The latest technology in the world is optimising manufacturing, human work productivity, social productivity and even helping keep us alive longer so we can pack more into the fleeting moment we each have as we balance precariously on our mortal coil. There is of course a strong argument that all of these tech-powered time efficiencies ironically result in us having less time. As such, it would seem that perhaps tech has a responsibility to start helping provide additional efficiencies in an area that is one of the few that remains completely untouched by digital disruption – sleep.
Those of a certain age can often be heard to grumble about how our increasingly digitalised and connected world can make it harder and harder to ‘disconnect’ and ‘just be’. Even younger generations weaned on smartphones, social media and digital content can feel this need. It’s the hunger behind the popular trend for ‘mindfulness’ recreational activities. Mindfulness promotes concentration on one, relaxing but absorbing activity. Or even facilitating a ‘zoning out’ of external distractions and learning to simply sit with a calm mind that is not bouncing from one fleeting thought to another like a moth trapped in a lampshade.
There is now ‘mindfulness tech’ like apps and headsets designed to help users learn to give their brains a break from, well, apps and technology hardware. Not only is digitalisation leading to us losing the habit of resting our brains for periods during the day, it is also becoming a challenge for many to do so at night. Insomnia is a growing societal plague. One of the root causes of the epidemic is thought to be bouncing from one chat or piece of content to another on smartphones, laptops and tablets meaning are brains are too tightly wound up at the end of the day to be able to easily relax into sleep. Like mindfulness tech, a new generation of sleep tech is also now arriving on the scene to help solve the problems tech is causing our sleep patterns.
Market research agency Euromonitor recently released findings that demonstrate tech-based sleep aids is among the fastest growing sectors in consumer health. The industry was worth over $2 billion in 2016 and is expected to see strong growth over coming years. But does the tech supposed to help overcome tech-influenced trouble sleeping actually work? A recent Financial Times article reviewed several sleep tech products to find out.
The first product to be trialled was a high tech alarm clock, Lumie Bodyclock’s Luxe 750D. The range of functionalities this £200 alarm clock embodies are intended to both help the user drop off to sleep as well as be woken in a more ‘natural’ way than being shocked back into consciousness by a loud beep. Sound functions that are supposed to help with dropping off include white noise, birds chirruping and the heavy rain of a storm. A ‘sunrise’ light effect gradually aluminates the bedroom in a way designed to mimic a natural sunrise – particularly useful for dark winter mornings that force us to wake in the dark. A reverse sunset function gradually reducing the light is also available but probably won’t appeal to anyone who likes to read in bed.
The FT reviewer was doubtful quite how effective the Lumie Bodyclock would prove for anyone with serious insomnia issue but gave it 4 out of 5 as a first class alarm clock.
Next up were ‘gravity blankets’ which are weighted with the idea of simulating a ‘warm embrace’. At 20kg-25kg these blankets are also designed to limit tossing and turning and their ‘cocooning’ effect has been demonstrated to offer comfort to children on the autism spectrum, the elderly or anyone else suffering from anxiety issues. A report published in the Journal of Sleep Medicine and Disorders concluded that weighted blankets can improve sleep quality but the FT reviewer wasn’t overly impressed by her trial, awarding 2 out of 5 stars.
Aromatherapy sprays applied to the pillow can loosely be termed a kind of biotech with data-based research supposedly arriving at natural scents that help with relaxation, ultimately inducing nodding off and a restful sleep thereafter. The journalist’s trials produced mixed results, leading her to the conclusion a pillow smelling of lavender and camomile is ‘nice’ and can be soothing. But can an aromatherapy spray really overcome a spell of insomnia? Not for her. 2 out of 5.
Onto more mainstream ‘tech’ involving microchips and a digital display and the next sleep tech product trialled was the ‘Sleepio’ app by Big Health. The product’s development background offers initial grounds for optimism with its creators a neuroscientist specialising in sleep and insomniac business partner. The premise of the app is that by tracking sleep patterns and the external factors around them the user will be able to pinpoint patterns and optimise the conditions that provide them with the best sleep. Periods of mindfulness, diet, exercise and even light exposure all contribute to the advice provided by Sleepio. As does techniques such as prompts to create ‘to do’ lists for the next day and lists of positives of the concluding day to reduce potential sources of anxiety.
The NHS has started offering Sleepio for free to patients in the Greater London area as trial and believes there is evidence the app can aid sleep, though the extent of its effectiveness has varied between studies. The reviewer found that for her, personally, there was a danger that using the app would cause her to obsess over sleep more, which she finds to be the biggest block to her actually achieving it. Nonetheless, 3 out of 5 stars were awarded.
The last sleep aid reviewed was a ‘cool pad’ that is placed on the main mattress. Promoted by self-help and efficiency gurus, cool mats find the ideal sleeping temperature for the user, which tends to be colder than they may naturally think. Particularly during warm summer months, cool pads can aid sleep but are probably less of a miracle sleep aid in regions where warm nights are a relative rarity. 2 out 5 stars awarded for UK use.
It looks as though the various sleep aids on the market offer benefits that vary from individual to individual. They are also an influence rather than a silver bullet to guarantee a night of blissful rest. Hopefully the next iterations of sleep tech will mean we can the effect of 7 hours of sleep in 3. Fingers crossed! Then we’ll have plenty more time for Facebook!