While awareness of the importance of sleep is becoming more widespread and established, determining what a ‘good night’s sleep’ actually means remains something of a challenge, even for sleep researchers.
Many people face a major hurdle in getting good sleep, as up to a quarter of the population has some form of sleep disorder, with most sufferers not even being aware of it. Various studies have conclusively shown how sleep disorders, primarily obstructive sleep apnea and insomnia, can contribute to serious health problems including hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, anxiety, depression and many others. This evidence underscores the importance of getting checked for a sleep disorder, but in the absence of one, how do we know if we’re getting enough sleep, and if it’s of good quality?
The most obvious tool at our disposal is to simply observe how we feel on a day-today basis; are we tired? How often? Do we have any idea why? If we don’t have a clinical sleep disorder, tracking our sleep patterns and how they are affected by our day-to-day activities can potentially go a long way in helping us understand our sleep requirements. Adjusting our sleep habits to follow recommended guidelines – a practice known as ‘sleep hygiene’ – includes maintaining consistent sleep and wake times, avoiding caffeine late in the day, not using electronic devices at bedtime and so on.
For those seeking a more in-depth approach there are other options available, ranging from consumer sleep tracking devices to full in-lab studies. While it’s tempting to believe consumer devices offer a reliable assessment they are quite limited in the scope and accuracy of information provided, primarily tracking body movement throughout the night and little else. On the other end of the spectrum, sleep lab studies involve measuring dozens of signals – including EEG, or brain wave activity – that are then analyzed by a sleep doctor. Lab tests are exclusively undertaken to screen for sleep disorders however, and even then, the waitlist is long. In addition, lab tests are conducted under abnormal sleeping conditions and thus aren’t representative of our regular sleep.
With increased interest in sleep and technological advancement however, there are exciting new developments underway to generate better tools for evaluation, and to address growing demand there is a greater focus on ensuring these new approaches are widely accessible. We can be optimistic that the next several years to a decade will produce major breakthroughs in the quality and availability of sleep testing, and that this enhanced knowledge will pave the way to what really matters – reliable and targeted methods for improving our sleep, regardless of our starting point.
The ultimate goal is to enable all of us to effectively manage our sleep health; determining when we need to get treatment for a sleep disorder versus when we need to improve our sleep environment or simply have one less cup of coffee per day – much the same as we’ve learned to adjust our diet and exercise programs to accommodate our body’s unique needs.