In this edition of Fast Forward, my guest is Dr. Chris Winter, an expert on sleep and the author of The Sleep Solution: Why You Sleep is Broken and How to Fix It. Dr. Winter has helped patients ranging from Arianna Huffington to the New York Rangers. In this interview, conducted at the Muse booth at CES, we discuss the increasingly complex role technology plays in our sleep. And yes, you shouldn’t keep your phone by the bed, but that is just the beginning.
What’s wrong with the way we’re sleeping now?
Chris Winter: I think there is a fundamental lack of understanding about sleep that as technology comes in, it’s giving us information we’re not equipped to process or understand. I also think it is creating a hyper-focus in areas that don’t need it. I have talked to many individuals, even writers, who use devices, who say while it started out helping them with their sleep, it started to evolve into a place where they became obsessive about it, almost like a video game where you’re trying to get the higher score and do better.
We want to create a situation where the technology’s enhancing or augmenting our sleep, but it’s not starting to pull away from it or become a distraction when it comes to getting into your bed at night.
Just from a fundamental perspective, why is sleep so important to us?
Sleep underlies everything we do. We think about pillars of our health as being nutrition or exercise, but really, underneath the pillars of those aspects…is really sleep. When we don’t sleep properly, we tend to eat more poorly. We tend to gain more weight. We tend to be less motivated to exercise, and frankly, get less out of our exercise.
It’s one of those things where if you made a 2018 resolution to eat better and to exercise more, if you’re not taking care to get better sleep, it’s really kind of all for naught.
Probably the number one thing, I think, that’s affected sleep patterns in the last 10 years is that now, a large portion of the population, including myself, fall asleep with their cellphone next to the bed, and that’s something that really didn’t happen 10 years ago. Throughout human history, we just didn’t have cell phones next to the bed. How has that changed people’s sleep patterns?
It’s radically changed people’s sleep patterns. Taking away things like the light and the stress that these things cause, it’s really creating a situation where individuals are not setting aside a time to rest. The day’s work, the day’s activity, the day’s communication has now really bled into sleep.
People who tell me they’ll watch episodes of Netflix right before they go to bed, they literally have the television screen or their phone right in the bed with them. Little alerts and chirps are happening throughout the night that may be nothing more than a two-for-one wing special at some restaurant, but there’s this sort of activation of cortisol in your brain, like, “Who was that? What could that be? Is that my girlfriend,” and you look at it, and it’s not.
We’re having a lot more difficulty now as a society, particularly youth, disconnecting from technology, entertainment, their ways of communicating with one another.
It’s also something that’s affecting the younger generation, I think, disproportionately. When I was an adolescent, I would spend every night on the phone with my friends, usually one friend at a time. Now, adolescents are spending all night on the phone with all of their friends, simultaneously, sometimes deep into then past the midnight hour.
Absolutely. It only takes one person to do that. I saw a patient, literally last week, who was brought in by his family because he would have his phone on, and his girlfriend, somewhere across town, would have her phone on, and they would literally Skype, looking at each other in bed, all night long. They were distressed that he wasn’t getting enough sleep. Well, of course he’s not. He’s looking at this half-dressed girlfriend on it. Problems we never dreamt about 10 years ago are affecting our youth now and they’re not given really good guidance on how to deal with it.
When I go to sleep at night, I have my iPad. I’m usually reading a book, but I have the screen blacked out with white text. Is that good enough? Is that going to affect my sleep?
It’s much better. I think that when you look at research on eReaders, you’re better off with a book, with some sort of indirect light, but there are certainly things that we can do. You can invert the text like you’ve done. There are filters you can either download onto certain tablets or PCs or your phone, or a lot of them are being built in with sort of a sleep mode.
There are also glasses that we can use now that have the blue blocker lenses. I deal with a lot of coaches who have to be on a computer at night when they’re getting ready to go to bed. They’re just putting those on, and actually looking at that through a filtered screen can be very helpful as well.
We’re in the sleep technology section of CES and it’s not one or two booths here. There’s at least a dozen mattress manufacturers. There are lots of brain-sensing technologies. What are some of the most interesting technologies you’ve seen here at CES?
I’m a huge fan of brain-sensing technology, in terms of what I do, both for elite athletes and their performance, but also the average individual who’s telling me, “I can’t shut my brain off to sleep at night.” The idea of us being able to see what our brain, or hear what our brain, is doing, and learn how to better able to control it, to me, is fascinating.
I was always a big fan of the Muse brain-sensing headband. They package it now in a pair of glasses, so all the technology and brain-sensing application is inside the actual, relatively stylish, eyewear that you could go to put on. If your Uber was delayed getting to your location, you can pull out your app and do a mediation session in the back of the car in a very easy way that doesn’t require you carrying around extra baggage.
I’m really impressed with a lot of the wearable technology in terms of not only things you would wear, like a wearable watch. Nokia makes a really good sleep sensing watch now that’s actually quite attractive. They’re creating sensors within the bedroom in the bed. They can look at not only movement, which was always the mainstay of sleep technology and it’s been that way for decades. Actigraphy, how much do you move is being a surrogate that if you are moving, you’re probably not sleeping. If you’re perfectly still, you probably are. Now we’re incorporating things like heart rate variability, body temperature, other things that now allow us to paint a much more complete picture, and really start to move towards the replication of what real scientists would consider a true sleep study.
We’re getting to that place now where we can do what could only be done in a lab a few years ago in our own bedroom, in ways that we don’t even realize we’re wearing it.
Let’s talk a little bit about the meditation and the biofeedback that you can tap into. I use Headspace. I meditate fairly regularly, but I’m always left with that feeling that I think it’s making me healthier and more calm and more balanced, but I don’t actually know. I can’t see the effect that it’s having on my brain, but some of these brain sensing technologies can actually register those changes.
They can. To me, I always tell the patients or the athletes I work with that this kind of technology is like meditation training wheels. It’s hard to convince somebody who’s never mediated before its benefit, because they don’t see it.
I’ve got data that I like to show people of a baseball player I worked with who used it for the first time at 10 a.m. during spring training, and by 2 p.m., he had increased his ability to settle his brain by 65 percent. Now you’ve kind of hooked him, and then if you can start to pull in research that would show an individual who is resting with that state of mind, versus the individual resting with the higher, active state of mind, you’re doing much more for your body and you’re gonna feel it more the next day.
These athletes are quite in touch with that. With this device, it’s allowing them to settle faster, respond more quickly during the day and frankly, what’s beneficial to me is, getting in bed after a difficult, stressful day, and being able to wind down and fall asleep quickly. People feel that. If you can take somebody who it takes them an hour to fall asleep and shorten it down to 10 minutes, they’re believers.
What is that process for the average user who’s starting off the new year, they’ve decided to exercise more, they’re going to eat better, and then that third leg of the stool, they want to sleep better. What should they do in order to get started?
Now, I think the first step for an individual is to educate yourself about sleep. That’s why I wrote the book. I felt like there’s a lot of high reaching education out there, but for the average person, they really wanted to sit down and have a beer or two with the sleep doctors, kind of figure out in simple terms, how they could make better choices in terms of their sleep.
The first thing is, educate yourself about your sleep, and the second thing is really create a plan for your sleep, and that plan not only includes the time we’re sleeping at night, but 24 hours. A regular schedule for getting up and going to bed. Exercising, preferably first thing in the morning. Regular and consistent meal timings. Setting aside timing to nap, or to meditate, that’s consistent. It’s the same time every day. That’s a great place to start trying to figure out what’s going on with your sleep.
Then, as you start to figure out the specific problems you have in your sleep, “I wake up sweating a lot,” “I have a lot of shoulder pain when I sleep,” then you can start using the technology that’s out there to really pinpoint, “Hey, maybe this mattress would be a wonderful solution for this shoulder pain I’m having, because it tends to absorb my pressure points better,” or “This mattress has a cooling effect that would really help me, because my wife likes the bedroom much warmer. This would allow me to cool my side of the bed much easier, even if she had the room a little bit warmer.”
You hear a lot of marketing, every mattress company comes out and says that they’re the best mattress for sleep, and there’s a lot of high tech mattresses out there on the market, which have apps and various feedback loops, and a lot of them are on display within a hundred yards of this booth.
Absolutely. For sure. You can lie down a lot at this conference if you want to.
There are a lot of places to lie down, and I’ve been here for a couple days, so it’s very tempting, but what do you look for in a mattress? What do you think actually makes a difference in the quality of people’s sleep?
Yeah, I mean, I really, to me, patients ask this a lot. Athletes ask it a lot. I’m really looking for what they need. Is it something where orthopedically, you’re somebody who likes to sleep on your back, and you’re looking for more support? Are you somebody who’s bothered by the temperature of memory foam? A lot of people who sleep on memory foam, they feel hot when they sleep. Are there specific needs that your partner has so that you need a mattress that’s able to be customized toward your needs and to his or her needs?
To me, it’s really about, I mean, is the greatest mattress in the world at this expo? Yes, it is, but it really depends on what you’re looking for and what you need in terms of which of those mattresses is going to be best for you. Are you somebody who’s looking for something more organic, like a natural latex, where you don’t get a lot of the bed bug situation or dust mites? Do you have allergy issues? There’s a lot of dimensions in there.
When you’re looking for a mattress, you really need to figure out what are the criteria that you need to consider, and what’s most important to you, and then you can find the right mattress for your needs.
What does your personal bedtime routine look like? What time do you go to bed, what time do you wake up?
I am a night owl. My wife is very much a morning person. She’s what keeps me in check, otherwise I’d be buying Samurai swords on QVC at 3 in the morning, and not knowing what to do with them the next day, but to me, I made a decision many years ago, that even if I was involved in something, or watching a great episode of Game of Thrones, that at 11:30, I was going to shut everything down, and go to bed. I really try to stick close to that.
I actually use an alarm, not for waking up, but I use an alarm for my bedtime. If I’m writing an article, or doing something fun, then I don’t lose sense of time. An alarm goes off and it’s telling me, hey, it’s 11:25. You need to start turning lights off, put the dog away, get things ready to go to bed. That’s very helpful to me too.
People’s bodies, you can get an internal alarm clock for waking up in the morning? I always wake up at the same time, but there’s no alarm clock for going to bed, unless you set it yourself.
I mean, it’s amazing how many times I will look up from something I’m working on, and it’s 1:30 in the morning. I’ve just completely lost track of time, and so to me, I think a regular wakeup is very important. I regularly wake up every day, usually around 5, to work out. I think that even if you have the opportunities to sleep in, it’s not good to get up at 6 on three days out of the week, and sleep till noon on the other two days.
Exercise regularly is very important. Really, pay attention to how sleepy you are during the day. If you’re yawning throughout interviews with people who run, editors-in-chiefs of magazines, if you’re nodding off in meetings, or driving your car, you’re not getting enough sleep, or there’s something wrong with your sleep, it may be time to go back to your schedule, revamp it a little bit to provide more sleep time, or if you’re already sleeping enough, it might be time to talk to a doctor about what’s wrong with your sleep.
If you’re going to bed at 11:30, you’re getting up at 5:00, that’s not seven to eight hours a night of sleep.
It’s not, and so when you look at the bell curve distribution of sleep, it’s very important for people to get their eight hours of sleep, if that’s what they require. If you were to set a situation up for me to go to bed at 9 and get up at 5, I struggle to fall asleep at 9, because I’m not really sleepy at that point, so I’m definitely somewhat of a short sleeper. It’s a genetic trait. There’s lots of people out there who are, who would love to get eight hours of sleep, but they simply can’t.
As long as you’re getting a consistent amount of sleep, and not feeling tired the next day. I mean, if you pulled one of the beds over here right now and allowed me to go to sleep, I wouldn’t be able to do it. As long as you don’t feel excessively sleepy, and you feel like your sleep quality is good, that might be the right amount for you, so don’t get too hung up on the eight hours, no matter what the sleep expert says.
For people who need seven or eight hours, you should take it? Because you’re going to perform better the next day.
Then you should get it, absolutely. There’s an interesting aspect of individuals out there. There are certain genes that allow us to do well with sleep deprivation. You find that a lot in medical students and doctors. They can function well. They can operate and take your spleen out after two hours of sleep. Military people are like that, too.
It’s important to understand, just because you can do it, doesn’t mean that’s the right thing for your health, so again, if I start to feel sleepy during the day, maybe I need to start looking at that 11:30 bedtime and moving it back to 11:00. It’s all about getting what you need individually as a sleeper.
I want to ask you some questions I ask everybody that I bring on the show. Is there a technological trend that keeps you up at night?
I worry about a lot of things. One of the things I worry about is technology that’s designed to help you sleep that you are interfacing a lot with at night, you know? I saw this app that was asking you, What time do you go to bed? How long does it take you to fall asleep? How many times do you wake up at night? What that’s doing is it’s forcing the consumer, throughout the night, “Okay, I woke up. I need to remember to tell my app that,” or they’re waking up and writing down little notes.
I really want you to put as much thought into your sleep as you do brushing your teeth. Set the stage, and then don’t worry too much about it. I like technology like this that you’re using during the day. Then, it’s not a part of your bedtime routine. I think that we need to make our technology a little bit more stealth, and a little less something that people could obsess over. Sleeping is not worth obsessing over.
Is there a technology that you use regularly, either a gadget, an app, or a product that continues to inspire wonder in it?
I mean, I think the Muse Platform is fantastic. I use it a ton. But when you talk to individuals who really design in the development of it, the application moving into the future is fascinating to me, the idea that we can use this very easy interface. When you look at sleep technology, it’s really all about the interface. I mean, we can get fantastic brain activity information from an individual, but it might require us for 30 minutes gluing electrodes all over your head.
You go into an office, and hiring a doctor to supervise you.
Or for an athlete, it’s amazing to me how little most athletes will do to collect data. The joke I always made with teams was, “Until we can figure out a way to stitch the sensors in their underwear, we’re never going to get them to do it,” but now, I’m sure maybe.
I’m sure Tom Brady might have sensors in his underwear.
Exactly, yeah. He’s got them all over the place. Yeah, I’ve seen, I’ve worn his pajamas before.
To me, the whole idea of solving a simple interface problem, and then projecting that interface moving forward, in terms of giving us all kinds of information about our day-to-day lives, or athletic performance, is really exciting to me. That inspires a lot of interest to me.
I’m also really interested in light. Light has always been this sort of focus of sleep, that if we can evaluate and change our light, we can really affect our sleep. But there’s a real growing body of evidence that’s saying now that temperature manipulation might really be the key, that if we can figure out a way that as we’re sitting and watching Stephen Colbert’s show at night, as we start evaluating and changing our ambient temperature in our room, and in our bed, that that might be the key to really finding our best sleep.
People aren’t going to remember to get up and turn down the heat every night at 9.
Right. Well, they can’t. Exactly.
But you could program it into a Nest, or into an automated system that would just do it automatically.
Absolutely. There’s technology now that can control the temperature of your bed, your bed side independently from your partner’s bed side. And now, with these applications, it’s exactly like you said, I’m trying to mirror a temperature curve, and so that thing could be making minute adjustments to my temperature all night long.
But the thing that really blows my mind is you’re getting ready to travel to Korea to perform in the Olympics. You can actually start to adjust your temperature curve prior to leaving, just like we do with light, so that when you arrive in Korea, your body already thinks it’s been there for a while. Fascinating. I love it.
Interesting stuff. How can people follow all the interesting things that you’re doing online?
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