Starting from a really early age, I had difficulties sleeping. Let’s call these difficulties insomnia on steroids. I couldn’t fall asleep, and when I did, there was no way I could stay asleep. It impaired my life so much, that I would frequently fall asleep at various points during the day out of sheer exhaustion.
Words like narcolepsy were thrown around. Those sleeping pills that are supposed to be a temporary fix looked like they might become a permanent fixture.
So, my parents did the reasonable thing, and took me for a sleep study. I got all wired up and was told to go about my normal routine. As if there’s anything normal about tripping on wires connected to every square inch of you. I don’t remember much about the actual study, except that thoughts like this is stupid kept drifting through my mind.
The results came in. I didn’t have narcolepsy or really any sort of definable sleep disorder. What I did have was an extraordinarily low occurrence of REM sleep. This explained quite a bit – including why my involuntary naps during the day were plagued by vivid dreams.
There wasn’t much they could do about it, though.
I went about my life, trying different techniques to cope with my strange sleeping patterns. I tried meditation, implementing routines, deep breathing, sleeping on my left side, creating pitch black rooms, and various pharmaceutical assists. Nothing really worked, but at least I was able to stay awake during the day and become a productive member of society.
At some point, I gave up on this ridiculous notion that everyone needs eight hours of sleep. The NYTimes ran an article that helped me come to terms with the idea that I wasn’t a failure if I got six hours. I even found out that my migraines were even tied to getting too much sleep!
My life improved. I regularly get around 4-7 hours of sleep a night. I go to bed whenever I want, usually around 1am, never before 10pm. My goal is to get up at 6:30am. I stopped tying my self worth to how much sleep I managed to get (when did that even happen, anyway?).
Over the holidays, I purchased a fitbit. Like a true geek, I wanted data on my typical activity levels before attempting to improve them. So far, it’s worked well – and I do enjoy the gamification of my health.
I didn’t anticipate the data that fitbit gave me on my sleeping habits. On a whim, I decided to try collecting data for a week, before trying to examine it. I’m not sure how it calculates the sleep efficiency score, so I generally disregard it. I don’t take what the reports say as gospel, but as an estimation.
What I found surprised me. I always thought that it took me at least 45 minutes to fall asleep, but fitbit reported that my average time to fall asleep was 15 minutes. Yes, I had periods of restlessness during the night, but they were nowhere nearly as frequent as I had thought (~9 times). The only thing that didn’t surprise me was how much time I spent asleep – it falls squarely in that 4-7 hours per night range.
I’m tempted to have another sleep study done, to see if I’ve managed to correct my REM sleep deficit in the last 20 years.
I had achieved an uneasy peace with my sleeping habits before fitbit, but I have to admit, I worry far less about them now. The data that I routinely have on my sleep helps me set my own expectations for my day and take control of my sleep. Nothing about my actual sleep has changed, but how I react to it has changed dramatically.
Technology is not the answer to every problem, but I believe that it has the great capability to empower people through information and data. People who have smartphones no longer have to worry about getting lost all the time, and I don’t have to worry about my sleep patterns controlling my life.
So thanks, fitbit!