So you jump into a warm comfortable bed at 10pm, wake up at 7am, and you still feel exhausted - even after over 8 hours of sleep! Sound familiar? If you’re waking up fatigued and cranky, chances are there is something not quite right in your sleep cycle.
The art of perfecting sleep all lies within understanding how the sleep cycle works and getting the timing just right.
Up until a few years ago, other than keeping a sleep diary to record when you sleep and wake up, there wasn’t too much you could do to learn about your sleeping habits at home. Finding out about your sleep cycle is now much more accessible with the help of modern tech.
Close to 10 percent of adults in the US have used tech based sleep products to better understand sleeping patterns and maximize their snooze time. As well as tech devices, there are countless iOS and Android phone apps that are designed to make it easy to track sleep and help people understand how to wake up feeling refreshed each morning.
But do they actually work and what exactly can you learn from your sleep cycle? We cover all this and more below.
For some, strapping on a smartwatch before bed might seem a little counterproductive when you need to sleep better. But for others, tracking sleep with tech can help identify sleeping patterns to find possible solutions to sleep issues such as sleep latency and sleep deprivation.
Smartwatches and fitness trackers
Smartwatches and fitness trackers use a combination of heart rate monitoring and actigraphy to track and measure sleep. Devices with heart rate monitoring can provide insights into how much time is spent in each stage of sleep.
The actigraphy features in the best smartwatches use axis-based motion sensing to record even the smallest movements. The watch will count periods of complete stillness as sleep, and movements as wakefulness.
Here are some of the best smartwatches in the market and how well they track sleep:
If the idea of going to bed with a computer on your wrist will never work for you, there are a range of sleep cycle apps that might help make sense of how you sleep.
Similar to smartwatches, not all sleep cycle apps track sleep in the same way. Because apps do not track heart rate, most sleep apps find creative ways to help people fall asleep faster and design sleep routines that support the sleep cycle.
The ultimate goals? Create calm before bedtime to fall asleep fast. Wake up easily.
If you want to track your sleep cycle and wake up feeling rested, these sleep apps are worth a try:
When you snooze, your body enters a series of different stages of sleep. Each stage is different and serves a specific purpose. But the important thing to note is that each phase of sleep is interconnected: they follow a sequence and each requires a certain amount of time to replenish the body for survival. And yes, sleep is a matter of survival; it is as important as food and water.
Just like we need to watch what we eat to stay fit and healthy, we also need to pay attention to how we sleep. This includes the pre-bedtime routine, sleep duration, how the body reacts as it enters each stage of sleep. While the exact reason why we sleep remains a mystery, even to the most renowned sleep experts, sleep is widely regarded as the most important physical function. Sleep is linked to the heart, brain, digestive system, immune system, mood, cell regeneration - almost every system in the body has a close relationship with sleep.
So what does this have to do with the sleep cycle? A lot. Different sleep cycle stages have specific roles to play in supporting the tissues and systems in the body.
When you are having problems in any stage, your overall sleep quality can start having issues, and as a result, you wake up feeling like you haven’t slept at all.
The sleep cycle is separated into two key categories: NREM sleep and REM sleep. NREM sleep starts as light sleep and has four separate stages. After NREM sleep, the dreamy REM stage of the sleep cycle starts. Here’s what happens during each stage:
NREM Sleep Stage 1 (5-10 minutes): the first stage of sleep only lasts for five to ten minutes. During this stage, the body relaxes, breathing slows and the heart rate reduces. If you start your sleep cycle too hot, you can prolong this stage of sleep and delay the other stages. It helps to use a cooling blanket to effectively regulate body temperature.
NREM Sleep Stage 2 (20 minutes): also called light-sleep, the heart rate and breathing further slows down and brain waves spike creating sleep spindles - these are sudden brain wave spikes that are essential for memory consolidation and learning.
NREM Sleep Stage 3 & 4 (40 minutes): during these stages of sleep, the body enters moderate and then deep sleep. Fully relaxed, breathing, and heart rates slow rapidly preparing for the final sleep stage. There's no eye movement or muscle activity during stages 3 & 4 of sleep.
REM Sleep (90 minutes): the REM stage of sleep is the only stage where eye movement occurs. Known as dreamwave sleep, the body enters a paralysis, but other functions of the body are completely active. Heart rate increases, breathing quickens, and brain activity increases leading to vivid dreams.
It all depends on the level of insights you are looking for. Smartwatches and phone apps can provide some basic insights into your sleeping habits and help condition your circadian rhythm to wake up more naturally. However, because at home sleep technology doesn’t take into account brainwave activity, you’re not likely to get high-level insights about each stage of your sleep cycle.
The internet is a great place to learn things, but we are also living in the age of self-diagnosis. It’s not going to be much help if you turn to a sleep tracker or app to sleep better, if you don’t have the best mattress for your sleeping style or if you suffer from back pain.
If you are facing serious issues with sleep, a sleep app or smartwatch won’t mend your slumber woes. It’s best to consult your doctor and see a sleep specialist who may recommend an electroencephalogram (EEG).
EEG’s are considered the most accurate read of brainwave activity and test results may be able to indicate exactly what’s happening at every stage of your sleep cycle.
Ready to get sleeping? If you are new to the world of sleep science, it’s worth your while testing out different methods to track your sleep. Ensure you’re sleeping on the most comfortable mattress, try sleep trackers, sleep apps, or even just have a chat with your doc.
The more you learn about your sleep cycle, the easier it can be to fall asleep with ease and get up feeling energized every day.
Do you track your sleep cycle? Share your thoughts in the comments.
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Disclaimer. We love sleep and we want you to get the best sleep possible. But we do not provide medical advice. This blog is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical info, diagnosis, or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on our blog.