. Examples of apps that aim to help you optimize your sleep include:

  • Sleep Cycle: Sleep Cycle monitors your slumber and wakes you up during your lightest sleep phase, helping you feel well-rested when you get up. You can look at your weekly sleep data and, if you upgrade to the premium version, get long-term information about the quality of your sleep. You can find Sleep Cycle on both the App Store and Google Play Store
  • Headspace: Though it is primarily a meditation app, Headspace also provides “sleepcasts” and guided mindfulness exercises to lull you to sleep. You have access to a handful of select stories and sessions with the free version, but the library grows much larger when you pay for full access. You can find more information at the Headspace website or get the app for either your iOS or Android device.
  • Slumber: Alongside guided meditations and bedtime stories, Slumber offers alternative sleep techniques, including hypnosis and autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR), so you can drift off. New stories and sounds are added each week, but you’ll have to pay to access their entire library and alternative features. You can get Slumber for your iOS devices or download the app from the Google Play Store for Android devices.
  • Pzizz: Pzizz uses “psychoacoustics,” or the psychological effects of sound, to help you fall and stay asleep. Aimed at people who experience insomnia, the free version provides limited access to their content, while the premium boasts 100 billion sound sequences for users. Pzizz is available for both iOS and Android devices.
  • Sleep Easy: Sleep Easy offers various programs and resources related to sleep issues so you can understand your sleep troubles, not just manage them. You can also track your sleep metrics and contact sleep experts directly in the app. At this time, Sleep Easy is only available for iOS.
  • Pillow: This app automatically tracks and analyzes your sleep cycle to give personalized tips and help you get the best possible sleep. You can use the app on your iPhone or pair it with your Apple Watch for maximum effect. Currently, Pillow only offers an iOS app for download.
  • Calm: Calm is another meditation app that is popularly used to help with sleep. Both the free and premium versions of the app have bedtime stories, music and guided meditations, though the library is significantly smaller with the free version. You can find the Calm app in the App Store for iOS and Google Play Store for Android.
  • Relax Melodies: With both preset and customized sleep sounds, Relax Melodies has multi-day courses and single-day programs to help you get deeper, better sleep. The premium version also offers stress-relief tips and life-coaching sessions. Visit the Relax Melodies website for more information on how to get started.
  • Noisli: Noisli allows you to create relaxing soundscapes and, thanks to its advanced timer, can even be used to help with time management and focus. You must pay for the premium version to access the timer, as well as its full library of sounds. Get Noisli for iOS or download the Noisli app for Android.
  • Moshi: Designed for children, Moshi is an illustrated digital storybook that can help your kids get to sleep. You can download stories and listen even when you don’t have Wi-Fi or a cell signal. Learn more at the Moshi website or visit the app store to download the app on your device.

Wearable sleep technology

Smartwatches, fitness trackers and other forms of wearable technology are commonly used to monitor and promote different areas of health, including sleep. With the right device, you can track how long you sleep, the quality of your sleep and the phases of sleep you go through. Some wearables can also make note of environmental and lifestyle factors and assess how those may impact your sleep.

Generally, sleep wearables work by using an accelerometer or gyroscope to detect movement. When you move, you’re considered awake and when you don’t, you’re considered asleep. Some wearables also measure your heart rate, body temperature and other factors to assess whether you’re sleeping.

While wearables won’t provide concrete data or a complete look at your sleep, they can offer better insight into what your sleep is like. If you use a sleep wearable consistently, it can help you understand general patterns in your sleep, as well as anomalies or changes that may also be significant.

With this data, you can then make decisions that improve your sleep. For instance, if you notice that you consistently do not sleep long enough to meet your goal, you can adjust your bedtime accordingly to get the recommended seven to nine hours each night. It may seem like common sense, but seeing the hard data can help drive that point home and inspire you to make lasting changes to your sleep habits.

Smart home technology for better sleep

Smart home technology has quickly become essential in many modern homes. It can simplify basic household activities — and you can even use it to improve your sleep.

Some types of smart home technology that may help you sleep include:

  • Smart lights: Use smart lights in your bedroom to maximize your sleep environment. Dimmable smart bulbs mimic the rise and fall of the sun, allowing you to fall asleep and wake up in more natural-looking light. Depending on the type of lights you find, you may even be able to control them remotely.
  • Alternative alarm clocks: If the chime of a standard alarm clock isn’t working for you, look into a less conventional clock. If you’re a heavy sleeper, there are also more involved clocks that will force you to get out of bed. Some clocks use light or scents, require you to get out of bed or make you complete a specific action to wake you up. Other clocks can wake you up more gradually if the ring of your current clock is too disruptive.
  • Smart thermostats: The temperature of your bedroom has a significant influence on the overall quality of your sleep. If it’s either too hot or too cold, you may have trouble sleeping. Easily controlled with your smartphone, a smart thermostat can make it easier to keep your home at the appropriate temperature so you can sleep comfortably through the night.
  • Virtual assistants: Use a virtual assistant — such as a smart speaker or the assistant in your smartphone — to simplify basic bedtime tasks. Using only your voice, you can put on calming music, change the lights or set an alarm. This may be especially useful if you don’t want to leave the comfort of your bed.
  • Smart bedding: You can even pick up smart bedding to make your bed more comfortable. Whether you opt for smart sheets or a smart duvet, you can use these items to control the temperature of your bed or take a few steps out of the bed-making process once you do get up.
  • Smart mattresses: Ranging from temperature control to biometric tracking, smart mattresses are loaded with useful features that can help you optimize your sleep experience. Some can even connect to other devices in your smart home to help you fall asleep and wake up seamlessly.

Similar to other pieces of technology, some of these technologies were not created specifically as a sleep aid. However, if you know what you’re looking for, you can use many of them to help you benefit from your sleep.

Try using your smart home technology in conjunction with your smartphone, sleep apps and wearables to see what combination of sleep aids works best for your needs. Think of all these items as tools in your tool chest. You can pull something new out when you need a different solution to address your sleep problems.

Additional tips, tricks and hacks for better sleep

In addition to using technology, sleep doctors at Harvard Medical School recommend you make a few small shifts to your habits and daily routine to further improve your sleep:

  • Keep a consistent sleep schedule: According to the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, you should be as consistent with your sleep schedule as possible. Go to bed and get up at the same time every day, even on the weekends. This can help reinforce your body’s circadian rhythm, making it easier to fall asleep at night and wake up in the morning.
  • Be deliberate about blue light exposure: Harvard Medical School also recommends you pay attention to your exposure to blue light. Do your best to limit your exposure at night so your body can produce natural amounts of melatonin. Conversely, increase your exposure during the day, as this may help your body “stay awake” and make it easier to wind down at night.
  • Watch what you eat and drink: According to the Sleep Foundation, your diet can also impact your ability to fall asleep. According to Johns Hopkins sleep expert Rachel E. Salas, M.D, you should avoid consuming caffeine and alcohol, particularly at night, as both can interfere with sleep. Eating large meals right before going to bed can also inhibit your ability to sleep. Similarly, don’t drink any liquids right before going to bed to reduce the chance that you’ll wake up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom.
  • Improve your bedroom: Harvard’s Division of Sleep Medicine recommends making your bedroom a sleep sanctuary. Depending on your environment, this could mean ensuring it stays dark with blackout curtains, keeping the temperature consistently cool throughout the night and upgrading your mattress so it’s more comfortable. Consider what you need to sleep well and adjust your room accordingly.
  • Exercise regularly: According to sleep researcher Shawn D Youngstedt, regular physical activity is a simple, almost surefire way to improve sleep. It’s significantly easier to fall asleep when your body feels tired. Take some time to find a routine that works for you.
  • Build a bedtime routine: The sleep doctors at Harvard assert the importance of developing a relaxing pre-bedtime routine that you can follow each night. Include calming activities, such as gentle stretching, meditation, reading a book or taking a bath. Don’t do anything that might be too exciting or invigorating and avoid using any devices that emit blue light.
  • Be careful if you wake up: According to sleep experts at Johns Hopkins Medicine, if you wake up in the middle of the night, don’t do any activities that are too stimulating or energizing. Avoid turning on the lights, getting out of bed or using your devices. However, if you can’t fall back asleep after 20 minutes, you should get out of bed and do a calming activity until you feel tired again.
  • Talk to your doctor: Finally, Harvard Medical School says you shouldn’t hesitate to talk to your doctor if you have severe or chronic sleep problems. A sleep disorder — such as insomnia, sleep apnea, parasomnia or restless leg syndrome — may be responsible for your insufficient sleep. If this is the case, your sleep may not improve without proper medical assistance.

Sleep technology is useful in and of itself, but when used in conjunction with these supplementary tips, you will be fully equipped to overcome your sleep problems and get the high-quality rest you need.