Are you getting enough sleep? There’s more at stake than simply feeling sleepy and finding an extra cup of coffee!
The many research studies conducted in the field of sleep medicine have shown that if you get less than 7 or 8 hours of sleep nightly, you are risking:
- Heart disease
- Compromised immune system
- Lower pain threshold
- Greater risk of injury
- Difficulty controlling your weight
- Difficulty thinking clearly
- Poor memory
- … and other health maladies!
And how about the quality of your sleep? Spending 8 or 9 hours in bed doesn’t guarantee that you’re getting the high-quality sleep sleep you need — especially if you spend your time in bed time tossing and turning and snoring and generally thrashing around uncomfortably.
In fact, if you snore or stop breathing while sleeping (i.e., if you suffer from “sleep apnea”) you could easily develop a life-threatening condition!
So How Can You Measure the Quality of Your Sleep?
Like any serious health problem, poor quality sleep should be properly diagnosed by specialists. And as I learned during several engagements as a training/PM consultant working with Respironics (manufacturers of sleep therapy equipment), accurately diagnosing sleep disorders can be extremely complicated. So if you or someone you love is showing signs of obstructive sleep apnea or loud snoring, you should seek immediate medical attention and consider gettting a professional sleep study in a well-equipped sleep lab.
You can learn more about the field of sleep medicine and its professionals such as respiratory therapists, sleep technicians, sleep medicine physicians, etc. at these websites: Sleep medicine (Wikipedia) & WebMD’s Sleep Disorders Health Center.
Do-It-Yourself Sleep Analyses
Now if you’re fairly sure you don’t have sleep apnea (i.e., if you never stop breathing while you are sleeping) or if you don’t suffer from severe snoring, you might still want to tweak the quality of your sleep so you can reap the benefits of a good night’s rest. Here are two different approaches to “do-it-yourself” sleep analyses you should consider:
1. Track your sleep using a fitness band & sleep tracker, then analyze your results.
Fitness bands, like the UP by Jawbone and the Fitbit, as well as many smart watches and other sensing devices, can help you gather information about your sleep so you can figure out how to improve your sleep quality. These devices are equipped with sophisticated sensors that track and record your movements while you sleep. The data gathered is then sent to an app on your smartphone or tablet and presented as charts & graphs.
Below are a two examples of the kinds of charts that I create by using my Jawbone UP band and the UP app. The first chart is a “before” image that illustrates some recurring problems I was having with my sleep. The second chart is the “after” image that shows how I was able to improve my sleep by taking some simple, sleep-promoting actions.
As the chart above shows, though I was in bed for over 8 hours one night, I only slept for a little over 6 hours! When you add it all up, I was awake for over 2 hours in the middle of the night!! (Dark blue bars = sound or deep sleep; light blue bars = light sleep; yellow/orange bars = awake)
By experimenting with different sleep-enhancing strategies (more on these below) and by making changes to my waking and pre-sleep activities, I was able to substantially improve on this. Soon I was able to produce sleep graph results that look like the one below:
As you can see, this chart shows no evidence of interrupted sleep for most of the night. Instead, I got a restful night of sleep that was just under my target of 7 hours. The bars show the normal, healthy alternating deep sleep (sometimes referred to as “sound” sleep) versus light sleep states throughout the night. Needless to say, this night’s sleep was much more refreshing than the one shown in the preceding graph. My goal, which I seem to be achieving so far, is to continue to pile up good nights of sleep — and ultimately better health — by using these tools and the info they help me gather.
2. Use a free app & your smartphone or tablet to “watch & listen” to yourself while you sleep, then analyze the results. (No new equipment needed!)
Here’s some good news: You don’t need to buy a separate fitness band to track & record your sleep! Many smart phones and tablets already have the necessary sensors in them to allow some free apps to capture data about your sleep quality. When you sleep with your phone or tablet beside your pillow on your mattress, these apps can record details of your night’s sleep and produce charts and graphs similar to those shown above. In fact, some of these apps take advantage of your phone’s or tablet’s microphone to capture any snoring or night vocalizing you might be doing!
Before I purchased my Jawbone UP band, I spent a couple of weeks sleeping with my giant 12.2 Samsung tablet beside me near my pillow while it was running the free SleepBot app. It produced charts like the ones above, as well as a “smart alarm” that woke me gently at the least-jarring time in my sleep cycle. And while I didn’t capture myself snoring, I did record some creepy night vocalizing I was doing during my dreams!
Based on my experience using it with my tablet, I can confidently recommend the free SleepBot app — especially if you are going to use it with a typical-sized smartphone (Android or Apple). Since the app requires that your device come in contact with your mattress to record vibrations and movements, I found that my big ol’ tablet just took up too much space in bed! (Worse… I almost rolled over on it a couple of times and risked crunching it! Yikes!) But your phone will likely have plenty of room beside your pillow.
How to Improve the Quality of Your Sleep
If you’ve gone through a serious medical analysis of your sleep difficulties (ie., hospital or sleep lab “sleep study” with brain wave sensors, oxygen sensors, movement sensors, medical technician monitoring, etc.), then you should follow the recommendations of the sleep specialists who conducted the analysis. Remember: Ignoring your sleep apnea or snoring could ultimately kill you! So follow your doctor’s advice and use all prescribed devices and medications.
However, if your sleep difficulties are less serious and you have undertaken your own, “do-it-yourself” sleep analyses as described above, then there are many things you can do to improve your sleep quality. Your specific strategies will depend on your lifestyle and your behavior patterns that are contributing to your poor quality sleep.
For example, here’s a specific list of all the changes that have improved my sleep quality and produced the “after” chart shown above:
- No caffeine after mid-afternoon. — Otherwise, I have trouble falling asleep & staying asleep!
- Maintain a regular bedtime. — I did the math! If I gotta get up at a regular time and I want at least 7 hours of sleep (my target), then I have to go to bed regularly, 7 1/2 or 8 hours before the wake up time! (Duh!)
- Stop drinking anything an hour before bedtime. — This was a big one! By cutting off the drinking of any liquid (Yes… even water) an hour before bed, I was able to empty my bladder before bed, instead of having it wake me up sometime in the middle of the night! (TMI? Well, you older guys know what I’m talking about! Trust me… this will help you stay asleep longer!)
- Take the pain meds, cold meds, sinus clearing meds, etc. well BEFORE bedtime, so they’ll be working when it’s time for you to go to sleep … and stay asleep.
- No social media within 1/2 hr of bedtime. — This is simple: You can’t let an on-line argument with your crazy uncle or an anxiety- or envy-producing session with someone know get you all churned up right before bed.
- No political or “really interesting” or action-oriented books or media before bed. — Ask yourself: “Does it make sense to get intellectually or politically stimulated and then try to fall asleep?” Of course not! So I don’t.
- Read something boring or peaceful at bedtime... or better yet, have your tablet/smart phone read it to you! — Free classic ebooks are available for downloading from many sites and your local library. And you can have some apps “read aloud” to you while you fall asleep! This “read aloud” method is a sure-fire way I fall asleep. I just sit back, close my eyes and about 20 minutes of listening to Ivona Voice read me my “bedtime stories,” I’m yawning and ready to peacefully fall into bed!
- Meditate before bed and/or listen to pleasant sounds that help induce sleep. — For more on meditation, see my Beginner’s Guide to Meditation: Part 1, Jon Kabat Zinn & Mindfulness & Meditation Fact Sheet: Scientifically Proven Benefits & a Who’s Who of Famous Meditators. And for a great collection of customizable, pleasant sounds, Android users should check out the Relax & Sleep app from the Google Play store which will allow you to create your own sleep-inducing sound track. (I listen to a waterfall mixed with crickets or a crackling campfire to help me fall asleep.) If you’re in the Apple world, you’ll find TaoMix and many similar apps are available for your iPhone or iPad.
Now, more than ever, there is NO EXCUSE for suffering with poor quality sleep! The field of sleep medicine stands ready to scientifically diagnose your sleep problem, free apps are available to help you perform a “do-it yourself” diagnosis, and there is a HUGE body of knowledge compiled by the field of sleep medicine that will help you treat your sleep problems. In short, lots of help is available!
So what are you waiting for? Take charge of your sleep and live a longer, healthier life!!
For more info on “best practices” for getting a good night’s sleep, check out these articles and websites:
- Mayo Clinic’s “Sleep tips: 7 steps to better sleep”
- Harvard Medical School’s “Getting the Sleep You Need”
- Prevention Magazine’s “20 Ways To Sleep Better Every Night”
- BBC Guide to Sleep (from The Best Free Training)