Opinion: the arrival of sleep measurement devices have allowed us measure the quality and duration of our own sleep

We’re hearing and reading a lot about sleep these days, about how important it is to our health, wellbeing and mood. Sleep quality also impacts to how well or poorly we perform at work, at school, and how we interact with others.

It is clear that many of us in our society are very sleep deprived nowadays.We see people sleeping on the bus or DART, or crashing during the day for "40 winks" because they are over-tired. We fuel ourselves to keep going during the day with artificial stimulants like caffeine and stay awake for hours past dusk. While we can recover in a day or two from a late night or an all-night binge, societal sleep depravation is getting worse, year-on-year.

From RTÉ Lifestyle, The Skin Nerd on the importance of sleep

In 1960, the average sleep for an adult in the United States was 8.5 hours per night. Nowadays, the mean sleep is less than seven hours. One study on US adults’ self-reporting of sleep published last year found that 30% of respondents are likely to sleep less than six hours per night.

The reason for this creeping loss of sleep may have been started by Thomas Edison inventing the light bulb only 140 years ago and keeping us awake late at night. But it is now caused by our 24 hour global society, our excessive snacking, consuming far more calories than our energy needs, and the temptations of late-night entertainment, TV, movies-on-demand and more.

As individuals is there anything we can do about improving our own sleep, for our own personal benefit ?  Peter Drucker, father of management thinking, famously said that "you can’t manage what you can’t measure" so can we measure our own sleep? The answer is yes and it is not difficult to do, but we first need to know a little about sleep itself.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Ray D'Arcy Show, sleep experts John Garvey and Audrey Russell answer listeners' sleeping-related questions

A night of sleep consists of a series of four or five cycles of different phases. In each of these cycles, we go from a phase of deep sleep to a phase of being almost awake and then back again to deep sleep. During deep sleep, we are almost comatose with no movement except breathing and we are difficult to wake, with reduced heart and breathing rates. At other stages of the sleep cycle, we may be almost awake, regularly twitching with involuntary movements, or we may have vivid dreams.

As we cycle through these sleep phases during the night, the outward signs of movement, heart rate and breathing pattern can be observed and this is how we measure sleep, both its duration and quality. The easiest way to measure sleep is to use an app on a smartphone and these will differ in what aspects of the sleep they observe. Some use the phone’s microphone to listen to your breathing, others are placed under your pillow to sense your movement or lack of movement in the bed. There are many such apps available, some are free and others are paid and SleepScore, Sleep Cycle and Pillow have the best reputations.

Another common way to measure sleep is to use a wrist-worn wearable device, like a FitBit or Withings. These sense your movement throughout the night and map the movements to the various sleep phases. How many cycles, how deep is the deep phase and what is the overall duration of the sleep all contribute to a measure of overall sleep quality.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Today with Sean O'Rourke, Motty Varghese, senior sleep physiologist at St. James's Hospital, Dublin on how to become a better sleeper

We are also seeing sleep being measured with wearable jewellery and the Oura ring is the first really successful example of this. This is a ring, worn on the finger, which measures motion like a wrist-worn bracelet, but also measures body temperature and heart rate which are all mapped back to sleep cycles. The ring has a much smaller form factor than a wrist-worn device and we can expect to see more like these appearing on the market.

The alternative and truly scientific way to measure sleep quality is to attend a sleep lab where a myriad of sensors is used. The various devices mentioned here are a simple proxy for an analysis in a sleep lab, but they work up to a certain point.

What these sleep measurement devices have done is they have helped to raise awareness of the importance sleep and given us the ability to measure the quality and duration of our own sleep. As we read a lot about the importance of sleep to our health and our wellbeing we can now apply some of this to ourselves by measuring it and then managing it - just as Peter Drucker said we should do.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ