It is increasingly apparent that sleep is just as important to our physical and mental wellbeing as exercise and a healthy diet. We spend a third of our lives asleep, during which time our brain makes sense of what has happened during the day, files away important experiences as memories, removes toxins and prepares us for the next day.
The phrase 'sleep hygiene' is now commonplace, as we try to better understand what affects our daily lives have on the quality of our sleep. It is generally advised to stop looking at the light-emitting displays of televisions, computers and smartphones before we get into bed, and to sleep in a dark, cool, quiet room.
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Spending the final hour of our day away from screens I down to their bluish hues, which delay our natural daily production of melatonin, the chemical that helps to initiate sleep each evening. Because we continue to shine bright lights into our eyes deep into the evenings, our body no longer gets the natural cues (ie, sunset) that it is used to, which affects our ability to earn eight hours of deep sleep each night.
While Apple and Google both now offer systems for reducing blue light from smartphone displays in the evenings (along with Apple computers and their Night Shift feature), there are many other technologies available to help understand and then improve your sleep hygiene.
Here is a look at the options available for your smart home:
Smart speakers and displays
Both the Amazon Echo and Google/Nest Home product ranges provide access to catalogues of calming sounds to help you drift off at night.
If you own a Google or Nest smart speaker or display, there are 15 effects to choose from, including running water, a crackling fireplace, rain, thunderstorms, and white noise. All you have to do is say: "Hey Google, help me relax" to hear a sound at random, or ask for a specific sound by saying: "Hey Google, play [name] sounds."
The full list of ambient sounds is:
- Relaxing sounds
- Nature sounds
- Water sounds
- Running water sounds
- Outdoor sounds
- Babbling brook sounds
- Oscillating fan sounds
- Fireplace sounds
- Forest sounds
- Country night sounds
- Ocean sounds
- Rain sounds
- River sounds
- Thunderstorm sounds
- White noise
Things are a little more complex with the Amazon Echo. Asking Alexa to play ambient sounds encourages her to offer up sounds from various skills made by third-party developers. These skills, like the aptly-named Ambient Sounds by Invoke Apps, have a huge range of sounds to choose from, including rain, thunderstorm, airplane, city, rainforest, wind and shower – plus some unusual ones like a hair dryer, washing machine and heartbeat.
All you have to do is ask Alexa to find the skill (or enable it here) and say: "Alexa, ask Ambient Noise to play [sound name]." You can also specify how long you want the sound to last.
Both platforms are also good for meditation, with access to guided classes from the likes of Calm and Headspace aimed specifically at helping you sleep.
As we mentioned earlier, your lighting makes a big difference when it comes to getting enough sleep each night. Too bright, and specifically too much blue light emitted by LEDs, can wreak havoc with your melatonin production and daily circadian rhythm.
Thankfully, smart lighting can be adjusted to shine brightly in the morning to wake you up and help you concentrate during the day, they switch to a warmer, softer and more orange glow in the evenings. This shift gives your body the visual cues it needs to begin preparing for sleep.
Bulbs are available from a wide range of companies, like Philips Hue by Signify, LIFX, C by GE, Ikea Tradfri and Wyze.
As well as being set to shift in temperature and brightness in the evenings, they can be programmed to do the opposite in the morning, helping you to wake up more gradually than the sudden shrill of an alarm. This can be particularly helpful during the winter when you likely need to be awake before sunrise.
Smart lighting can also be helpful at night when you need to visit the bathroom. Install a wireless motion sensor and, once set up through the Hue app, it can be set to switch a single light on in the hallway to a low brightness when it detects movement at night – handy for lighting the way for you but not disturbing anyone else.
Instead of setting up a smart lighting system, you could invest in bedside lamp that doubles as a sunrise simulator. Lumie specializes in these lights, which are designed to help you fall asleep and wake up.
They gradually transition from bright white to a warm red/orange glow at night, then do the opposite to wake you up again in the morning. The duration of each can be set to your preferences, and there are audible alarms too if you need them.
I once lived with a Lumie for a couple of years and found it very good at waking me up, purely with light — especially useful on dark winter mornings. Other brands also sell lamps that simulate the sun, such as Philips, Verilux, Mosche, and Northern Light Technology.
Another (pricier) option is the Dyson Lightcycle, above, which adjusts during the day to mimic natural daylight. It can also be used to help you study at your desk, relax in the evenings, fall asleep, and wake up again the next morning.
Air quality monitor
Greater exposure to nitrogen dioxide and fine air particles known as PM 2.5 can lower your sleep efficiency, the measure of how long you are asleep compared to how long you spend in bed. The more polluted the air in your bedroom, the less time you will spend asleep.
To help understand the quality of air in your bedroom, devices like the Awair 2 can help. In particular, the Awair 2 and Awair Element measure PM2.5 and produce a score based on how conducive your air quality is to sleep. If things change, the smartphone app alerts you and offers suggestions — like to open or close a window, and switch on a fan. With IFTTT (If This, Then That) integration, you can have a fan or dehumidifier switch on automatically when your air quality changes.
For those on a larger budget (and with a large bedroom) you could try out the Dyson Pure Hot + Cool which is an air quality monitor, heater, cooler and air purifier all in one.
Smartwatch or fitness tracker
Most smartwatches and fitness trackers offer sleep tracking, logged with their accelerometers and in many cases their heart rate monitors, too. For example, the Alta and Charge fitness trackers by Fitbit both provide 'sleep insights' by showing on their companion smartphone app when you were in the deep, light and REM stages of sleep through each night, and when you were awake.
Humans sleep in cycles, falling from awake, through REM, then into light and deep sleep, before coming back up through the stages to light sleep. This happens several times each night and is logged by the Fitbit app, along with your heart rate and the time you spent in each stage.
Smartwatches can also do this, but their limited battery life means they are not the ideal sleep tracker — unless you don't mind recharging them every couple of days. The Apple Watch gained native sleep tracking in 2020, but this system isn't as comprehensive as many others, and means the Watch needs charging every day to make sure it tracks an entire night's sleep.
If the data collected by these devices shows you are struggling to get to sleep in the first place, try limiting your exposure to blue light before bed (in other words, put your phone away an hour before you plan to settle down). If you are waking up early in the summer months, consider investing in some black-out blinds.
Other wearable options include the Oura smart ring, which some readers might find to be a more comfortable option than a watch or fitness tracker. There is also the Muse S, a headband that is primarily used for guided meditation, but recently gained sleep tracking via a software update. The headband measures your heart beat and brain activity, and works with a smartphone app to first help you fall asleep with guided meditation, then tracks your sleep throughout the night. You can read more on our experience with using the Muse S for sleep tracking here.
Dedicated sleep tracker
Dedicated sleep monitors which fit under the mattress are also available, such as the $150 Beddit Smart Sleep Monitor and the $100 Withings Sleep. However, while its monitor remains on sale, Beddit was acquired by Apple in May 2017, so we wonder if a new model (perhaps even branded by Apple) is on the horizon. That said, as of March 2020 the Beddit 3 is still sold on the Apple Store, with no sign of a replacement just yet.
We reviewed the $100 Withings Sleep (briefly called the Nokia Sleep) in 2019 and like how it fits under the mattress, where it cannot be seen or felt, yet automatically and accurately logs sleep data every night. This was later upgraded to the Sleep Analyzer which includes sleep apnea detection, but isn't yet available in the US.
Your sleep is scored out of 100 and a chart shows how you went in and out of REM, light and deep sleep. The Sleep also tracks interruptions, the time it took you to get to sleep, the time it took to get up, your heart rate during the night, breathing disturbances (which can be a sign of sleep apnea) and whether you were snoring.
Sleep guidance technology
All of the products mentioned so far track your sleep and offer advice on how to improve it, but they play no active part each night.
The SleepHub by Cambridge Sleep Sciences is different; it uses very specific sound frequencies to encourage your brain to fall asleep, then guides you through a restful eight hours. The frequencies can be heard as a low hum, but it varies throughout the night to guide you through the various stages and cycles of an eight-hour sleep.
Sounds like water or a train journey can be played to help mask the humming if you find it annoying, and there is an alarm function to help you wake up too.
Finally, and if you have a particularly large budget, you could consider a smart bed. These cost from in the region of $2,000 (plus a subscription in some cases), and are offered by brands like Eight Sleep, Rest and Sleep Number.
These beds can have their position adjusted, and some can even change temperature during the night to help regulate your body temperature, keeping you soundly asleep, On that note, and contrary to popular belief, a slightly cooler room is better, and a lowering body temperature helps you fall asleep.
That's why a hot bath before bed helps - not because it is warming you up, but because the extra heat causes your body to work hard to cool down, which helps promote sleep.