The science of sleep

I don’t know about you but I’m often plagued by difficulty falling asleep, and staying asleep. It’s been especially problematic since owning my own business, and reaching middle age has certainly acerbated it further. I’ve been considering getting one of the several fitness bracelets which monitor sleep as well as food and fitness activities. This article was really helpful for me; hopefully, it will be for you, too.

Spend a little time perusing the wares of the App Store or Google Play and you’re sure to find your eyes drawn to the myriad wonders of the health and lifestyle sections, where all manner of miraculous personal transformations and rejuvenations are promised by some very sophisticated-looking ‘brain science’ apps. One recurring focus in this category, among others, is apps dedicated to solving sleeping difficulties and insomnia.

And we ought to know. After all, we recently brought you a roundup of some of the more popular snooze-assisting apps available (see TechLife magazine February issue, page 34), which utilize a number of methods to help people get to sleep: sound effects apps that play soothing audio or ‘binaural’ beats to help induce sleep; meditative music apps; Yoga trainers; sleep, activity and dream trackers; power-nap helpers and so on.

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There’s a host of ‘binaural beats’ apps available to help you get to sleep, but do they really do what they claim?

But while these kinds of programs are certainly fun to play with, and definitely worth a shot if you’re having difficulty dropping off, it’s also important to understand that sleep is an incredibly complex part of our lives — a major chunk of our existence, in reality — and there’s no ‘silver bullet’ app for controlling, triggering, regulating or manipulating it.

That’s the message from Dr Dev Banerjee, medical director and sleep expert with the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research.

“Regarding sleep apps, like the beats apps,” Dr Banerjee says, “They are a way of distracting the racing mind. A common cause of difficulty in initiating sleep is due to inability to relax and switch off. [Binaural beats apps] are not hypnotic as such, like sleeping medications, and therefore cannot in my opinion technically alone induce sleep. But in some patients they may be a useful aid to focus away from a busy day and switch off by listening to monotonous sounds. They are akin to relaxation tapes, that is, part of psychological self-hypnosis therapy.”

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Dr Dev Banerjee of the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research.

Meanwhile, sleep-tracker apps — which monitor your sleeping patterns and purport to provide an assessment of the quality of sleep you get each night — can be useful as a guide, but Dr Banerjee cautions not to expect too much from the level of analysis provided.

“The smartphone senses movements by means of accelerometer techniques, ie. any movements will register as a ‘blip’ on the data collection. The overall overnight data will therefore show a bar chart type of picture, where bars on the summary chart indicate movement.

“They are useful as an indirect measure of sleep, on the assumption that sleep equates to low activity/movement, and awake is equivalent to movement artefact on the data page. They will give an indirect measure of time in bed spent asleep, ie. sleep efficiency. They will not indicate whether the sleep is deep sleep, light sleep or dream sleep. Only electrical leads attached to the scalp measuring electrical activity of the brain [Electroencephalography, or ‘EEG’] — can determine this.”

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Sleep-tracking apps are useful as a guide to your body movement during the night, but they can’t truly offer an accurate assessment of the quality of your sleep.

In light of the above, the more ambitious claims made by some ‘lucid dream’ apps (like Adam Siton’s DreamZ, for example), which promise to help you control and enhance your dreams, should be taken with a grain of salt.

“Dreams occur in a sleep phase called ‘rapid eye movement’ sleep. The times and lengths of REM sleep are determined biologically by the cycling of different sleep phases. In other words, when we go to sleep, we go into non-REM sleep, and when the brain cycles into REM sleep, will do so when the brain is ready. There is no evidence that apps can regulate dream sleep, particularly frequency or length or content whilst one is asleep. The mechanism of this app is unclear.

“When we go into sleep, there is a tendency for imagery formation, but this is not related to dream sleep of REM sleep. The images are very uni-dimensional, abstract and short-lived, and may not be like REM sleep, which is purposeful and story-like in many cases. It may be that the individual listens to the audio, and this is at the same time as falling asleep, which may alter their experience of the imagery formation, as the individual is half-asleep and half-awake, and therefore will have some conscious awareness before heading into deeper non-REM sleep. However, there is no evidence that this app in my opinion increases content or quality of sleep, once asleep.”

At the end of the day, sleep apps won’t hurt you, Dr Banerjee says, but they should be viewed more as relaxation aids rather than fail-proof cure-alls for any serious sleeping issues you may suffer.

“It is important that apps do not claim to provide outcomes that are not clinically and scientifically proven. There is a market as a relaxation tool, as music or monotonous sounds. There is a big market of self-hypnosis tapes, for example. To prove apps are a cure for insomnia needs to be tried and tested in clinical trials. For many such gadgets, there is a strong placebo effect as well. At the end of the day, it’s a bit of fun, and for many who suffer from sleep issues, there’s no harm in trying if they are prepared to make a loss if the app does not work. If individuals are struggling with their sleep, the best advice is to seek assistance from a sleep clinic.”