The sleep problem: waking up to new solutions

Written by Stefanie Danhope

Technology has been pretty good to us. It keeps us warm in winter—first, with fire, and now at the touch of a button. As controversial as modern farming techniques are, famine is a thing of the past for most people in developed countries. Those same people usually have easy access to clean drinking water too. Our life expectancies have doubled in the last 150 years, because Science. But let’s face it, just because we aren’t dropping dead as quickly as we used to doesn’t mean that technology can do no wrong. Sometimes it helps us do things that aren’t great for our health or quality of life. Decreasing attention spans, physical inactivity, poor sleep, loneliness— these are just a few of the growing pains we are experiencing as technology has become more integrated in our lives. When the issue of poor sleep came up as a topic of conversation over lunch in the office, we got curious about what would make it better and started digging.

Before the Industrial Revolution, sleep occurred in parts: two 4-hour segments at night, with a period of wakefulness in between, and a siesta for good measure. Historian A. Roger Ekirch argues that the advent of lighting influenced a reduction in the overall amount of time people were willing to give to sleep, which is why we typically get all our sleep in one chunk today. In recent decades, however, that chunk has become shorter and shorter. The CDC is now calling insufficient sleep a “public health epidemic,” which seems appropriate given that getting enough sleep is essential for brain function, tissue repair and immunity. While keeping the demands of life in check are crucial to addressing this issue, there are other environmental factors that get in the way of maximizing sleep. While all artificial light suppresses melatonin production, light that looks like sunlight (what scientists call blue light or shortwave light) has the biggest impact. Studies show that exposure to this type of light could prevent sleep for up to an hour after exposure. The bad news is that it’s all over our homes. Screens of all types give off blue light: computers, tablets, mobile phones, and TVs. A few of us in the office use f.lux, an app that removes blue light from the computer display at night. Conveniently, they cover most platforms (though Android and Chromebook apps aren’t available, they can be foundelsewhere). Screens aren’t the only culprit, though. Conventional incandescent and fluorescent light bulbs also give off blue light, so people who want to remove all of the blue light from their homes might be interested in Hue by Philips, a system of full spectrum wifi enabled light bulbs which can be programed to glow warm at a certain time in the evening. Also we should mention that some doctors suggest wearing amber glasses at night, but we think that looks really dumb.

Just as the blue light keeps you up late by suppressing melatonin, being exposed to that same type of light also eases us into waking. This worked in our favor for millennia, because we came out of sleep with the rising of the sun. Unfortunately, if you don’t get much natural light where you sleep, the sunrise won’t help you wake up. More challenging still: some people wake up before sunrise. Most of us rely on a jolt from our alarm clocks to ensure we wake up in time to meet our responsibilities, which hardly as pleasant as rising naturally with the sun. That groggy feeling some us have in the morning, a phenomenon called sleep inertia, isn’t exclusively due to insufficient sleep, it’s also caused by waking up too abruptly. This state can last up to 4 hours and during this time our cognition and decision making ability can suffer. If you have it consistently, it’s a little like being drunk until lunchtime everyday. Fortunately, some gentler alternatives to traditional alarm clocks are emerging. The Philips Wake-up Light and Hue lights do a great job of addressing this problem by emitting blue light when it’s time to wake up, effectively allowing customers to choose the time of their own personal sunrise. And apps like Sleep Cycle analyze your sleep and wake you during your lightest sleep phase. Progress!

We were pleasantly surprised to find lots products on the market that are working to make sleep better for all of us, but there’s still plenty of room for improvement. We weren’t able to find any f.lux-like solutions for televisions, so we’re planning on a technical investigation there. We want to see if there is any way we get access to the TVs color settings such that we could adjust them automatically. There are also some features that we didn’t see in the Hue system that we think could make it even more dynamic and natural. For example, instead of the Hue lights turning amber at the same time everyday, it could follow the sunset where you live like the timing used in f.lux. And instead of summoning your personal sunrise at the same time everyday, why not wake at the point when your sleep is lightest, like the alarm on the Sleep Cycle app? We actually found that Hue has an IFTTT channel, so we are looking forward to taking a stab at turning these ideas into working recipes that we can share with the IFTTT community. Stay tuned for developments! We are okay with that pun.