New SleepSpace Technology Launches to Solve Sleep Problems By Connecting All Major Wearables and Empowering Coaches
Many devices track sleep, but leave the user confused and unsure of what the data means. A new phenomenon in sleep science known as ‘orthosomnia’ has come into the lexicon of the Society of Sleep Medicine to refer to sleep data from wearables sometimes causing people with insomnia to get even more anxious and, ironically, sleep worse. Many other people lose interest in the tracker fad of the year after gaining some initial insight that can have a positive impact on health. New tools are being developed to make sleep data more transparent and effective at enhancing sleep, while also giving coaches novel ways to facilitate positive behavior change.
People are sleeping worse than ever. The pandemic and current times have brought on a malaise of grogginess due to the trifecta of stress, solitude, and technology addiction. These factors can actually play into one another. Stress makes it harder to sleep at night due to a racing mind and causes cortisol to be released at times when it shouldn’t, flattening your body’s naturally occurring circadian rhythm. Solitude causes further stress and prevents a healthy spike in alertness that typically happens by being active and socializing during the day. Without a spike in alertness during the day, your body gets confused regarding when it should be tired at night. Technology then makes it all even worse with the blue lights from phone screens sending signals to photoreceptors in your eyes that you should be awake when you should be asleep. Moreover, the addictive nature of these devices further promotes a racing mind and the inability to turn off at night.
While technology is what got us into this mess, with the average American sleeping a full hour less than they did in the 1940s, it may also be the only path forward to solving the problem of poor sleep. For the past 15 years, as a sleep scientist and the CEO of SleepSpace, I have built technology that finally does more good than harm when it comes to our sleep health. Backed by $3.5 million in grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Aging, and supported by Quake Capital, UpVentures Capital, Bulletproof Media, and the Alumni Ventures Fund, SleepSpace just launched a sleep tracking platform that seamlessly connects to most major wearables: Oura, Apple Watch, Whoop, Garmin, Biostrap, Cardiomood, Sleep Cycle, and more. But many people, around 40%, actually do not like to wear anything during sleep. That’s why there is another set of sleep trackers that we have coined, ‘nearables,’ which can track your sleep without touching you. This includes solutions like Eight Mattress, Beddit, Withings Sleep Tracking Mat, and the SleepSpace Smart Bed and Phone Charger. Wearables are often better at tracking sleep stages, which requires accurately measuring cardiovascular function, while nearables are less invasive and can more accurately measure important sleep statistics like time in bed. By developing a system that integrates with all of these devices, users can understand the variability between different algorithms (and there is quite a bit), which can address the anxiety issue when it comes to interpreting your sleep data.
Consensus sleep diary
But what happens if you disagree with the data that is outputted from the wearables or nearables? The subjective experience of your sleep is sometimes an even more important metric than what the wearables or nearables tell you, especially if you are dealing with problems falling asleep and staying asleep. How scientists define sleep is a bit subjective anyways. Essentially, sleep is based on your brainwaves being longer in wavelength and amplitude over a certain period of time, but all the thresholds for this distinction have been arbitrarily created by researchers. For these reasons, it is essential for sleep trackers to include subjective assessments of sleep to override their interpretations. Luckily, sleep scientists have come to agree on what is known as the ‘consensus sleep diary’ for evaluating sleep (see below). Users can either use the wearable and nearable data to more accurately fill out the sleep diary, or enter their diary information first in order to get an unbiased measure of the very real, yet subjective, experience of sleep.
But tracking sleep is just a means to an end. Augmenting sleep every night in a scalable and accessible way is the dream that has inspired many in the field. By detecting sleep in real-time, sleep tracking technology is finally maturing to enhance sleep. We all theoretically have an ideal sound, light, and temperature environment throughout the night that can make our sleep more regenerative.
How sound can enhance sleep
The science of sound can be used to enhance sleep in two major ways: 1) Sound masking technology, and 2) Deep sleep stimulation. Sound masking technology, also known as sound machines, can block out noise pollution (snoring and traffic). Blocking out noises that disrupt sleep is a simple way to improve sleep quality. When observing people’s brainwaves at the laboratory of our Penn State collaborators Orfeu Buxton and Margeaux Schade, I was surprised to find that subtle changes in the environment, like an air conditioner turning on, can result in awakening the brain. The sleeper is often completely unaware of these awakenings, but they are disruptive to sleep. The main factor that makes a sound disruptive is not necessarily its loudness, but the abruptness of the sound. By using a sound machine, you can make disruptive sounds less abrupt, and therefore, reduce the likelihood of awakening.
SleepSpace developed unique sound masking technology called a smart sound mask that subtly adjusts pink noise based on whether or not you are asleep to more effectively block out noise pollution at night. When combined with the SleepSpace Smart Bed, sounds can be delivered differentially on the right and left side of the bed, addressing the issue of different sound sensitivities for sleep partners. Me and my fiancé use multiple sound masks in this way because she prefers the sound to be louder than me. Since she has one SleepSpace Smart Bed on her side, and I have one on my side, we can effectively tailor the mask to our preferences. This is important since many people don’t like wearing something on their wrist while they sleep, let alone having to wear earbuds all night long.
Deep sleep stimulation is a more controversial method of enhancing sleep. A number of laboratories have demonstrated that by playing sounds at the same rate as deep sleep brainwaves, this can entrain more regenerative delta waves. Typically, this requires an invasive EEG, but our laboratory demonstrated that we can also increase delta waves without having to connect to an EEG because the brain can entrain to the sound without it being locked to the up and down state of the brainwave (see publication here). While the cognitive assessments from the study we ran did not show convincing improvements from the sound stimulation, we figured out ways to play the sounds to ensure that we do not disrupt sleep. We are still refining this mechanism for enhancing sleep, but it has potential for increasing everyone’s deep sleep, an important aspect of sleep health that often becomes worse as we age. The new SleepSpace technology can measure sleep stages every 30-seconds, in realtime, to accurately deliver such stimulation.
How light can enhance sleep
Sunlight is perhaps the first drug that organisms experienced to help them develop and grow. This is why one of the best recommendations to promote sleep health is to get a half hour of natural sunlight when you wake up in the morning. This inhibits the release of melatonin, telling your body to wake up, and aligns your circadian rhythm in such a way that helps you be more tired when you want to be tired at night. We have receptors in our eyes called photoreceptors that can detect sunlight even when our eyes are closed and controls the release of melatonin through a part of the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus. This is why if you want to sleep in, it is important to use an eye mask or blackout blinds for more effective sleep. Otherwise, even if your eyes are closed, they will detect the sunlight and this will awaken you at a time when your body might want to be sleeping.
Due to quarantine and our technologically oriented society, we are getting all the wrong light cues for promoting healthy sleep. Our isolation is reducing our natural sun exposure and the blue light from devices is telling our body’s to be awake when we should be asleep. Blue light in particular can be problematic because the photoreceptors in our eyes can distinguish blue from red, and react to blue more than red. From an evolutionary biology perspective, this may have something to do with the sunrise and sunset, or perhaps the red hue of sitting around a slow burning fire at night, which we did for about 1 million years. But for whatever the reason, red light seems to produce fewer alerting cues to the body than blue light. This is why solutions that emulate the sunset and sunrise, such as the TrueDark glasses, can be another effective way to enhance sleep.
Through a collaboration with LIFX smart bulbs and the Google assistant, we demonstrated that SleepSpace can be used to improve sleep with light. In an experiment where we manipulated whether light faded in and out gradually at wind down and wake up, versus a subtle pop to the light, we found that we could improve the perception of sleep quality using a validated survey called the PROMIS. We also showed that the simple act of consciously saying out loud when you plan to go to bed and wake up can dramatically improve your perceived sleep quality. Consciously creating this boundary for your time in bed may be one of the most important ways to improve sleep quality.
Therefore, we created customized wind down and wake up protocols within the SleepSpace system. Here’s how it works: 1) You set your wind down for between 10 mins — 1 hour. When you indicate that you are ready to wind down, all your lights automatically turn red. Then at your designated bedtime, all your lights turn off. Finally, at your wake up, 528 hertz smart wake sounds or bird sounds can gradually increase in volume from your phone and your lights brighten over a 10 minute period. This helps awaken you in a lighter sleep stage, which prevents morning grogginess. When you indicate that you are awake, the lights further brighten to give your eyes the cue that it is time to be up and alert. While natural sunlight is best, artificial light and tools like happy lamps are an improvement over not getting the light at all. By setting a sleep and wake goal and automatically creating an environment where your bedroom and other lights change, habits can be entrained and sleep can be improved.
How temperature can enhance sleep
There is good scientific evidence that lower body temperature close to bedtime can help you fall asleep faster. Other studies have shown that raising your body temperature throughout the day either from cardiovascular exercise or a sauna can entrain your circadian rhythm, similar to light exposure, and increase deep sleep at night. Since we actually lose the ability to thermoregulate during REM sleep, when our body also because completely paralyzed, it may be possible to extend REM with an optimal REM temperature, and thus improve sleep. While SleepSpace does not integrate with temperature solutions yet, they are becoming more popular with technologies like Eight Sleep, SleepMe, and Chillipad. This is an avenue for future research and development in the field of sleep.
Using a coach
There is a new profession of sleep coaches and practitioners who now have the opportunity to heal the world’s sleep epidemic and optimize every human’s sleep. At the end of the day, people are the best at helping other people with their sleep, not fancy AI or algorithms. While SleepSpace includes the Dr. Snooze AI chatbot for simple solutions and sleep hacks, we built the SleepSpace platform to integrate with a variety of sleep coaching practices to deliver personalized interventions. These interventions span sleep training babies, optimizing athletic performance, staying asleep, falling asleep, sleeping with pain, biohacking sleep, and snoring. Our team of coaches can analyze the various types of sleep data made available by SleepSpace to provide personalized sleep improvement interventions.
While technology has hurt our sleep in the past, the next decade will bring about a series of innovations that will begin to change this. By empowering coaches and care professionals to more effectively use new tools made possible by technology, the sleep health of our society can finally be improved.