Over the past few years, the importance of sleep has become a hot topic of conversation amongst everyone from the scientific community, which has revealed links between a lack of sleep and a range of physical and mental illnesses, through to celebs and entrepreneurs, who swear by the power of snooze to reach their peak performance.
Given this growing focus on getting more sleep, it’s no surprise that tech brands are bolstering their efforts in a bid to solve our sleep-related sorrows for good – whether that's via sleep lamps or apps full of sleep data. Sleep is one of the biggest buzzwords in tech right now. But we know what you’re thinking. Don’t experts always talk about the fact that we have too much technology, and that’s what's causing us to get less sleep?
In fact, if tech is used in the right way, it can actually help you to get to sleep, build unshakable night time routines and keep you asleep past when you’d usually wake up, proving to be a useful addition to your smart home rather than just cluttering up our bedside tables and our overactive, sleep-deprived minds.
The importance of routine
For many of us, getting more sleep is up there with eating healthily, hitting the gym three times a week and meditating daily. It’s something we’d love to do, make positive steps to implement and then inevitably fail at a day or a week or a month into the new regime.
Many experts believe that this is where behaviour change fails, and that changing habits and behaviours for good is all about consistency. We spoke to Dr Natasha Bijlani, a consultant psychiatrist at Priory Hospital, Roehampton, who explained: “Sleep has an important restorative function in ‘recharging’ the brain at the end of each day. Maintaining a regular sleep-wake cycle allows the natural rhythm of the body to be reset every day, which optimises brain functioning.
“You can establish a regular sleep-wake cycle by trying to sleep and wake at regular times consistently,” she told us. This makes sense. We all operate according to a circadian rhythm (also referred to as a sleep/wake cycle), which lasts for roughly 24 hours and dictates the pace for how our minds and bodies work throughout the day, including things such as when we feel hungry or energetic or tired.
Your body ticks around this clock every day, so the more you can keep it consistent, the better you’re likely to feel. The more it’s disrupted, whether that's by travel or illness or simply waking or sleeping at random times, the more your internal clock will get confused and you will feel tired at the wrong time, lack energy at the wrong time and you might even get unwell.
Sticking to better patterns when it comes to going to sleep depends on a huge range of factors. Some people swear by a ‘bedtime alarm’ to ensure they get to bed on time, but for many cultivating the best conditions for sleep is most likely to help.
Step one: Wind down
When we asked Dr Bijlani what was the first thing we should do to wind down before bed, she told us it’s all about engaging with what our senses need: “Ensure you have a comfortable bed and bedroom. Light and temperature should all be tailored to your preferences."
Luckily there’s plenty of tech at hand to do that. We’ve written about the hidden superpowers of smart lights before, exploring how different colours and brightness can impact everything from our productivity and mood to, you guessed it, our sleepiness.
There’s some debate among those who study sleep science as to which kind of lights are the best for sending us off to sleep. But most experts tend to agree that the warmer the light, the better. Harvard Health explored why this might be the case, finding that cooler, bluer lights are more disruptive to our sleep/wake cycle, meaning by exposing yourself to too much blue-based light you’re effectively messing up your circadian rhythm and fooling your body into thinking it’s day time. When that’s the last thing it needs.
"Dark red light sends off wavelengths that release the sleep hormone, melatonin, in the body,” David Huang, CEO and chief sleep officer of Sleepace tells us. “Melatonin is a hormone secreted by the pineal gland in the brain and it helps to maintain the body's circadian rhythm. It enables people to wake up feeling happy, more refreshed and ready for the day."
The answer to warmer light is twofold. “The first step is to avoid electronic devices at night, the bright light can be over-stimulating for those who are sensitive,” Dr Bijlani told us. This is one area where voice-activated devices like smart speakers can help – instead of opening up an app's screen to Google something or control your connected kit, you can talk to a voice assistant like Alexa or Google Assistant, cutting down on screen time.
There are also plenty of devices on the market that can allow you to bathe your bedroom in a warmer glow. You could try a smart lamp that’s designed to simulate the effect of a sunset, like the Philips Sleep and Wake-Up Light or the Lumie Bodyclock Luxe 700. Or you could just use a set of coloured Philips Hue bulbs to experiment with colours and put them in the lamps and lighting fixtures you already have.
All the three main smart home ecosystems – Alexa, Google Assistant and Apple HomeKit – now support bedtime routines which you can set up with specific colours, warmth and brightness of lights in specific rooms such as the lounge or bedroom. A voice command like the default "Alexa, bedtime" can trigger an Alexa Routine that handles not just lights but also temperature (via a smart thermostat), ambient sounds/music/podcasts and any other devices connected via a smart plug. If you’re smart about it you could also use this as a ‘bedtime alarm’, to remind you and your family to get to sleep – the command becomes the habit.
Anyone who’s ever tried to get to sleep in a hot, stuffy room will know that temperature is just as important as light when it comes to restful sleep. Luckily, customising the air quality of your home, whether that means changing the temperature or ridding it of allergens, is an aspect of the smart home that’s currently booming.
A number of companies, from big brands to smaller startups, are creating devices designed to monitor, purify and change the temperature of air. We’ve collected together a list of the best air quality purifiers and monitors, but the Dyson Pure Cool is a firm favourite for creating optimal temperatures for sleep and ensuring the air feels fresh and clean.
There are also a number of smart home systems created to keep tabs on everything that might affect sleep, from temperature and humidity to environmental noise, like the Netatmo Healthy Home Coach. Again, compatibility dependent, air quality and heating/cooling devices like these should be added to the routines for the main ecosystems.
Step two: Learn to breathe
Let’s imagine you’ve created a sleepy serene haven, but for many the battle of getting to sleep has just begun. One solution that a number of tech companies are currently exploring is dreaming up ways to allow us to better control our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), which is the part of our nervous system responsible for functions like digestion, heartbeat and breathing.
The sympathetic nervous system is essentially a defense mechanism that allows us to choose fight or flight when we’re in danger. As you can imagine, that’s not conducive to good sleep. To relax, our bodies need to engage our parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes rest, lower blood pressure and the chance to repair and restore ourselves. A 2001 study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania found that an imbalance of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) can be one of the leading causes of insomnia and disrupts circadian rhythms, while a 2011 study found that “whereas normal sleepers follow the expected progressive autonomic drop, constant sympathetic hyperactivation is detected in insomniacs.”
All the evidence points to the importance of activating the parasympathetic nervous system if you want to sleep, and there are a number of ways to do that – the main one being by calming your breathing. Of course you don’t need tech to do that, but that hasn’t stopped a number of companies from trying to create the ultimate sleep solution in this space. For example, Dodow is a small device that shines a light on the ceiling while you sleep, which you match your breathing to. The idea is that as you breathe more deeply, you push your ANS into a parasympathetic state.
Similarly, the Somnox pillow made headlines for being “the world’s first sleep robot”, but this actually uses a similar method to Dodow. The difference is that here you hug the pillow to calm your breathing rather than rely on a light.
Step three: Get to sleep and stay asleep
Getting to sleep is a very personal thing. Some people prefer complete silence and a cold bedroom, others like to be warm and cosy and put on some music. Increasingly, people are turning to sounds to help them sleep. But why does white noise (or brown or pink noise) help some of us to doze off?
White noise is noise that comes out evenly across all hearable frequencies. That means it often has a masking effect, so you’re less likely to be disturbed by other sounds, which can disturb you because they’re such a change from silence to noise.
Instead, white noise drowns that out and effectively decreases your sensitivity to other sounds. This has been tested in a number of environments and research shows that it's particularly effective in helping children nod off. A 1990 study found that “when exposed to white noise, the likelihood of a baby falling asleep is increased almost threefold (25% to 80%)". A later 2001 study found that regular bedtime routines and white noise was a winning combination for children with serious sleep problems.
What’s more, the benefits of white noise could actually make changes in the way your brain works. Researchers have been particularly interested in pink noise recently, which is similar to white noise but comes out louder and more powerful at lower frequencies. A Northwestern Medicine study found that pink noise sound stimulation significantly enhanced deep sleep in older adults and improved their ability to recall words. Senior author Dr. Phyllis Zee, professor of neurology at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine told Northwestern Now: “This is an innovative, simple and safe non-medication approach that may help improve brain health […] This is a potential tool for enhancing memory in older populations and attenuating normal age-related memory decline.”
So ‘colourful’ noise might improve your sleep, but how do you get hold of it? Luckily, YouTube is full of videos with different kinds of noise, but Noisli is an app that’s a great place to start. It allows you to use little sliders to enhance certain noises, letting you customise the right kinds of sounds and frequencies for you.
If you love white noise (or any other colour) it might be worth investing in a lamp that emits it, or even a white noise machine. The Deep Sleep White Noise Machine from HoMedics is one of the best on the market, but you can also use a regular smart speaker like Amazon Echo and play an app like Noisli through it.
Both Alexa and Google Assistant offer pretty comprehensive bedtime options and the Echo Spot is designed to sit on your bedside table as a smart alarm clock while offering all the same functionality as the non-screened speakers.
If you have Alexa, you can use commands like "Alexa, play sleep sounds/ambient sounds/bedtime sounds" or "Alexa, turn the music off in 20 minutes" for a sleep timer – ditto for audiobooks, podcasts and radio. All easy, hands free versions of strategies you may already employ. Likewise Google Assistant responds to similar commands like "Hey Google, play ambient noise/help me relax" and "Hey Google, stop in 20 minutes".
One step at a time
The pressure of adjusting your body to a solid, effective night time routine can be enough to keep you awake at night in itself. The bottom line is that you don’t actually need any tech – buy it could just lend a helping hand if you’re struggling to get to bed, to rest and to stay asleep.