More than half of us claim to have had trouble sleeping a few nights each week, and an awful lot more wake up some mornings feeling rotten, exhausted and wanting to go back to bed. Science has pinned down how and why this happens and lifestyle magazines and blogs are littered with simple ways you can make yourself sleep better and feel better the next morning.
Using your phone to track your sleep probably isn’t going to be the first thing that pops into your head, but here are three quick and simple things you can do to help yourself, and three apps you can try to help you beat insomnia, analyze your personal sleep cycle, and wake up peacefully and comfortably the next morning.
Chronobiology centers around the body-clock and the daily cycle of events that typically occur in your body. Specifically, hormones are released into your blood at different times of the day and night to suit the way you live. For example, you are most alert at around 10:00, and have your best coordination at around 14:30.
The key to getting to sleep comfortably is melatonin: the hormone which causes you to fall asleep naturally. This is typically produced from around 21:00, until around 7:00 the following morning.
After waking up the morning after the clocks move forwards an hour for daylight savings time, you will often notice that your body clock will stay exactly where it was, and won’t immediately obey the new time. It will slowly shift to adapt to, for example, your new bedtime, and when the clocks have moved an hour back, your body will have prepared to wake up before you actually do, giving it a head start!
What Causes Insomnia?
Insomnia is any difficulty getting to sleep. It can be caused by a wide range of different things; traditionally, these would be pain, stress, or psychological problems, however there is growing evidence that more common things, like consuming alcohol or staring at a brightly lit LCD screen, can have a similar effects.
These inhibit the production of melatonin and since melatonin would normally make you fall asleep naturally, this makes you feel sleepless.
Distracting noises around you can have the same effect, which leaves you feeling sleepless, and, of course, too much annoying noise will distract you, which stops you sleeping by itself.
However, there are no known hard-and-fast rules to this; different noises have different effects. If you imagine the gentle hum of an air conditioner or rain falling on a window, they are noises that you often don’t notice until they stop. Without going into too much detail, your brain is ‘hardwired’ to send these repetitive noises to the background, stopping them having the distracting effect, and therefore, stopping them from disturbing your sleep.
Harnessing White Noise
The technical equivalent of these sounds is ‘white noise’. White noise has been engineered to contain a mixture of wavelengths of sound, making it very similar to background noises. You can use this to your advantage, because playing sound like this through headphones will drown out any annoying noise, and your brain will effectively ignore the white noise itself, meaning no disruption to your sleep.
White noise won’t cause you to produce melatonin, but it will comfortably block out the distractions which inhibit the production of melatonin, so it’s the same effect.
Here are a couple of apps that produce such white noise:
App 1: Chroma Doze
The first white noise app, and a personal favorite of mine, is the beautifully simple Chroma Doze. It’s available on the market, is totally open source and free, and works with all versions of Android. You are presented with a spectrum and a ‘start’ button, you draw a new spectrum with your finger to change the relative wavelengths of the sounds and customise the tone, and then it generates white noise based on that spectrum.
The project has a Google Code site, which includes an explanation of how it actually works, but the best thing is to test it and see what sounds you like, and what you want to hear.
It’s very simple, but does the job perfectly. It hasn’t got any fancy features, but it generates good white noise.
App 2: Lightning Bug
As an alternative, Lightning Bug (free from the market, extra sounds available for a price) has a similar effect. It includes some ‘Scenes’, like New York Skyline (engines, rain and sirens), The Monastery (lightning, bells donging and calm chanting) and even Van de Graff (static, lightning and bubbles).
Lightning Bug provides a very soothing alternative to conventional white noise; the sound patterns included will drown out background noises but don’t contain the complete mixture of wavelengths found in white noise. While some people may find it as useful as white noise, there’s a chance you will just find it distracting. It includes an alarm clock, but it’s nothing amazing, especially not against the app below.
The bottom line is that it will inevitably suit some people, but not others.
Your Personal Sleep Cycle
While you are asleep, you go through two main phases; REM (Rapid Eye Movement), where you typically sleeping lightly and dreaming, and NREM (Non-rapid eye movement) where you are in a deeper sleep and not moving.
These phases can be subdivided further, and there is a big difference in the amount that you move during each phase.
Wake Up Gently and Comfortably
When you’re switching between phases every so often, your body and mind go through several states. While it’s possible for most people to wake from any of them, which you wake from will have a big effect on how you feel when you do.
In one night, waking during the lightest phase, the beginning of NREM, means you wake feeing refreshed, whereas if you wake later on (so get more sleep), but wake during REM, or the end of NREM, you may be struck down by headaches, dizziness, or tiredness for the rest of the day.
This is key: when you wake up feeling groggy, you always think you haven’t slept enough, but actually, if you’d woken an hour earlier, there’s a good chance you would be feeling pretty great!
App 3: Sleep as an Droid
This is where the app, Sleep as an Droid (ignore the grammar; free for 14 days, €0.99 after that from the Android Market) comes in. You can use the accelerometer in your Android phone to measure your movement as you sleep.
The software will then plot a graph of how long you were in each sleep phase, allowing you to analyze your own sleep, and if you really want to, post it directly to Facebook to compare sleeping patterns with your friends.
The app will calculate how long it thinks you were asleep, then compare this with how long you should have been, and eventually work out your ‘sleep debt’ (how long you slept vs. how long you should have).
There are a couple of brilliant features if you do want to study your sleep some more; you can set the phone to record any noise you make in your sleep, which you may like if you are prone to sleep talking or snoring.
Building on the ideas of waking up in the nicest possible way, the app also features an alarm clock which will aim to fire when you’re in the lightest phase, waking you feeling refreshed. It can make you perform a quick test that requires a little thinking before it lets you cancel or snooze the alarm: you have to either touch the sheep that’s not asleep, or answer a mental maths question, before the app will let you cancel the alarm. The days of reaching an arm out, whacking the alarm clock with one hand, rolling over, and falling back to sleep, are over.
Overall, as a sleep analysis app and as an alarm clock, Sleep as an Droid is pretty brilliant, and with a 14 day trial, it’s well worth a try. It won’t necessarily help, but it will definitely give you a good insight into your own sleep patterns, and the alarm must be one of the most inspired around.
Did this help you sleep? Let us know in the comments.