By: Erin Stair, MD, MPH
Sleep is a huge public health epidemic. The CDC labels insufficient sleep a public health problem of epic proportions and an estimate 50-70 million US adults suffer from sleep or wakefulness disorders. 9 million people in the US take medication to sleep, most commonly benzodiazepines and barbiturates. Those medications come with a slew of side effects, including dizziness, trouble maintaining balance, dry mouth, changes in appetite, nausea, constipation, diarrhea, headaches, heartburn, stomach pain and nightmares. Frankly, they sound similar to when a person is stuck on a ride at an amusement park.
The market addressing sleep issues is beyond saturated. Bad sleep a huge problem, and everyone is trying to profit of it. Every day I read about a new APP, a new pair of headphones designed for sleep, a new high-tech sleep mask, a new pillow, new sounds, blue tooth capabilities, a new mattress, etc, that will solve all of your sleep woes. It’s “Go Go Gadget” and APPs overload. At this point, mainstream marketing makes it seem like a person has to prep for sleep like a soldier prepping for battle: Headgear, check. Phone, check. Ten thousand Apps, check. Bluetooth, check. Eye-gear, check. Ten thousand monitors, check. By the time one suits up for a good night’s sleep, he or she looks like a tired, pissed-off Cyborg. (And there’s probably an APP for that, too.)
The APP and Gadget fix for sleep seems counterintuitive to me. Like any highly-marketed placebo, they may work temporarily, because grumpy, sleepy folks are on the next-best cure like flies on horse manure. Yet, research time and time again shows that any kind of light ,including the soft hue from one’s phone, and any kind of mental stimulation, including sounds and TV, hinders quality sleep. The most recent research shows the deleterious effects smartphones are having on kids’ quality of sleep. Of course that will also affect their grades, physical health and mental health. The light emitting from smartphones is shown to prevent melatonin formation, a hormone heavily linked to quality sleep, disease prevention, anti-aging and maintenance of one’s immune system. When I started working with my own baby, ZENBands and ZENTones, I created a program specifically for SLEEP. Originally I suggested people wear the band while sleeping, but now, given all of the latest research and my own intuition, I think it’s much, much more productive and honest for me to recommend listening to the program BEFORE getting into bed so as to help induce a state of sleepiness. Once in bed, however, I think a person should try to be gadget-free. In other words, sleep like a cave person.
Sleeping like a cave person means no phone, no laptop and no TV in bed. Nada. It means no headphones, no wires, no weird gadgets and just YOU in your pajamas ( birthday suit optional) under your covers in your bed. It means following the natural cycle of light and dark like our great, great cave-dwelling ancestors did. This means going to bed when it’s dark, and waking up when it’s light. If you have a noisy partner? Sleep in a different room. If you know you are addicted to your smartphone( like 99% of the population) do not allow yourself to bring it anywhere near your bed during bedtime. It’s hurting your sleep. If you are surrounded by outside light? Sleep with an eye mask. Light hurts your sleep. If you live in a noisy environment and can’t avoid it? Sleep with ear plugs or use a fan or a white nose machine. The idea is to refrain from stimulating yourself with any kind of light, sounds, TV shows, phone calls, text messages, APPs, and the likes. It may take a little getting used to, especially taming your urge to reach for the next best sleep-cure, but overtime, going gadget-free at bedtime is probably the best.
Obviously, there are exceptions. If you suffer from sleep apnea, you may have to wear a specialized sleep mask. If you’re a shift worker, you can’t sleep like a cave person, and that sucks. If you have a hormonal imbalance or another health issue, you may suffer from insomnia as a result. A health or hormonal issue will require a proper diagnosis and some sort of prescribed intervention.
And of course, there are universal sleep hygiene tips we all should follow: No caffeine after a certain hour; No alcohol ( on nights you want to sleep well); cooler temperatures; emptying the bladder before getting under the covers; comfortable bedding; no heavy foods at night, etc, etc. You get it: These tips are regurgitated in every popular “health” magazine on the stand.
My other gripe with how modern society addresses sleep issue is that most solutions target SLEEP itself when in fact, it’s a lot of NON-SLEEP issues keeping people up. On many surveys, including one I conducted, individuals have responded that “Worrying about something,” “Ruminations,” and “Negative thoughts,” ruin their sleep. My question, to all of the Sleep Problem-Solvers, is: Why are you not specifically targeting THOSE NON-SLEEP issues? I would think that if a person is worrying about something, say paying his/her bills, a stressful job or a failing relationship, learning how to successfully deal with those issues during the day may magically improve his/her sleep at night. “SLEEP” solutions may actually include: effective stress management, meditation, cognitive behavioral therapy, an exercise program, improving one’s job, changing a student loan plan, having a conversation with someone you need to have a conversation with, list-making, or even positivity training. I think we should hold off on the millions of Sleep gadgets and APPs and consider addressing some of these NON-SLEEP issues to help people SLEEP. Magic in the form of Zzzzzzzs may happen.