Why Ignoring Your Sleep Monitor Can Help You Sleep Better

Sleep monitors are designed to help you get a better night’s rest but is there a better way of helping your body to recover from a hard day?

The Problem With Shuteye Good-quality sleep can be hard to come by in our connected, 24-hour lives – and even if you’re getting ten hours a night there’s no guarantee that it’s good quality sleep. This explains the craze for sleep monitors, which combine motion sensors and an app on your smartphone to analyse the amount and quality of sleep you’re getting. Yet research by top sleep physician Dr Magdy Younes has questioned their effectiveness, suggesting they are let down by too many variables and are prone to giving inaccurate readings. So what’s the answer?

‘I’m not anti-tech at all, but there are so many variables,’ elite sleep coach Nick Littlehales tells RISING. ‘There’s your age, job, family life, mental health – stress, anxiety, depression – your time zone and the season, your fitness, nutrition, hydration… and all of that needs assessing over time to track changes to your lifestyle and circumstances.’ Littlehales has been a sleep coach for over 15 years, and has worked with Team GB, British Cycling and Team Sky. He’s responsible for developing the ‘bed in a bag’ portable sleep kit used at the Olympics and during cycling Grand Tours, and he has a few ideas about how you can take back control of your sleep cycle, even when time is against you…

Do The Numbers Stack Up? ‘Consumer sleep monitoring is portable, accessible and affordable,’ says Younes, which in theory makes it an attractive alternative to sleeping in a lab and undergoing hours of analysis – especially if you find yourself on a waiting list longer than your countless sleepless nights. But it’s not as simple as that. ‘Our ability to gather data has exploded, but how useful is it?’ Littlehales asks. ‘If you’re running and your heart rate rises too high, you stop. If you don’t, in extreme circumstances you may die. That’s not the case with sleep. How do you know how much or how little will influence your day? If you haven’t had eight hours, are you going to stay at home so you don’t put anyone else at risk by driving? That’s never going to happen.’

The key is timing sleep to the 90-minute periods of REM and non-REM sleep

Go With What You Feel Smartphones and watches have come along way, and with sleep monitoring kit you basically wear an accelerometer on your wrist that measures your movement to gauge whether you’re in a deep sleep (no movement) or light sleep (limited movement). But even if those figures are accurate, they may be meaningless. ‘You don’t need a tracker to tell you you’ve had six hours’ sleep,’ says Littlehales. ‘If you wake up on a subconscious level but don’t remember it, so what? If you wake up at 2am because you need the bathroom, that’s normal. You could wake up after three hours feeling great, but your tracker will tell you that you haven’t had enough sleep. Who’s right?’

Time Your Sleep Cycle For Maximum Benefit So how to throw off the gadgets and sleep better? ‘You need to put in some structure to your sleep-wake cycle to get your body into a rhythm of recovery,’ Littlehales says. The key is timing sleep to the 90-minute periods of REM and non-REM that make up the body’s natural cycle. Firstly, you need to pick a time to wake up every day that can be fixed in the internal body clock. From there, you work back in multiples of 90 minutes. So waking at 6.30am means going to sleep at 9.30pm, 11pm, 12.30am or 2am. ‘You can use six, five, four or three sleep cycles and apply these as required to stay in harmony with the routine – don’t just do it randomly,’ Littlehales says. ‘It provides flexibility, but with control.’

Power Napping Is The Key If you’re struggling to get enough sleep overnight, it’s OK to take a nap – it can improve alertness and performance for several hours afterwards. ‘There are two other natural sleeping periods in the 24-hour clock: between 1pm and 3pm, and between 5pm and 7pm,’ he adds. ‘Taking a controlled 30-minute nap during these times really does help. You should adopt a “polyphasic” approach – multiple, shorter sleeps spread out over 24 hours –using 90 and 30-minute recovery periods. Nap for 30, run for 30, for example.’ You don’t even have to sleep. Spending five minutes staring at the sun or taking ten minutes to zone out after lunch can be just as effective, Littlehales says. ‘It’s not about sleep, it’s about recovery, and fitting recovery periods into your day. It’s not about sleeping for eight-hour blocks.’

Victorians didn’t have tech and they broke sleep down into three phases

Sleep Is Just A Phase – But A Vital One Polyphasic sleep is the basis of Littlehales’ approach to sleep coaching. ‘Victorians didn’t have tech and only just had lightbulbs, and they broke sleep down into three phases,’ he says. This takes a lot of pressure off – you don’t have to rush through your evening to get to bed in time to cram in eight hours, and you can disregard advice not to look at your phone before bedtime. ‘What’s the evidence for that? If you balance six hours of artificial light with natural light throughout the day, then using your phone before you go to sleep won’t make any difference.’

'People use eye masks and earplugs but denying the senses makes the body feel vulnerable. And we spend thousands of pounds on mattresses when humans were designed to sleep on the floor.’ So the best thing you can do is learn about circadian rhythms to get the most from your sleep state, and make changes accordingly, Littlehales says. ‘We’re creating schedules that are non-human, and reaching a state where we barely sleep at all – and that’s the problem.’

WHAT NEXT? Littlehales’ approach also relies on seven key sleep recovery indicators (KSRIs) – spend five minutes evaluating your own.