Counting Sheep: The science of sleep


We spend 36% of our lifetime on sleep. It dominates our lives, yet we largely ignore the importance of it. The state of being asleep and being awake is the biggest switch in our neurological and body systems. Sleep helps with information processing, tissue repair, metabolic rebuilding, energy replenishment, toxin clearance and memory consolidation.

In the state of sleep, our brains never switch off –  contrary to belief. It has been scientifically proven that a night of sleep can hugely enhance our capabilities to solve complex issues because in a deep REM state (about every 90 minutes), our brains can stimulate creativity and problem solving.  Sleep helps us remember things…it can even help us to remember how to do something. This is known as memory replay. If we learn to do something just before we fall asleep, our brains are able to continue this learning in our sleep.



Despite all the benefits of sleep, we are constantly looking to disrupt this rhythm of life. We constantly look to fuel our wake states with caffeine, cigarettes, energy drinks, and even alcohol – all sedatives, actually disguised as stimulants. There seems to be many more opportunities to do things other than sleep, today – such as our inability to sacrifice a good book, our loyalty to follow a favourite television show, or our insatious appetite to spend a few extra minutes of social networking plus working long shifts. Technology is also disrupting our sleep – our accessibility to 24-hour TV, the Internet, email and having iPads and smartphones in our bedrooms are all attempts to put our brains into constant active states. As a result, we are keeping ourselves awake for longer. Even when we are fast asleep, we use social time such as the alarm clock to wake us up. All of this adds to the disruption of our circadian clocks.

Sleep deprivation is a health epidemic.


We are a sleep-deprived nation. A typical adult requires approximately 8 hours of sleep…although this is not a magic number, the amount of sleep needed to function best depends on each individual. Nonetheless, about 45% of the world’s population is not getting enough sleep. To put into context, that is nearly 3.2 billion people affected by the lack of sleep!

Recent studies have shown in mice that with loss of sleep, as much as 25% of their brain cells die. This is because sleep deprivation has an affect on processing of information thus impairing brain activity. Getting too little sleep can have serious health consequences including depression, weight gain, and heart disease. The effect is so severe that being sleep deprived for 24 hours is equivalent to being over the legal limit of blood alcohol concentration. So, a very large number of people (us, included) have had one time or another gone on with our lives, fully functional, yet in the same state as being intoxicated.

It is important to understand that the notion that a person can “catch up” on lost sleep is misconstrued. Instead, this build up is a  “sleep debt” that is never repaid. The consequence of chronic sleep debt, scientists say, is “social jetlag”—a chronic slowing of concentration and hampering of bodily systems. Continued sleep interruptions will lead to abnormal sleep patterns which are also markers to predicting the onset of bipolar and Schizophrenia.


Precise or placebo?

Because sleep deprivation leaves no marks, we still do not fully understand why we need to sleep. Vital work is needed, but the study of sleep in Science is not considered  ‘sexy’ hence funding from traditional sources is limited. So for now, can a smartphone app help us sleep? We like to learn about ourselves through technology…so can sleep apps help measure our sleep quality, learn when our good night goes bad, or even wake us up at the optimal time? Does technology have a serious part to play in the science of sleep? Many developers seem to think so. There is an endless number of apps designed to improve and enhance sleep – just check out some of these articles: Huffington Post’s 5 Sleep Apps or Mashable’s 10 iPhone Apps For A Better Night’s Sleep

Nonetheless, one has to ask whether sleep apps actually work. Is it all a big scam, or perhaps the placebo effect at work?

Here is the verdict:

  • Rarely anyone’s night resembles a textbook-perfect sleep cycle. In reality, how (well) we sleep is determined by many factors during the night – from brief wakes such as gentle rain pattering against a window, to a sudden arousal such as a loud thunder clap. Even movements from a bed partner can cause us to briefly awake from our sleep.
  •  Our sleep cycles do not follow perfect 90-minute cycles. No two sleep cycles are the same length.
  • The time we sleep every night may be regular, but the time between getting into bed and when we actually fall asleep changes every night. It really depends on our mental state when we get into bed. For example, if we go to bed feeling anxious for the day ahead, it takes us much longer to doze off versus if we were exhausted (utterly shattered, in my case) we can’t even remember our head hitting the pillow.

It appears that currently the sleep apps that are available in today’s market do not take these factors into account. I do not doubt that these monitoring/tracking apps will get better with time, especially when wearables technology gives us the ability to more accurately track activity data like sleeping.

Until then, we must do the legwork in taking care of ourselves. Sleep is free, and taking control of it is the easiest way of improving one’s life.

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