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Community Episode 3: Sleep By The Numbers (Listener Question)

How can you use sleep tracking data to improve your zzz’s?

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Sleep gadgets are everywhere. On our wrists. In our pockets. Even built into our beds. Technology today can help us track how much sleep we get and what kind of sleep it is. Great! But listener Elizabeth wants to know… what do we do with all that data? Listen to find out how smart watches and apps can help you get better sleep, and our sleep experts share why some of your daily habits might need changing.

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Read Community Episode 3 Full Transcript Below:

[MUX: Theme music]

Photo credit: Sela Shiloni

KATE [VO]: Hi, I’m Kate Berlant, and this is “Are You Sleeping?”, a podcast from the sleep experts at Mattress Firm and Vox Creative. Today, we’re taking another question from you, our listeners.

And this is one I think a lot of us can relate to: Gadgets. We’ve got so much technology at our fingertips to track our sleep. We can micro-analyze our rest, our patterns, and our daily habits.

But, how should we use all of that information? Do you know? Our listener Elizabeth wants to find out.

[MUX: Automated voice saying, “NEXT MESSAGE”]

ELIZABETH: So, in the last year or so, I’ve been using my smartwatch while I sleep. It sort of breaks down and analyzes how many hours of deep sleep I’m getting versus light sleep and REM. And I’m wondering if any of that is important and if I need to impact it and what should be prioritized in terms of types of sleep versus the amount of sleep?

KATE [VO]: Such a good question. So when it comes to sleep, there’s so much to consider: How much to sleep, what kind of sleep to get, plus all these fancy sleep terms. And it’s all there, on our phones and watches.

So what do we do with it?

Well, luckily we’ve got our resident psychologist, Dr. Shelby Harris. She specializes in behavioral sleep medicine, and she says she gets this kind of question a lot.

Clinical psychologist, Dr. Shelby Harris

DR. SHELBY HARRIS: I mean, I would say that that is the most popular topic that I get asked about by people, patients, friends, family, all the time, are all the devices.

KATE: [laughs] Yeah, that’s definitely a sign that we’re pretty desperate to improve our sleep.

DR. SHELBY HARRIS: There’s so much on the market right now. There’s apps, there’s watches, there’s rings, there’s bands, all this sort of stuff.

They’re using heart rate, they’re using movement, various measures to try and approximate sleep staging, right.

The gold standard for that stuff is really to have a sleep study that has EEG leads on it, because that’s how we really can tell what stages of sleep you’re in. Now, practicality-wise, when we’re looking at all these apps, they’re approximations. Some are better than others. I think for people who don’t make sleep a priority in their lives, these devices can be very useful for them to just highlight that they’re not getting in bed at a certain time, they’re not getting enough sleep, or people can very clearly see, “Oh, when I have at alcohol at this time, look what it does to my sleep, gets much more broken.” So I think it’s great for giving you a bigger picture, overall. They are not really meant to be used to diagnose sleep problems. So, if you think that something’s off, maybe talk to your doctor about it.

KATE [VO]: Okay, so these devices are a good way to give you an overall picture of your sleep, and they could flag a more serious problem that you’d want to discuss with a doctor.

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KATE [VO]: Now, for those of us who like to geek out on data, I wanted to know more. So I called up Dr. Chris Winter. He’s a neurologist and a sleep specialist, and the author of “The Sleep Solution” and “The Rested Child”. Turns out, Chris is kind of into sleep trackers.

“Sleep Whisperer” & Neurologist, Chris Winter

DR. CHRIS WINTER: Yeah, I mean, I use a bunch of them. They’re built into my bed. I’ve got a ring and a couple watches and actually, I was going through a month where I had like six things monitoring my sleep every night because I was curious, if you line them all up, do they look pretty similar. Then I would look at the data, and I found it, you know, to be really similar to what I was perceiving, and they were all pretty consistent.

KATE: And so Chris, how can these sleep trackers help us with our sleep?

DR. CHRIS WINTER: So I think that what these devices really help us understand are a couple of things. Number one, my least favorite phrase in the English language is “can’t sleep”, and I hear it all the time. When somebody says “I can’t sleep,” what they’re really saying is, “I’m not happy with the way that I sleep, or my sleep is not predictable. It’s not the way I envisioned it happening.”

So to me, the first and foremost thing about a sleep tracker is, it generally shows sleep. In fact, that can be an incredibly powerful thing.

KATE: Ohhh, okay, I love that. So these devices are sort of like sleep detectives or truth tellers.

DR. CHRIS WINTER: Correct. You know, if somebody says to me, for the last seven days, I’ve only slept one hour, and the fitness monitor is showing an average of six every day, I actually believe the fitness monitor. To me, it’s a way to really ratchet down and change the conversation from “I can’t sleep” to “Okay, okay, deep breath. I’m getting six hours. Thank God, okay, can I make the six hours better? Or what can I do to sort of feel that more?”

KATE: Now, Elizabeth wanted to know: Of all the data her smartwatch is giving her, what should she pay attention to?

DR. CHRIS WINTER: We typically divide sleep into light sleep, deep sleep, and dream sleep, and we like to see people get about 50% of the night in light sleep and 25% in deep and 25% REM, in very, very broad strokes. So the first thing to ask is where do I stack up against a norm? So the answer to your question is, do you notice trends? When you sleep at your girlfriend’s house instead of your own bed, are there variables that you’re able to figure out that go along with that? So you can look for those kinds of trends.

KATE [VO]: So now that we know roughly what kind of sleep we want to aim for, how do we get it? Because we all want to make our sleeping hours better, right? Chris told me about a conversation he had with an athlete who swears that he can’t fall asleep without alcohol. It went something like this…

DR. CHRIS WINTER: You know, you’re arguing with me that you sleep better after drinking a six pack at night. Okay, well, drink your six-pack. I don’t think it’s a great idea, but I do want you to monitor your sleep, and you tell me which indication is better, when you sleep without the six alcoholic beverages or when you sleep with it, you know. So a lot of times you can appeal to people’s sense of what’s best for you? And the sleep monitor becomes sort of the referee or the impartial arbiter of what’s good and what’s not.

KATE: Yeah, that’s pretty cool, the idea that the data can help us change our behaviors so we can actually get good sleep. Like looking at what we’re drinking, or exercise, or for me, definitely staring at my phone for too long, you know, things like that.

DR. CHRIS WINTER: Yeah. It’s like a food journal or something like that. It just makes the decisions and planning about how to get you into a healthier place that much easier.

KATE: Yeah, I mean, I think I really do respond to evidence, and I really love sleep. So, if I had a tracker that showed me that I sleep better when I don’t stay up and stare at my phone late at night, I think I would be motivated to change my habits.

So Chris, what do you think the future of all this sleep technology is?

DR. CHRIS WINTER: I think that what we’re moving towards is the consumer is having more information than they’ve ever had before about their sleep. So where I would like to see it go is I would like to see about 50% of my clients not really even needing to see me. I see the device on your wrist telling you, hey, you’ve got sleep apnea and you’re having about 73 breathing problems per hour. You go to your primary care doctor, she orders you a CPAP device through a company, maybe the watch orders that itself and you just bypass all this unnecessary, “Go to Chris, wait three months for the appointment. He does a sleep study to show something that we already knew you had.” I think we can make health care a lot more streamlined, so it creates even more accessibility because I’m not bogged down with something that your device on your wrist has already diagnosed. I’m just kind of blessing it, you know, it knows more than I do.

KATE [VO]: Thanks, Chris.

I love the idea that technology can not only make our sleep better but that it could make access to sleep education and treatment much more equitable and accessible. But we aren’t there yet, so please remember to ask a professional, not just your watch.

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KATE [VO]: Thanks to Doctors Shelby Harris and Chris Winter for their expertise, and to Elizabeth, for her question.

“Are You Sleeping?” is an informational podcast and does not substitute medical advice. So contact your doctor if you’re seeking medical advice on your sleeping habits.

Do you have a question or story for us? Head to vox-dot-com slash are-you-sleeping and leave us a voice memo — we’d love to hear from you.

We’ll see you in two weeks with a brand new, full-length episode of “Are You Sleeping?” We’ll talk to an Olympic medalist about the impact of sleep on athletic performance. ‘Til then, sweet dreams — and remember, don’t let your watch get you down.


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