Breakneck Work Culture Leads to Shift in How We Treat Sleep

Steve Young knew he had a winning technology, he just didn’t know what to do with it. He and some friends developed an ultra-sensitive scale that could detect heartbeat and respiration after another friend came home from the hospital with a premature baby. The baby needed a heart rate monitor on at all times, but there was no good way to attach it.

“Because the baby’s skin was so sensitive, the glue to hold the monitor on was really weak,” Young says. “They’d fall off, and there were all these false alarms that something was wrong.”

Young’s creation eschewed a wearable heart rate monitor, and instead had the scale wear, or weigh, the baby. While the scale worked well for newborns, Young wanted to create an application for adults. “Babies are really important, and we wanted to do that for altruistic reasons, but there wasn’t a big enough market for it,” he says.

Young approached a Stanford physician who gave him a one-word answer: sleep.

Instead of measuring a baby’s heart rate and respiration, the scale could be integrated into a mattress and used to track the metrics of an adult’s sleep patterns.

Having worked at Apple for 10 years, Young and Richard Rifredi, the friend whose son was born 12 weeks premature, founded San Jose-based Bam Labs to create Sleep IQ, a sleep tracking system that works inside Sleep Number beds.

“What we’re trying to do is give people a glimpse into a part of their life that they couldn’t see before,” says Pete Bils, vice president of sleep science and research for Sleep Number, which acquired Bam Labs—now known as Sleep IQ Labs—this year for $58 million.

Sleep IQ is part of a growing $32 billion industry dedicated to sleep—including pills, medical devices, sleep centers, mattresses, and now, electronic gadgets. Studies have shown that Americans have terrible sleep habits. Anecdotal evidence suggests the problem is worse here in Silicon Valley.

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer said that when she worked for Google, she put in 130-hour work weeks. Jack Dorsey, co-founder and CEO of Twitter and Square, said that he regularly works 16-20 hour days, leaving little time for sleep. Meanwhile, Silicon Valley lore tells of startup employees working such long hours that they live at the office, only able to catch a few hours of rest by sleeping under their desks.

“There’s a social stigma to sleeping eight hours, especially in the high tech world,” says Bils.

An estimated 50 to 70 million Americans suffer from sleep disorders or sleep deprivation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly 9 million adults rely on prescription sleep aids. Chronic sleep deprivation has effects beyond sleepiness the next morning—those who don’t get enough rest are at higher risk for diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, depression, obesity, the common cold and car accidents.

“The value of sleep is definitely underestimated by the vast majority of people,” says Ross Liebman, a sleep specialist at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation’s Sleep Center. Part of the reason for this, he explains, is that people can usually get by without it in the short term.

Many researchers are now pointing to technology—particularly cell phones, tablets, computers and TVs in the bedroom—as one explanation for sleep deprivation.

“You can go back to when electricity started,” Liebman says. “Before electricity, people might read or talk, then go to bed—it was a much less stimulating environment. Now people have 300-plus TV channels, Internet that never stops, handheld devices, they can look at data anytime, anywhere. It’s almost an overload to their sensory system, which makes it hard to calm down at night.”

According to a report from the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), two-thirds of young adults, ages 19-29, bring cell phones into their bedrooms when they try to go to sleep. Twenty percent of the same demographic report being woken up in the middle of the night by their phones. Research out of Harvard Medical School shows that the blue light emitted by electronic devices can stop the brain’s release of the hormone melatonin and delay sleepiness. This means watching TV late at night, or reading on a smartphone or tablet in bed, makes it harder to fall asleep at the proper hour. Many doctors now recommend switching off screens at least an hour before bedtime—and banning them from the bedroom.

But a new crop of companies want to put technology back in the bed by showing that high-tech gadgets can actually improve sleep.

Sleep IQ’s sensors, placed inside a Sleep Number bed, take 500 readings per second to determine movement and respiration throughout the night. Analyzing these and other measures, Sleep IQ calculates a numerical “grade” for a night’s snooze, from 0 to 100.

“The power of it isn’t the night’s worth of data—it’s over time, as you start to connect the dots on how your daytime habits and routines, your nighttime environment, how that all affects the quality of your sleep,” Bils says. “I found out that if I did long runs on the weekend at two or three in the afternoon, I slept more restlessly. Now I do those long runs as soon as I get up, then all of a sudden my sleep went back to being more restful.”

An app called F.lux tries to eliminate the harmful effects of blue light from electronic screens. The app determines the sunrise and sunset times of a person’s location, and adjusts the screen’s brightness and color throughout the day to minimize the amount of blue light eyes absorb at nighttime.

“We want to return people to having a connection with how their body actually feels, instead of the technology version that might keep you up all night,” says Michael Herf, president of the Los Angeles-based company. “Everybody’s communicating all the time, so there’s no way to say, ‘Stop using technology.’ I think we’re trying to figure out how to make it fit our lives a little bit better.”

Another gadget, originally developed for autistic children who can’t wear headphones because of tactile sensitivity, the Dreampad plays ambient music through transducers embedded in a pillow. Unlike most speakers, the Dreampad’s sound frequencies move through solid matter—the head against the pillow—instead of airwaves. Sound vibrations then stimulate the brain’s parasympathetic nervous system, which controls relaxation, in a way that music played through normal speakers can’t.

Randall Redfield, CEO and co-founder of Integrated Listening Systems, the company that produces Dreampad, says that this product is the “only” true technology on the market that will help a person get a better night’s rest. “I’m hearing a lot about sleep tracking, but I’m not hearing anything about the things that help people sleep better,” he said. “The presumption is that you’ll figure out that you shouldn’t have those three espressos before you go to bed, don’t look at your screens right up until bedtime, exercise. All of that is sound advice, but we’ve heard it a thousand times.”

“The Dreampad is the only thing I’ve come across that works on a physiological level, versus behavioral,” he said.

While the harmful effects of technology in the bedroom are well documented, the benefits of new sleep gadgets remains a new field short on studies.

PAMF’s Liebman says that sleep trackers can be “helpful,” but he adds that they’re “not diagnostic.” Essentially, discovering poor sleep patterns doesn’t necessarily translate to any tools to fix the problem.

While praising F.lux as “absolutely” helpful, Liebman also points out that many of the sleep apps on the market are nothing new. “Sometimes the apps are something you can get from a non-smart phone,” he says. “There have been sleep noise machines forever.”

While technology may be useful in getting a better night’s rest, Bils of Sleep Number says that what’s also needed is a change in how society views sleep.

“Most people live their day, then whatever’s leftover is for sleep,” he says. “But it should be the other way around. We should dedicate seven-and-a-half or eight hours a day to sleep, and build everything around that. That’s how you’ll be happy.”

4 Comments

  1. Yes, warm milk, nice fire in the cave, bear skin rug to sleep on with a good cuddle friend does it for me!

  2. I don’t think using technology for improving the quality of sleep is not a good idea.
    Anyway, this is a great post. Thanks for sharing!