Beijing time on December 6, according tomedia reports, we often take insomnia as a proud thing, is a measure of our busy schedule. Thomas Edison, Margaret Thatcher, Martha Stewart and Donald Trump have all claimed to sleep only four to five hours a day, far less than the seven to nine hours recommended for most adults, and many are following suit.
Margaret Thatcher Infographic
Although the consequences of lack of sleep are well known, including impaired memory and decision-making skills, as well as an increased risk of infection and obesity, it is easy to overlook. We are still most likely to sacrifice sleep when demand exceeds the working hours of the day. But what if we could simply optimize the sleep experience and enjoy most of the benefits of deep sleep in less time?
Thanks to the latest “sleep optimization” technology, this possibility is getting closer to reality. Studies around the world have shown that it is possible to increase the efficiency of the brain’s nighttime activity, including speeding up deep sleep and improving rest effectiveness after deep sleep.
Sounds too good to be true, is that true?
On a typical night, the brain goes through many different sleep stages, each with a unique pattern of “brain waves”. In these patterns, neurons in different areas of the brain discharge simultaneously at a specific rhythm (a bit like a group of people singing or beating a drum in unison).
During the rapid eye movement (REM) phase, the rhythm of neuron discharge is quite fast. We are the easiest to dream at this stage. However, sometimes our eyes will stop turning, dreams will disappear, the rhythm of brain waves will drop to less than 1 “beat” per second, when we enter the deepest, most unresponsive state of unresponsive ness, which we call “slow-wave sleep.”
Scientists studying the possibility of sleep optimization are particularly interested in the slow-wave sleep phase. Research since the 1980s has shown that slow-wave sleep is essential for maintaining brain function, and it can transform the necessary brain regions into long-term memories so that we don’t forget what we’ve learned, and slow waves help with the transmission of information.
Slow waves can also trigger blood and cerebrospinal fluid to flow through the brain, washing away harmful fragments that can cause nerve damage, and they can also cause a drop in the stress hormone cortisol and help repair the immune system to make it more resistant to foreign infections.
These results lead scientists to wonder whether we can help sleep and improve our daytime physical function by increasing the production of slow waves.
One of the most promising techniques should be able to do this, working a bit like a metronome, guiding the brain to the right rhythm. The researchers recorded participants’ brain activity using a headset device, including when they began to emit slow waves. The device then plays the soft sound of short pulses regularly during night intervals and begins to synchronize with the brain’s natural slow waves. These sounds are quiet enough to avoid waking participants, but also loud enough to be recorded unconsciously by the brain.
A large number of experiments have found that this gentle auditory stimulation is enough to strengthen the rhythm of the right brain, compared to people who receive false stimulation, can achieve the effect of deeper slow-wave sleep. Participants who wore a wearing a headset performed better on memory tests, showing an improved memory of what they had learned the previous day. The stimulation also alters their hormone balance – lowering their cortisol levels – and improves the immune response.
In trials to date, participants have not reported any adverse reactions to the technology, and although we cannot yet determine, there have been no significant side effects so far.
Get a good night’s sleep in a nearby shop
Most studies that try to promote slow-wave sleep were conducted in a small group of young, healthy participants, so to determine the benefits of promoting slow-wave sleep, we needed to do more large-scale trials in more diverse groups. However, according to available evidence, a small number of consumer electronics products have applied the technology, mainly in the form of headdresss, for night wear.
For example, French start-up Dreem has produced a headband (priced at about 400 euros) that uses devices similar to scientific experiments to promote slow-wave sleep through auditory stimulation – effects have been confirmed in peer-reviewed trials. Dreem devices can also connect to an app that provides practical advice by analyzing sleep patterns to help you get a better night’s sleep. These suggestions include meditation and breathing exercises to ensure that you sleep faster and wake up less often at night. All in all, the goal is to improve the quality of sleep throughout the night, so that those who feel they need a good rest can get a good night’s sleep.
By contrast, Philips’ smartSleep product is very explicit in its efforts to compensate for some of the ill effects of lack of sleep for those who “for whatever reason, for whatever reason, are not giving themselves enough sleep.”
Launched for the first time in 2018, the device, like Dreem’s products, is headband, which senses electrical activity in the brain and periodically plays short pulses of sound to stimulate slow oscillations that characterize deep sleep. SmartSleep relies on smart software that carefully adjusts its volume over time to ensure that it provides users with the best level of personalized stimulation (the device is currently available only in the U.S. for $399).
David White, chief scientific officer at Philips, says that while the device doesnot completely replace sleep throughout the night, it is well known that it is difficult to persuade sleep-deprived people to make the lifestyle changes necessary. By amplifying the benefits of sleep, SmartSleep devices can at least help them work better in their daily lives. Based on these observations, experiments by Philips have shown that the device does promote slow-wave sleep for sleep-deprived people and can mitigate some of the immediate effects of lack of sleep, such as poor memory consolidation.
French start-up Dreem has created a hairband using sound pulse stimulation that is said to help you sleep better. This is one of several similar products on the market.
To optimize our sleep, scientists may come up with more innovative ways in future research. Scientists at Concordia University in Canada recently experimented with a gently shaking bed that swings around about every four seconds.
The technology was inspired by a colleague shaking a newborn baby to sleep, leading the team to speculate that adults may also benefit from gentle swinging. Sure enough, they found that the participants entered slow-wave sleep faster, and that participants spent more time in this sleep phase as brain waves synchronized with external motion. As expected, participants reported waking up in the morning feeling more relaxed, and their memory and learning had the effect of the expected knock-on effect, which was the most important result.
Such beds may be marketed like headbands that make a stimulating sound, and can be used to help older people sleep better. As we get older, the amount of time we spend on short-wave sleep seems to be decreasing, which can lead to some memory problems associated with aging.
We still need to get a little more sleep.
Although this area is still in its infancy, the above studies suggest that there is a promising prospect for improving our sleep ability, regardless of how much or less we get, in the overall concept of sleep optimization.
Commercial products that use sound pulses to stimulate regenerative slow waves have great potential, and we still need larger research to ensure that these products are effective outside the laboratory. Can sleep optimization bring long-term benefits? This will be an interesting question in future research. We know that chronic lack of sleep increases the risk of diabetes and even Alzheimer’s disease, but it is not clear whether these new technologies can help reduce these risks.
For now, the only way to ensure that we benefit from sleep, whether long-term or short-term, is to make sure we get enough sleep. Whether you want to try these devices or not, you should try to schedule more sleep time, avoid excessive alcohol and caffeine before bedtime, and spend less time using the screen – all of which are known to impair sleep quality.
Our brains can’t work without charging, and anyone who wants to live a happy, healthy, meaningful life needs to be aware of this fact.