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What a year of tracking my sleep taught me about sleep

It’s 3:45 a.m. as I write this. More than half of Americans surveyed this spring report very good or good sleep quality. Not me. Depending on when you ask, I’d probably fall into the 36 percent who rate their sleep “fair” or even the 13 percent who rate it downright poor. But I’ve been working on it.

Almost two years ago, we did a story on body quantification: people who use biofeedback sensors to measure everything, from the number of steps they take to how and when they burn every calorie, to how they sleep. It took me six months, but I finally caved in and bought a smart watch that would give a rough idea of some of these things in an effort to become more healthy.

Do we overestimate how much sleep we need? Hari Sreenivasan reports.

I’ll credit some of my weight loss last year (though I need to get more focused on it again) with the ability to visualize my own data. Seeing how many calories I burned on my bike rides to and from work helped prime me toward healthier habits the rest of the day. But the most interesting bits were the sleep data.

This watch measures my movements, my skin temperature, my perspiration, and even attempts to get a measure of my heartbeat, combines all those and generates a detailed image of how I sleep (or don’t). I can see at a very granular level when I move at night, if my sleep is interrupted, when I was in different phases of sleep (REM/light/deep), and it even gives me a handy score.

What I started doing was trying to reverse-engineer those scores. I needed to know what was happening before those nights of high scores and good rest, and what was happening before the bad nights. Here’s what I found.

These were my correlations for high-scoring sleep:

  • any sort of strenuous physical activity during the day — like a run or a bike ride
  • not eating late at night, especially no spicy foods
  • not checking my smartphone or computer screen right before bed
  • a hot shower right before bed
  • sleeping with the windows open or in a cold room

And for low-scoring sleep:

  • time zone shifts/ flights
  • lack of exercise during the day
  • late night computing/smart-phoning
  • late night meal especially if it is spicy or very sweet
  • sleeping pill

Breaking the sleeping-pill crutch was one of the first major changes I made, thanks to the data. What I saw was that while I definitely sleep longer after taking a pill, I don’t sleep better. For me, the extra time seems to be spent mostly in light sleep versus deep sleep or REM sleep, and I almost never wake up feeling refreshed. Sleep experts also point out that cognitive behavioral therapy is as successful if not more so than taking pills, without any of the long term side effects.

As the sleep-disorder expert I spoke with for this story told me, sleep is not like a bank account. I can’t create deficits all week and then expect to replenish myself on my days off. It takes our bodies a day to three days to recover from each night of bad rest. Hopefully the next three nights will be good to me.

Editor’s note: Are we more sleep deprived than our ancestors? On tonight’s PBS NewsHour, Hari reports on questions raised by new sleep research.