If like me, you spent the past couple of nights tossing and turning, running over your schedule for the following day, then worrying about what your poor night's sleep will mean for the completion of all tasks on your current mental list, you're not alone. In fact, the number of people struggling to get a night of decent rest is rising exponentially, according to the author of Why We Sleep and professor of neuroscience Matthew Walker.
If insomnia plagues you, you're no longer an anomaly. In today's society, you're a part of the 60 per cent of adults who fail to sleep for an undisturbed (and recommended) eight hours. Apparently, our modern lives are to blame for our lack of Zzs. "The modern world is driven by technology, and unbeknown to many, simple daily activities such as reading emails, responding to digital messages and interacting on social media, expose the brain to blue light and stimulate it, suppressing the release of melatonin that helps us to fall to sleep," says sleep research scientist Teresa Arora.
While most of us know that having a phone next to the bed, a television in the bedroom or worse, working from a laptop in bed, isn't exactly conducive to sound slumber, many of us do it anyway. It may be second nature to use your mobile as an alarm clock, so why not go one step further and use an app such as Sleep Cycle to measure the quality of your forty winks and then wake you up in the best possible phase to avoid grogginess come morning?
“Given that we live in a digitally interactive society and are keen to try out the latest apps, people seem to be turning to these more and more to help them achieve their goals of following a better diet, exercising more and sleeping better,” says Arora of our obsession with technology as a solution to all our problems. “Generally people know what they need to be doing, but are seeking support – humans are naturally curious and are drawn to new technology that claims to be able to help,” she says.
For those wanting to drown out the annoying hum of the air conditioning, or worse, the incessant internal chatter of our consciousness, nodding off with a phone by the bed or under the pillows might just be the norm. Getting to sleep is now big business with app developers and technological engineers – some industry forecasters are hypothesising that the global sleep tech market will be an $80 billion (Dh293 billion) industry by 2020.
Engineers are already developing technology to counter technology-induced insomnia – think beds such as the Sleep Number 360, which adapts to your head positioning and other movements, and then automatically adjusts the firmness of the mattress to ensure comfort and support.
There are also smart devices such as 2Breathe, which is a sensor you wear around your abdomen. It measures your pulse and guides you to slow down your breathing. It then transforms your breaths into soothing tones, which are delivered wirelessly to your mobile and played back to you, lulling you to sleep. And there are noise-cancelling systems designed to create the ultimate aural soundscape for you to get some shut-eye.
“If you look at MP3s and Apps combined, we have had over 11.5 million downloads to date globally across all titles,” says therapist Andrew Johnson, who is behind the “Deep Sleep with Andrew Johnson” app, which guides people gently to a snooze as they listen to it in bed.
“The science is relatively simple,” he says. “When people ‘try’ hard to get to sleep, they actually stop themselves from sleeping. Learning to let go of the struggle is the secret.”
Perhaps this is the reason so many of us are turning to podcasts and sounds apps to distract our busy minds from the sleep issue. “I use the headspace meditation pack for sleep,” says Lisa Stockham, who also uses ‘Calm’, a mindfulness app, intermittently. Meanwhile teacher Matthew Jones is more for the spoken word. “I like to listen to stuff that I know is really long,” he says. “Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcasts are about four hours. They’re often really quite complex and I find I just pass out,” he adds.
Drew Ackerman, also known as “Dearest Scooter” is the man behind the well-known “Sleep with Me” podcast and follow-up series “Game of Drones”.
Creating elaborate fantasy tales, with plenty of preamble, twists and turns, all delivered in dulcet (some would say monotonous) tones, Ackerman is now responsible for putting many of us (myself included) to sleep.
A bedtime story for adults, “Sleep with Me” came about following Ackerman’s struggle with insomnia in childhood. “I’d spend the entire night worrying about the trouble I’d get into the following day at school if I didn’t sleep,” he says. “The only thing that worked was radio shows. They made me forget about not being able to sleep and quelled my anxiety.”
He insists the popularity of his show is hinged on the fact that "kids get bedtime stories, but adults don't". Unlike guided meditation or sleep sounds, "Sleep with Me" offers listeners a distraction. Ackerman says that the whole point is to give the mind something else to focus on to relieve some of the pressure we put on ourselves to finally doze off.
What might be problematic about our digital sleep aid solutions, says Arora, is that we then become too reliant on that one thing that helps us get to sleep. "The curious phase [with the latest sleep technology] expires very quickly and people move on to the next thing rather than self-reflecting and thinking about identifying the underlying problem, Arora says. "Delays in falling to sleep are very common and the underlying causes are not always identified or addressed, despite this being a crucial element to change."
Before looking at giving the brain a distraction in the form of digital sleep aids, then, it may well be worth having a digital detox come bedtime. Arora’s advice is to practise good ‘sleep hygiene’. Try setting and maintaining regular times to wake up and go to sleep, cut out caffeine, nicotine and screens before lights-out and spend two hours in wind-down mode before settling down for bed.
And if all else fails, you can always go back to the old-favourite – the bedtime story.