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Apps We Love: Sleep Cycle

In this Mindfulness Monday post, we share how using Sleep Cycle can help you wake up well-rested.

When I was 18, I had a seizure while standing in line at a McDonald’s. Fortunately, there was a nurse nearby and she kept me safe until the ambulance arrived and I was rushed to the hospital. When I woke up, the doctor told me that I had epilepsy (from my grandmother) and I would have to live with it the rest of my life.

I’ve been very fortunate because my quality of life is not impacted significantly, but since a lack of sleep is one of the things that can trigger a seizure, it has made me very aware of my sleep habits. I do my best to make sure that I am 1) getting enough sleep, and 2) getting the best sleep I can.

But even if you don’t have a medical condition, maximizing the quality (and quantity) of your sleep is always a good idea. That’s exactly what Sleep Cycle is designed to help you with.

Sleep Cycle is an iPhone app that tracks your sleep and gives you the data you need to make adjustments as necessary. It works by using the microphone on your iPhone to analyze your movements while you sleep. You activate Sleep Cycle when you get in bed for the night, and turn your phone face down with the microphone facing you on your nightstand. (Alternatively you can place the phone under the sheet on your mattress, but I’m always afraid of knocking my phone on the floor this way). Sleep Cycle will monitor your sleep and give you statistics in the morning that looks something like this:

Sleep Cycle

In addition to the total time you spent sleeping and a percentage rating for the quality of your sleep, the chart gives you a visual view of your sleep cycles.

This is important because your body needs these sleep cycles to function properly. Sleep cycles are kind of like a biological oil change that keeps your body running. When you donโ€™t take care of the engine by getting enough sleep, you canโ€™t function properly. You may get away with it for a little while, but it will catch up to you eventually โ€” like a car engine that seizes after you don’t change the oil for too long. The difference here is that your body needs this metaphorical oil change every single night.

Your sleep cycles are charted by the dips and peaks of the graph in the Sleep Cycle app. They show the transition from fully awake to deep sleep and back up again. There are several stages to a full sleep cycle:

  • Stage 1: This is light sleep. This happens right after you fall asleep, usually within the first 5 minutes. This stage is really more like a transition to real sleep.
  • Stage 2: This is still light sleep, but your brain waves are finally starting to slow down. This stage usually happens within 10 to 25 minutes of falling asleep. During this stage, your heart rate also slows down and your body temperature drops.
  • Stage 3: This is where you are actually sleeping and deep sleep occurs. Your blood flow is also directed away from your brain and toward your muscles as your physical energy is restored during this stage.
  • Stage 4: This is REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. This is where dreaming occurs, and where most of the restorative stuff happens.

The general rule is that the more REM sleep you can get, the better rested you are. But unfortunately, you can’t just enter REM sleep. You have to go through all the different stages to get there, and then your body reverses the process and goes back up again. The whole journey from Stage 1 to REM and back up is what makes up a “sleep cycle,” and the whole process usually takes about 90 minutes.

In addition to giving you a picture of your sleep patterns and making sure you get enough sleep cycles (the average person needs 5), Sleep Cycle can also help you wake up feeling well-rested. If you ever wake up to your alarm and you just canโ€™t get out of bed, there’s a good chance it’s because your alarm went off while you were in a deeper sleep stage and were startled awake. When this happens, it can take a little while for your body to get rolling. Sleep Cycle helps you overcome this by letting you set a wake up window (i.e. 30 minutes). During the wake up window, Sleep Cycle looks for the perfect time to wake you up (when you are coming up out of your sleep cycle). By timing it right, you can wake up feeling rested and rejuvenated, ready to tackle the day.

My favorite feature though is the integrations with Phillips Hue lights, which allows Sleep Cycle to control a specific light bulb and simulate a natural sunrise. This feature is available as part of the Premium subscription, which is $29.99/year and also includes things like sleep aids and snore detection. When enabled, the light you choose in the app will gradually get brighter starting at the beginning of your selected wake up window. This can help your body naturally transition out of deep sleep more quickly, helping you hit the ground running when it’s time to get out of bed.

If you’re looking for an app that can help you improve the quality of your sleep, check out Sleep Cycle. It’s free on the iOS App Store, so there’s no reason not to give it a go if you’re looking to sleep a little bit better. And if you have a Phillips Hue light on your nightstand, you may want to check out the Premium subscription.

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