I experimented with my sleep for years
The wind lashed the shutters so you thought you didn’t sleep well, but you still felt fresher than after 9 hours of continuous sleep? Whenever you wake up after 8 am your head hurts? If you go to bed before 12 pm you cannot get any sleep?
Sleeping is a mysterious and tricky business. Given how important proper sleep is to brainpower, health, and overall well-being, I wanted to optimize how I slept through the nights. But it turned out that sleep tracking is just as problematic. Even for me, although I have been tracking my sleep pattern, stress level and other health parameters for more than two decades through various methods, even in a thorough excel spreadsheet.
The boom on the market of sleep trackers and sensors resulted in too many choices. Don’t get me wrong, it is wonderful to see so many innovations for optimizing sleep. But plenty of people are puzzled what to choose for their needs. Some ask me about using simple apps for tracking sleep while their phone is next to them. Others want to know which sensor to use for detailed tracking. I was puzzled myself.
When should I go to sleep? How much deep sleep is enough? What is the REM phase?
It took me years to find my jackpot solution. I tried many sensors and apps, and even did a 6-months-long sleep experiment to figure out what’s the best for me. So, here is my advice for anyone interested in sleeping better without pills.
Light sleep, deep sleep, REM & co.
As we are all genetically different, we need different factors during our sleep to feel rested the next day. For some people, the percentage of deep sleep will make a difference, for others change in air pressure during a storm. There is no general recipe for a good night sleep.
There are certain patterns, however, which are the same for everyone. Researchers found that sleep could be divided into non-REM and REM sleep. The former part has three further stages, and this is the phase when your body recovers. In REM sleep – named after the rapid eye movement that happens during this stage – the brain is incredibly active. This is the part of our sleep where we dream, process and store memories (sleep experts claim REM is not the only phase for doing that, but let’s settle with this thought for now).
The first two phases of non-REM sleep are characterized as light sleep periods. Anyone can be woken up easily, your body usually prepares for the third stage, deep sleep or gets out of REM when light happens. Smart alarms usually give the wake-up call during this phase as your awakening is much lighter and more comfortable than in deep sleep. The latter, the third stage of your shuteye is the time when your body does maintenance. You grow muscles and regrow tissues. So, it is really important to get enough deep sleep – but for each phase, really, as every sleep stage has its own biological function in recovering your body, brain, and soul from the experiences of the day.
How to analyze sleep tracking results?
If you have a sleep tracker or sensor, you have definitely encountered the various stages of sleep. When you look at the graph in your app whether it’s Sleep as Android, Fitbit or Apple Watch, you will see something like this. On an average sleep curve, you can see four phases: being awake, light sleep, deep sleep, and the REM phase. Simpler sleep tracking apps like Sleep Cycle do not measure REM.
It depends entirely on the given person how much deep sleep is necessary, but this is usually the decisive factor in feeling well-rested the next morning. It is also useful not to wake up directly from a deep sleep phase, as you will be groggy the whole morning. Sometimes you will not even know “where you are” for a couple of moments, as in deep sleep, in a sudden wake-up call, the brain needs some minutes to reboot. A smart alarm helps a lot with smooth awakenings.
We usually jump from deep sleep into REM phase. As it is also crucial, you’d better prepare with a sleep tracker that measures it. Some researchers say our brains work even more in REM than while being awake. You have to find out what factor changes this for you. In some apps, you can label the events which might influence sleep: late work-out, alcohol, medications or a crying baby.
After about 400 sleep measurements, I learned a lot about my sleep:
- I have to sleep 7 and a half hours for the best results (no more, no less). If I sleep more, the quality deteriorates.
- I feel better when I had more than 45% deep sleep. I reach it if I don’t drink, exercise, have dinner or check my phone before sleeping.
- I have social jet lag (I go to sleep later on weekends, which makes my sleep quality worse).
- I feel like I’m in my best shape in the morning when I had at least one long deep sleep (my record is 3 hours).
- I’m an early bird, definitely not a night owl.
- I sleep better if I fall asleep before 11 pm.
That’s also the reason why sleep tracking is very useful. We can draw long-term conclusions, get better at sleeping and make the most of our day from the next morning.
Where to start sleep tracking?
I have tried many sensors for measuring sleep quality from Fitbit One and Surge to Viatom Checkme and Withings Pulse, but the ultimate solution turned out to be the Pebble Time sensor paired with the Android for Sleep app. My goal was to eliminate luck from sleep quality and have a list in mind about the potential mistakes I can make to ruin it as well as the things that will improve it on purpose.
If you are eager to analyze your sleep through tracking but don’t know where to start, check out our infographic below that aims to make it easier for you.
I know that sleep tracking is not easy, but it is a lot of fun to look at how your body works when you are not conscious, and you’ll get to know a lot about yourself, so I encourage you to take up this journey. Feel free to reach out to me if you have questions! Sleep tight!