A few months into his new job, Dilshad Karmakar found his sleep becoming fitful. The stress of the day would keep him up at night and the student would get out of bed feeling hung-over. So he did what any 28-year-old today would do – look to the internet for answers.

Karmakar downloaded a sleep aid app called SleepCycle, which would measure the amount of sleep he got and how many times he woke up in between. “I abandoned the app when I realised that using it was more stressful. I would constantly think about the numbers the app showed me. I think I was sleeping worse than before.”

There was a time, not so long ago, when getting a good night’s sleep was a matter of the right mattress and the right pillow. Any child of the 1990s would remember the gentle jingle from Sleepwell mattress adverts – “Sleepwell for years”. If the cushion and mattress didn’t work, there were always traditional remedies, such as a warm shower or water with honey.

Not anymore.

An ad for Kurl On mattresses.
An ad for Kurl On mattresses.

A good mattress is still essential, but that alone won’t cut it. Study after study shows a global rise in sleep disorders as lifestyles become more demanding and digital.

“Sleep is the biggest luxury provided by nature with enormous unknown benefits,” said Dr Hrudananda Mallick, president of the Indian Society for Sleep Research. “But modern society has started abusing it by staying awake more and disturbing normal physiology.”

A study published in the journal of the Indian Academy of Neurology estimated that 10-15% of the population suffers from sleep disorders, and the prevalence is higher among women.

A major reason for this, says the Asian Sleep Research Society, is the “diversification of lifestyle, computerization, and transformation into a 24x7 society”. Or, as Mallick explains it more plainly, electronic devices like phones, laptops and tablets interfere with the internal body clock, hurting sleep quality. The only way around this is to switch off.

Promised panaceas

The research on sleep is vast and complex, but to put it simply – sleep is a shift in the level of consciousness which our body needs every day.

While asleep, our heart rate and body temperature drops and we experience complex changes in brain activity. Typically, the brain goes through four stages. The first two are light stages of sleep, and the third stage is a deeper stage from which rising is more difficult. This is followed by a stage that is similar to a state of drowsiness. Each cycle lasts about an hour and a half and we need to experience all four of them to wake up rested.

Anyone who has fitful sleep knows the importance of the four stages, even if unconsciously. Sleep deprivation can unsettle cognitive processes, impairing “alertness, concentration, reasoning, and problem solving”. It upsets the brain’s ability to form memories, leaving you struggling to remember. Long-term effects of sleep disorders include higher susceptibility to heart failure and stroke.

This is where the promised digital and electronic panaceas come in.

There are myriad gadgets in the market that help the stressed-out population sleep. There are lamps and night-lights that create an environment of sleep; headphones that use algorithms to analyse sleep and adjust audio levels; noise machines to calm the overthinking mind; and wearables like FitBit and Jawbone that measure the heart rate, sweat, temperature and break down sleep patterns into light and deep sleep.

Mattresses too have upgraded over time. There are now “smart mattresses” that moonlight as sleep trackers, collecting data on breathing rate, heart rate and such and feeding it into a connected app. The app then analyses the data to identify factors that affect your sleep.

Further, sleep clinics are on the rise. The Indian Society for Sleep Research, for instance, conducts workshops on sleep technology and certifies sleep technicians and specialists.

“The ISSR conducts sleep technology workshops for those who want to build careers as sleep technicians,” said Mallick. “They are educated on how to diagnose and treat sleep disorders, like sleep apnea or other respiratory problems. These technicians then go on to apply abroad in the field of sleep medicine, or even equipment manufacturing because they know about products used in sleep laboratories.”

Then, of course, there are the multitudes of sleep aid apps, such as SleepCycle, SleepBot, Pillow. Some work as white noise machines that block out other noises; some track sleeping patterns; and some promise to gently wake you up at the “right time”, when the brain is ready to be woken up.

Data shown by a sleep-tracking app.
Data shown by a sleep-tracking app.
A fitBit tracker.
A fitBit tracker.

Gini Garg used Mindifi, an app that promises deep sleep through the power of hypnosis. “I would listen to the voice telling me to allow myself to get into a deep sleep or relax or something and the first night I thought it was working,” said the 25-year-old Delhi resident. “I think I might have slept well. But within a few days I knew what the voice was going to tell me to do and it was like watching a movie again and again. I knew the plot. I had no patience for it so it wasn’t working for me anymore.”