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Think you have a sleep disorder? There’s no app for that… yet

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We know that how much you sleep and how long you sleep has a measured impact on human health, safety and performance. Sufficient sleep is defined as 7-9 hours, but there are no shortage of reports available which demonstrate that the average adult is not getting enough. Barriers to sleep can be numerous – lifestyle, environmental or health related.

If you are concerned you are not getting enough sleep because of a possible sleep disorder, the first step is measuring your sleep activity. Currently, the most valid form of measuring sleep is in a clinical sleep lab environment using polysomnography (PSG). This test involves spending the night in a lab, with dozens of sensors and wires hooked up to your face and body. It’s certainly not the most ideal sleep environment, but because the test can actually measure brain waves and other functions while you are dozing, it is highly accurate in diagnosing sleep disorders.

For those looking to understand how much sleep they are getting on a nightly basis from the comforts of home, there are now a number of smartphone applications available in the market that claim to measure individual sleep. Sounds convenient, but what kind of data are you getting in return for your 99 cents?

A study in the Journal of Physiological Measurement published this year looked at the variety of smartphone sleep-screening applications available for Android and Apple platforms which claim to monitor sleep activity: “The recent increase in adoption of smartphones, with high quality on-board sensors has led to the proliferation of many sleep screening applications running on the phone.”

The study, which was conducted through the Department of Engineering Science at the University of Oxford, looked at over 40 smartphone applications including 18 actigraphy-based* applications and concluded that “with the exception of simple questionnaires, no existing sleep-related application available for smartphones is based on scientific evidence.” They determined that the apps provided users with varied results depending on the type of phone, the user’s environment and the phone’s proximity to the patient.

With the growing ‘quantified self movement’ mobile apps are changing the way we live and address our health. Certainly as technology and app development improves we are on our way to seeing them provide more clinically-accurate data, but in the meantime, when it comes to diagnosing your sleep health – consult with your doctor and not your mobile phone.

*The same technology used in our own clinically-validated Readiband which was proven to be 93% accurate when compared with PSG technology.

Do you know how tired you are?

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In a recent Psychology Today article, Mark Wolverton, suggests that when it comes to sleep deprivation, the gravest danger is “that we no longer realize just how tired we are”.

Mark has a point. Our own sleep and fatigue expert, Pat Byrne, often talks about the unfortunate realities of habitual sleep deprivation – pointing out that getting four to six hours of sleep a night may start to feel normal, but it doesn’t change the biological need to sleep eight. The accumulating deficit of sleep is evident in reaction and performance tests, even though participants might think they feel fine. Pat often sees professional athletes with whom he works confuse how they feel with how they perform. There is a difference.

In a society that would never consider getting behind the wheel of car after a few drinks, people are driving their cars with impaired levels of fatigue. In the US, fatigued driving is estimated to be responsible for 6,000 fatal road accidents annually. The problem is an international one – in the UK, it is estimated that 1 in every 5 road accidents is fatigue related. Southern Australia also reports  30% of fatal crashes and 15% of serious injury crashes are caused by fatigued drivers. The problem? Fatigue impairs not only our reaction time, but our “ability to judge our own level of tiredness”.

On a much less dangerous level, college and university students who stay up late to study are doing themselves an academic disservice. Multiple studies, including one from Harvard, have demonstrated that fatigue negatively affects the brain’s cortex – which is where information is stored. ‘Night owls’ and students who routinely deprive themselves of eight hours of sleep may think they are functioning well, but studies show that those who are staying up late to study or getting less than eight hours of sleep have lower GPA’s than those who sleep when and how biology dictates they should.

If you’re sitting down to tackle a thesis paper, researching for your next corporate presentation, driving home from work or heading out on a road trip, don’t think about how you’re currently feeling, think about how much sleep you’ve been getting lately. If it’s less than eight hours nightly for the last week, chances are it’s not enough to function at your most effective.

Finally, consider this: Drowsiness is actually the ‘brain’s last step before falling asleep‘, so waiting for the feeling of tiredness is both counter-productive and downright dangerous. Drinking a coffee or opening a window for fresh air may seem like a good way to battle the onset of fatigue, but research shows that if you close your laptop to get some shut eye, you’re likely to perform better and if you park your car and get some sleep, you may actually save a life.