Does technology help or hinder sleep?

Our resident sleep expert, Christabel Majendie, bucks the trend and looks at the ways technology can have a positive effect on sleep.

In the world of sleep, gadgets have had a lot of bad press. Most people are aware of the negative impact of their phones, ipads and other electronic gadgets on their sleep. Not only do these devices emit blue light which can interfere with the production of melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep, but the use of technology before bed leads to ‘cognitive stimulation.’  Emails, surfing the Web and video games, will increase electrical activity in the brain as neurons fire and this is not conducive to falling off to sleep. In addition, activities such as responding to an email or playing a computer game can lead to a stress reaction. This can trigger the fight or flight response, releasing stress hormones such as cortisol or adrenaline, making it less likely you will drop off to sleep.

From a psychological perspective, working on a computer or sending emails late into the evening can draw your attention to things you need to do and concerns about work. Then when it comes to bedtime and sleep, you may find you can’t stop thinking about these things. This will lead to negative feelings such as anxiety and frustration making you less likely to drop off to sleep.

So the take home message seems to be turn off the gadgets as part of your wind down before bedtime and avoid technology in the bedroom.

But can gadgets be of any use if you can’t sleep?

Sleep- related devices are becoming more and more common as the technology world attempts to cash-in on the public interest in sleep. Some of these gadgets may be helpful in promoting sleep.

The Dreampad

Soothing music that you find relaxing is a great way to wind down before bed.  But a device called the Dreampad takes this further by converting electrical signals of music into vibrations and uses the natural conductivity of human bones to carry these vibrations to the inner ear.  This area plays an essential role in hearing but also in our ability to filter out unwanted noise. Furthermore, it is connected to the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) which is involved in the relaxation response.  Stimulation of this area can therefore aid sleep. This device was initially developed for children experiencing anxiety and sleep problems but has been refined for adults.

White noise machines

If you live in a city, urban noise can be disruptive to your sleep.  Noisy neighbours, car horns, sirens, alarms, these can all interrupt your sleep or stop you getting to sleep. If this is a problem for you, a white noise machine or app could be the answer. There are several different ones available with a number of different sounds from waves to rain or just plain, static, white noise. The idea is that the sound is repetitive and unthreatening. You can set the noise to fade out after a certain period of time so it’s not on all night.

Sleep monitors

Sleep monitors can be as simple as a wristband that tells you how long you’ve slept to apps or devices that track your breathing rate, heart rate and report when you were in your deepest sleep. However, before investing in one of these, it’s worth asking yourself why you want this information: if you constantly wake up feeling groggy and unrefreshed, a sleep monitor may help you work out the best time to wake up so you aren’t interrupting your deep sleep.  However, over monitoring your sleep could make you anxious which is counterproductive as this may keep you awake.

Smart alarm clocks

Setting a consistent bedtime and rise time is considered good sleep hygiene, but clock watching at night can disrupt your sleep.  The answer is a smart alarm clock. Some come with the clock face hidden to discourage clock watching. Others wake you with natural sounds such as bird song or gradually light up to simulate the sunrise, thereby working in line with your natural production of the sleep hormone melatonin. This is a gentler way to wake up compared to an abrupt noise or light. Another great feature of some smart alarm clocks is to monitor your movement in bed to wake you when you are not in a deep sleep. Some clocks can also be set to remind you when to wind down before bed, producing a fading light like the sun setting and can play nature sounds or white noise to relax you before bed.

Devices to help with a racing mind

If you find yourself thinking about your to do list in bed, you can speak to the Resmed S+ which will record what you say to be dealt with the next day. This device also acts as a smart alarm clock with light and white noise features and a sleep monitor incorporating a feature telling you how light, noise and temperature may be affecting your sleep.

Aroma devices

Some evidence shows certain aromas such as lavender can help you to relax and fall asleep. Although the reason for this is not entirely understood, it is thought that lavender may act as a relaxant before sleep. Scentee is a device which you attach to your Smartphone then you can set an app to release an aroma before bedtime.

Night lights

These can be useful if you are frequently woken in the night by children being scared of the dark or needing to be taken to the bathroom. The Boon Glo Nightlight, available from Amazon, has removable, illuminated balls which can be detached and taken to the bathroom for that night-time visit.

Relaxation and mindfulness apps

There are a number of apps out there to help you relax. These include relaxing nature sounds, breathing exercises, and meditation and mindfulness apps such as Headspace. There is evidence to show that relaxation exercises and mindfulness techniques used before bed can help with sleep problems. Other relaxation exercises include progressive muscle relaxation involving tensing and relaxing different muscle groups throughout the body. For guided sessions on this technique, check out YouTube or iTunes. 

So gadgets or no gadgets before bed?

While some of these devices may be helpful in promoting sleep, their effectiveness is no better than practising good sleep hygiene and sleep awareness. Reliance on sleep aids may reduce your confidence in your natural ability to sleep. Sometimes, the simplest methods work best, such as setting a consistent bedtime and rise time, relaxing before bed and investing in a good mattress.

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