According to Gwyneth Paltrow, 2017 is the year of clean sleep (nope, no idea what that is either!) and it is obvious to anyone with even a passing interest in health that sleep is of the moment.
Many of us have been bitten by the wearable bug and if you have purchased a Fitbit, a Jawbone or an Apple Watch recently you will have probably used, or at least noticed it has a sleep function. There is also other hardware that helps measure sleep, including mattresses that track your sleep, rings that measure sleep cycles and there are even a couple of contactless options in development. When I am doing my Sleep Well, Work Well talks within organisations, the question of sleep tech always comes up. What people want to know is “does it work?”
The short answer is, not really. The first wave of sleep tech, based on the accelerometers used in medical setting, have used technology that is very poor at measuring sleep as it only uses a movement sensor. So, if you use an app on your phone to measure your sleep, all it will be measuring is how much you move during the night.
The second wave has improved things, and the watch based versions can measure things like pulse rate and blood flow. The problem with measuring these data points on your wrist is that there are a lot of bones in the wrist to interrupt the measurement. This means the data collected is less accurate.
However, solutions are continuing to progress. Currently I am testing the Oura ring which collects data from the underside of a finger, where data points are easier to measure. In fact, the reason I am testing the Oura ring is that they have proven (in a limited study) that it accurately mimics the sleep tracking devices (polysomnograms) used in sleep clinics. But, sleep tech now, doesn’t answer the most important question any of us who are involved in Health Tech ask. That question? “So, What?”
Sleep differs from exercise and diet. If you eat badly you can make a concerted effort to eat better. If you don’t exercise you can force yourself to go to the gym more, and fitness trackers can be a useful behavioural nudge. You can challenge yourself to do better than yesterday. You can compare yourself to a bigger population. The problem with sleep is, you cannot force yourself to sleep better. In fact, and if you are a bad sleeper you will know that the more you try and force yourself to sleep, the less likely you are to sleep well.
So, all these fancy tech devices serve to do is to confirm that you sleep poorly, which only leads to greater anxiety about sleep, which - in turn - leads to less sleep. For this tech to work, we need to improve the access to credible sleep expertise for individuals, who can analyse the data and help the poor sleeper make the behavioural and environmental changes which will lead to better sleep.
In addition to this we need to develop tech that allows us to track our emotional wellbeing. Sleeping well is a function of the physiological (a drop-in heart rate and a drop-in core temperature) and the phycological (been relaxed and secure about going to sleep) and tech needs to acknowledge and address this. If it does, sleep tech can be a powerful tool in solving sleep issues, and filling a massive gap in the provision in sleep services, particularly as sleep is so poorly served within the NHS.
James Wilson Is a Sleep Behaviour and Environment Expert who is driven by the desire to help people sleep better. Through his company The Sleep Lab he helps organisations develop products and service around sleep, including sleep tech such as SleepCogni and Sleep Well, Work Well a corporate sleep offering in collaboration with Westfield Health. As The Sleep Geek he works with individuals solving their sleep issues and the media spreading his message about how we can all get a better night’s sleep. He was one of the four experts on Channel 4’s The Secrets of Sleep, a TV programme that looked to help 12 of Britain's worst sleepers. You can catch up with it on All4.