Win sleep back: Four tech hacks to hit the sack when nothing else works

Pranav Dixit July 25, 2016 5 min

This is the part of the post where we throw in half a dozen studies about how millions of Indians are sleep deprived, but seriously, it’s Monday morning and this writer is, well, groggy. And chances are that you are too.

Look, it wasn’t supposed to be like this. Our bodies are biologically programmed to start winding down at sunset, rest through the darkest hours, and spring back to life — all rested and cheerful — when the sun rises. Then, 48 million of us got addicted to staring at our screens right before bedtime and biology, well, didn’t stand a chance.

Luckily, the same gadgets that are responsible for wrecking your circadian rhythms can, in fact, be used to set them back to normal. In a world where we simply can’t put away our gadgets, that’s a good thing. Here’s how to win sleep back.

Shift the colours

Here’s what happens through the day: the light that your body soaks in from the sun all day and produces melatonin, a hormone that helps animals anticipate the onset of darkness, and signals bedtime to humans. Once you actually get into bed, the production of melatonin increases greatly and it has just one purpose: to ensure you don’t wake up before you are completely rested. Melatonin keeps you asleep.

When you throw in a phone or a tablet screen into the mix, though, all hell breaks loose. Your screens produce a short wavelength blue light that suppresses melatonin and builds up histamine that actually helps your wake up. Which means that when you’re lying in bed watching one more episode of Daredevil on Netflix or chatting with one of your dozens of WhatsApp groups, both melatonin and histamine are battling it out in your brain (OK, not literally).

The solution is to reduce the blue light from your screen as much as possible. If you’re using an iPhone or an iPad, make sure you swipe up from the Control Centre and enable the Night Shift mode, which moves the device’s colour spectrum from blue to yellow (warmer). If you go into Settings on your device, you can also let your iPhone or iPad shift colours to yellow automatically after evening.

On Android, download a free app called Twilight to achieve the same effect. Desktop warriors can download F.lux, available for free for both Mac and Windows.

Watch the cycle

It’s tempting to think of falling asleep as letting go and plunging into a dark abyss, but the reality is that sleep just doesn’t work like that. Sleeping is a process that has various cycles — the first is light sleep, followed by deep sleep and a dream-cycle known as REM-sleep (here’a an amazing interactive from the BBC that goes in depth into this).

A full cycle of sleep usually lasts around 90 minutes, and is repeated several times each night — which is why it is important to wake up at the right time in your cycle if you set an alarm to wake up each morning. If your regular alarm goes off deep into your cycle, you wake up feeling groggy.

For years, this writer has solved this problem by using Sleep Cycle, one of the first sleep tracking apps available for both iPhone and Android. Sleep Cycle uses the accelerometer in your phone to detect your movements as you’re sleeping. Simply set a wake up phase (30 minutes by default) and Sleep Cycle will wake you up at the exact point in those 30 minutes with a gentle alarm when you’re in the lightest phase of your cycle — no bedhead guaranteed.

Add more noise 

Lots of people use white noise — the staticky mush that doesn’t sound like anything in particular — to help them concentrate on work through the day. But white noise is equally effective at helping to lull you into a calm state of restfulness when you lie down and close your eyes.

Adding more noise when you’re trying to fall asleep can seem counterintuitive, but white noise works because it combines every sound frequency together (think of white light that contains all colour frequencies) and thus masks out all external noise such as the irritating creak of your fan, the whirr of your air conditioner, or those kids on the floor right above you throwing yet another mid-week party.

Here’s a 10-hour white noise loop on YouTube that should do the trick. You can download it and play it back offline, storage-permitting. But a more convenient way to go about this would be to spend Rs. 60 and download the SimplyNoise app for iPhone or Android that not only includes pink and brown noises in addition to white, but also throw in nifty features like a sleep timer that gradually winds down the noise as you fall asleep.

Alternative, slip on a pair of noise-cancelling earphones (we recommend the Bose QuietComfort 20 in-ear buds) to slip into a distraction-free bubble.

Swap out your bulbs

Philips’ latest-generation of Hue smart bulbs do for your bedroom what features like Night Shift and apps like Twilight do for your screens. Once you configure them through the Hue app on your phone, the Hue bulbs in your bedroom will change colour temperatures to mimic natural light.

In the evening, a sleep mode replicates sunset and gradually dims itself as bedtime draws closer. The system works in a similar fashion to help you wake up to natural light by brightening gradually as dawn approaches.

The flip side? It’s pricey.

Get busy sleeping or get busy trying. What are you waiting for?