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Count your z’s to better sleep

Sleep may be the single most important factor of health – and one of the least understood. Without rejuvenating sleep, we cannot effectively think, act, or fight diseases. Short or poor quality sleep is linked to obesity, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. Up to 90% of adults with depression have trouble with sleep. Yet we rarely give sleep any attention beyond new bedding, alarm clocks, and sleeping pills. Surprisingly, our iPhones may be coming to the rescue.

Tracking sleep cycles on the iPhone

I have recently been testing the iPhone/iPad app called Sleep Cycle, a clever measuring tool for charting your deep or shallow sleep throughout the night. Even better, this little gem wakes us up gently when our cycle returns to lighter sleep – no more blaring alarms that shock us from a deep slumber. By placing the phone under the top sheet near your pillow, it records subtle movements and graphs your sleep cycle by morning. The calculations claim to filter out the more distant movements of your partner. So far, I’m impressed with the results.

This sample graph shows a “normal” night without fits of insomnia or trips to the bathroom. As the manufacturer notes, the first cycle of deep sleep is the most intense, with subsequent phases increasingly less intense. In order to make sense of this, let’s go over some sleep cycle basics.

Sleep cycles 101

It is normal to have 3-5 sleep cycles per night, and one normal cycle includes these stages:

  • Stage 1 – drifting off, easily awakened
  • Stage 2 – eye movements stop
  • Stage 3 + 4 –  slow wave sleep (SWS) or deep sleep, decreases in adolescence and third decade followed by progressive decline*, decreases in depression and with alcohol consumption
  • REM (rapid eye movement) – dreams and processing of emotional experiences, more rapid breathing, eye movements, rising blood pressure, possible difficulty regulating body temperature, increased “density” with depression and aging

The deep sleep phase is a critical part of the rejuvenation process. During this phase, the body regenerates muscles and tissues, grows bone, and revives immunity. We cannot be easily awakened in this phase, and there is very little muscle activity. Deep sleep is harder to get as we age.

REM sleep is what we experience when dreaming, and it appears to stimulate parts of the brain used in learning. Scientists believe our dreams are stories we create to connect the fragments of brain activity that occur during this phase. The timing and duration of REM sleep appears closely tied to the previous deep sleep phase, and disruptions can result in depression or bipolar behavior in some individuals. The exact nature of these disruptions is still being studied as an underlying cause of many psychological disorders. In fact, new research supports the idea that popular psychiatric drug lithium works in part by reducing the REM phase and affecting related body functions.

So how can we affect our sleep cycles?

We all know the basic rules about getting consistent sleep, avoiding late night lights or screen activity, and eliminating light and noise distractions in our bedrooms. The University of Maryland Medical Center offers a few more tips for good sleep hygiene. But what if we still have trouble…what else can we do to drift off into a night of bliss?

New directions in controlling sleep

A very exciting study showed that carefully applied slow wave (deep sleep) deprivation actually improved major depression symptoms in subjects. Sounds were played while patients were experiencing deep sleep – softly enough to prevent waking while also preventing deep sleep. This deprivation also increased REM sleep. The following days were most revealing, as patients experienced recovery or rebound sleep with increased slow wave sleep. Rebound sleep is our natural response to sleep deprivation, though studies on animals imply that we’re unable to fully recover. Gene expression is altered with sleep deprivation, affecting our inflammation response, metabolism, circadian rhythms, and much more. Aging may also blunt our recovery.

Until we have established new methods of altering sleep, most of us can start by figuring out our sleep cycles with iPhone apps like Sleep Cycle. A product called LARK offers a silent vibrating alarm and sleep coaching advice. However, the LARK iPhone/iPad app works only with the LARK wristband that starts at $99. The monitoring system is numerical rather than graphical, and the customer ratings are far less than Sleep Cycle.

An innovative company called Zeo sells a variety of sleep performance products that assist with sleep and sleep monitoring. Their $99 Zeo Sleep Manager links a headband sensor to an iPhone app with gentle waking similar to Sleep Cycle. There are no reviews for the app, but it appears to present both numerical and graphical sleep cycle information with some useful comparisons to lifestyle factors like caffeine.

Ultimately, we will benefit immensely from a thorough awareness of our sleep cycles and how we can control them to feel pleasant, refreshed and alert throughout the day. We glimpsing this dawning revolution in personal digitized health, often termed Quantified Self. People are starting to work together in online communities to gather, share, and analyze their health data faster than brick-and-mortar laboratories can set up their microscopes.

I have only one question as we approach a new era in health and sleep science…what is it going to take to pull me away from my glowing WordPress document at 11:30 at night?

1 comment to Count your z’s to better sleep

  • Aria

    The sleep cycle app in my opinion may be the single best app ever invented! It has greatly improved my life, and has allowed me to do more with less sleep. There were times where I’d sleep 11-12 hrs. and still feel exhausted…I’ve started noticing my sleep quality is poorer the nights I sleep longer! Another really important thing to note is to put your phone on airplane mode when you start the app…the radiation from cell signals really interferes with sleep and can promote the growth of tumors. Another affector of sleep and melatonin is the presence of microwave signals from smart meters. I have to sleep on the opposite side of my house away from the meters or I don’t get much if any deep sleep.

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