The Sunday Magazine

The tech-fuelled hunt for the perfect night's sleep

Sleep deprived? There's an app for that. In fact, there's a lot of apps for that. In his documentary, Ira Basen explores the exploding world of high-tech fixes for insomniacs — and speaks to one doctor who cautions against putting too much faith in them.
As people report more and more difficulty getting a good night's sleep, a raft of sleep apps have been created to help people track and monitor their slumber. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

How did you sleep last night? 

If your answer is "not so good," you're not alone.

According to a Statistics Canada report released in 2017, one in three Canadians surveyed say they aren't getting enough sleep. Almost half say they don't consistently have a refreshing night's sleep.

Sleep problems are particularly acute for women. 55 per cent of women aged 18-64 say they have trouble falling or staying asleep some, most, or all of the time, compared to 43 per cent for men.

The consequences of all this tossing and turning can be severe.

Sleep scientists have linked lack of sleep to a whole range of physical and mental problems, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, depression and Alzheimer's disease. 

Sleep is for wimps

The health risks of lack of sleep have been known for a long time, but until recently, those warnings have been drowned out by the posturing of people who wore their lack of sleep as a badge of pride.

Take Donald Trump, for example.

"I'm not a big sleeper", he told a campaign rally in Springfield, Illinois in 2015. "I like three hours, fours hours, I toss, and turn, I think, I beep de beep, I want to find out what's going on."

But the notion that only wimps care about how much they're sleeping has undergone a radical reversal in the past few years, replaced by a hyper-awareness of the value of a good night's sleep.

Evidence of that reversal can be found in the proliferation of sleep clinics and labs that treat the more than 90  recognized chronic sleep disorders, ranging from sleep apnea to restless leg syndrome.

It can also be found in the increasing number of people not suffering from any of those disorders who have nevertheless become obsessed about the duration and quality of their sleep.

Sleep has joined exercise and healthy eating in the holy trinity of the wellness movement.

DIY sleep

Because this is 2019, many of those people have turned to technology to track and monitor their slumber. 

An estimated $40 billion is spent every year on "Sleep tech" products, ranging from wearable devices that go on wrists, fingers and heads, to an increasingly sophisticated array of apps.

The apps purport to tell people not just how long they've slept, but the quality of their sleep; how many times they've woken up in the night, their breathing and heart rates, whether they experienced deep or light sleep, and a whole range of other information.

Many of these devices offer some kind of "sleep score" that you can check in the morning to discover how well you slept that night.   

Good sleep is nothing but a number, at least according to some apps offering a daily score on the quality of your rest. (Source:

In the age of what's been called the "quantified self," our sleep, like our fitness levels, our eating habits, and our health data, is something we can measure and interpret on our own. Or at least, we think we can.

Dr. Kelly Glazer Baron, the director of the behavioural sleep medicine program at the University of Utah, says that about 20-30 per cent of the people who show up at her clinic these days come with sleep data they've already gleaned from their personal sleep trackers.

"I really really love that people want to learn more about their sleep and they want to improve their sleep," Dr. Baron said in a recent interview. But she has concerns that people are sometimes taking their DIY approach to sleep a bit too far.

Enter orthosomnia. 

In a paper published in 2017 in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, Dr. Baron and her colleagues combined the Greek word "ortho," meaning correct, and "somnia," the Latin word for sleep, and came up with a new term: orthosomnia.

It describes people obsessively trying to improve their sleep.

The doctors likened the quest for the perfect sleep to orthorexia, a term now used to describe "the unhealthy preoccupation with healthy eating."

Sleep performance anxiety

Dr. Baron has two main complaints with many of the sleep tracking products currently on the market.

The first is that they're not particularly accurate, especially when it comes to measuring the amount of light, deep and REM sleep a person experiences.

"Sleep trackers are an interesting and entertaining way to look at your sleep, she argues, "but they are an estimation, and perhaps not a great estimation, of what's going on at night."

Her second complaint is that orthosomniacs often don't know how to correctly interpret the data they're getting off their devices. This leads them to inaccurate conclusions about how well they're sleeping, and in some cases, a lot of unnecessary anxiety.

"There's a performance anxiety that happens, so if you try to sleep more it's actually harder to sleep. And so being anxious about sleep or getting up in the night and checking your data, well those are things are really counterproductive to getting good sleep."

Dr. Baron insists she's not anti-technology when it comes to sleep, but she cautions against putting too much faith in finding technological solutions to sleep problems.

"Your sleep is not a switch you can turn on and off," she concludes. "And even days that you do everything right you can still have a really bad night and vice versa. So it's not something that you can explicitly control."

Click 'listen' above to hear Ira Basen's documentary "Have Data, Will Sleep."


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