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Electric sleep: the gadgetry tracking and hacking the way we rest | Sleep

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At 2.16am, I stumble to the bathroom. I catch a glimpse of myself. The light from the red bulb is flattering – I’ve been told to eliminate all blue light on my nocturnal trek – but the sleep-tracker headband, currently emitting the sound of gently lapping waves, kills any woke-up-like-this vibe. I adjust its double straps and feel my way back to bed.

The Dreem headband, one of a growing number of wearable sleeping devices
The Dreem headband, one of a growing number of wearable sleeping devices. Photograph: Amazon

The next time I wake is at 6.30am – after fractured dreams in which the Dreem 2 headband makes many cameos – to birdsong, also from the headband. When I check the app, I see I have slept six-and-a-half hours of my anticipated eight. Anxious to remedy this, I head out for my first coffee. In his new book Blueprint: Build a Bulletproof Body for Extreme Adventure in 365 Days, athlete Ross Edgley warns that this sort of overriding behaviour can bring about “biochemical bankruptcy”. Not now, Ross.

Health influencers like Edgley are all over sleep lately, and no wonder, when so many of us obsess over it. A 2021 report released by the Sleep Health Foundation estimates around one in 10 Australians have a sleep disorder, while a report from 2019 found that more than half are suffering from at least one chronic sleep symptom. Studies have suggested that sleep deficiency can lead to weight gain and a weakened immune system and that poor sleep patterns may contribute to later dementia risk.

In recent years, sleep-fretting has intersected with fitness-tracking, with the latest bio-hacks regularly featured on the podcasts of personal-development heavyweights such as Joe Rogan, whose Whoop Strap – worn around the wrist – told him he was getting four or five hours a night, not the seven or eight he’d thought; and Aubrey Marcus, whose Oura ring measures various biomarkers overnight and gives him a total score in the morning. “If I can get close to 80%, I’m golden for the day,” Marcus told the authors of My Morning Routine.

Wearables, such as watches, rings and headbands, appeal to those of us who enjoy geeking out on our stats, but could they also be cultivating anxiety and feeding into insomnia? Associate Prof Darren Mansfield, a sleep disorders and respiratory physician who is also deputy chair of the Sleep Health Foundation, thinks some balance is needed.

“These devices in general can be a good thing,” he says. “They’re not as accurate as a laboratory-based sleep study, but they are progressing in that direction, and technology enables the person to be engaged in their health. Where it can become problematic is people can become a bit enslaved by the data, which can lead to anxiety or rumination over the results and significance. That might escalate any problems, or even start creating problems.”

As a clinician, Mansfield thinks that the most useful role of these devices is monitoring routine, not obsessing over the hours of good-quality sleep. “There will be some error margin, but nonetheless when we’re looking for diagnostic information, like timing of sleep and duration of sleep, they can capture that,” he says.

Since Mansfield admits his sleep doesn’t need much hacking, I seek out an insomniac-turned-human guinea pig. Mike Toner runs the dance music agency Thick as Thieves, and has been on a mission for five years to fix the sleep issues earned from a decade of late nights in Melbourne clubs and reaching for his phone to answer international emails at 3am.

“I tried everything,” he says. “Magnesium capsules and spray, melatonin and herbal sleep aids. I even signed up for treatment at a sleep centre. You sleep in this room with all these wires connected to you, things coming out of your nose, cameras trained on you. Ironically, I slept better that night than I have any other night.”

An Oura smart ring
An Oura smart ring, designed to measure resting heart rate, heart rate variability, respiratory rate, body temperature, light, deep and REM sleep as well as night-time movements and sleep duration. Photograph: Winni Wintermeyer/The Guardian

He decided to start monitoring his body in earnest, learning about the latest devices from the Huberman Lab Podcast and The Quantified Scientist. Sleep-monitoring wearables have progressed from having an accelerometer to track movements which are fed through an algorithm to predict when a person is asleep, to being able to track sleep latency; sleep efficacy; heart-rate variability; light, deep and REM sleep and sleeping positions.

Toner’s accumulated a few as the technology becomes more sophisticated. He estimates having spent around $1,500 on them, and a further $3,500 for the sleep-centre treatment.

Then there are the cooling devices. Toner beds down on a Chilipad as soon as the weather gets warmer – a hydro-powered cooling mattress.

The idea is that lying down in a cool room – perhaps after taking a warm shower – tricks the body into slumber, since our body temperature drops when we’re asleep.

Non-techy strategies include having hands and feet out from under the covers, or using a fan. Lifestyle guru and entrepreneur Tim Ferriss recommends a short ice bath before bed. Be warned, though: Dave Asprey – founder of Bulletproof, which sells high-performance products – once tried putting ice packs on his body right before bed. As he told MensHealth.com: “I ended up getting ice burns on about 15% of my body.”

Mansfield says that ensuring you’re cooler in the evenings may help with sleep. “Generally, a lower-level temperature is better tolerated at night … 25C can make a beautiful, comfortable day, but can be unbearably hot at night when our own core temperature drops, so 18C or 19C is more tolerable.

“Then in the last two hours before getting up, your temperature rises again – you might have thrown off the blanket in the night and then might wake up at 5am feeling freezing cold.”

And what about the new frontiers of technology? According to neuroscientist Matthew Walker, in his influential book Why We Sleep, in the future, we can expect the marriage of tracking devices with in-home networked devices such as thermostats and lighting. “Using common machine-learning algorithms applied over time, we should be able to intelligently teach the home thermostat what the thermal sweet spot is of each occupant in each bedroom, based on the biophysiology calculated by their sleep-tracking device,” Walker says. “Better still, we could program a natural circadian lull and rise in temperature across the night that is in harmony with each body’s expectations.”

Mike Toner
Mike Toner, who estimates he has spent around $1,500 on sleep tracking and improvement technology

Mansfield thinks this kind of integration is feasible, and that a thermostat linked to a device measuring circadian rhythms offers plausible benefits in preparing people’s sleep, but he predicts that automated control of room lighting will wind up being manually overridden, because technology can’t necessarily gauge when we’re in the middle of reading a book or having a conversation. “It’s liable to just irritate people,” he says. He’s more interested in technology that will track conditions like sleep apnoea.

As Toner has concluded, no device is a silver bullet. Ultimately, it was a $70 online cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) course that his GP referred him to that fixed his sleep over three months of strict adherence. Now he just uses technology to make sure he’s not drifting off track.

The key lessons? Only use your bedroom for sleep and sex. Set your alarm for the same time, no matter how late you get to bed. Screens off early. No day-napping. Alcohol is a bad idea. All of these things are easily monitored yourself using a good old notebook, and they don’t cost a cent. They just take persistence.

With those good habits in place, Toner is now mindful of how he will put the CBT pointers he’s learned during lockdowns into practice once his life picks up its pace again.

“I used to put this obligation on myself to be there all the time with my artists, but interestingly, coming out of this pandemic, a lot of the artists are having the same train of thought as I am, wanting to avoid late nights,” Toner says.

He’s even coaching some of them for a charity run – quite the lifestyle change for many. “I’ve spent so long fixing this that one of the things I’ve realised, when we eventually go back to work routines, is I’m going to be fiercely protective of my sleep.”

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New EU law may force big messaging vendors to open up • The Register

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The European Parliament’s new Digital Markets Act, adopted as a draft law this week, could compel big platforms owned by large firms including Apple, Google, and Facebook to make their tech interoperable.

Among other things, this might mean forcing the tech vendors’ messaging apps to allow communication with other services.

If the EU deems a company to be what it calls a “gatekeeper”, it could impose “structural or behavioural remedies” – compelling the largest outfits to allow interoperability, or imposing fines. The Act would also restrict what companies could do with personal data – not the first time it’s tried.

While the legislation carefully phrases the characteristics that make a company a gatekeeper in terms of its operations inside the EU, the fines are assessed against global revenue. It applies to companies that provide a “core platform service” in at least three EU nations, with more than 45 million monthly users and 10,000 business users. In money terms, it’s talking about €8bn a month inside the union, and a market cap of 10 times that.

A potential get-out is that it applies to “number-independent interpersonal communication services” – so services that identify you by your phone number rather than an account, such as Whatsapp, Telegram, Signal, and the like, might be able to dodge the new rules, which won’t come into force for a year or two.

As we pointed out a week ago, services already exist that can talk to most vendors’ proprietary offerings. Nothing technical prevents this and many of the services talked to one another in the past.

For example, Apple’s iMessage originally used AOL’s OSCAR protocol, and AOL allowed authentication using Gmail credentials. Google’s Chat, Talk, and Hangouts, and Facebook Messenger, all used the Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol or XMPP – to and from which Skype offered a gateway.

As far as the phone number-based systems go, there’s also an existing standard for internet-based SMS – not that anybody cares. ®

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What happens when we ‘power through’ burnout?

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Employers know that burnout levels are increasing, but it’s important to step in and tackle it head on before it’s too late.

A recent survey from HRLocker found that more than half (52pc) of respondents are experiencing burnout.

The company surveyed 1,000 full-time employees across Ireland to assess their stress levels and the primary causes of stress.

Click here to check out the top sci-tech employers hiring right now.

This is common thread with many other surveys and reports from around the world suggesting a significant increase in stress, exhaustion and burnout among the global workforce.

Another recent survey, this one of US workers, found that 89pc of respondents reported experiencing burnout over the past year.

While it’s easy to acknowledge that this increase in burnout is a problem, it’s a very different thing to take steps to actually address it, whether you’re an employee on the verge of crashing or a manager starting to notice the signs among your team.

Burnout is classified by the World Health Organization as a “occupational phenomenon”. While this can seem problematically vague for those who are experiencing it, Prof John Gallagher, chief medical officer at Cork-based Cognate Health, sees it from a different perspective.

He said that because burnout is considered a workplace phenomenon, it is not so much about the individual as much as it is about the impact that the workplace environment has on them.

“We can support the individual, but the real question is how do we fix the workplace and the impact it is having on the employee?”

‘The blurring of the lines between work and life has had an impact’
– DR SARAH O’NEILL

Many people will be familiar with the symptoms of burnout, which include profound exhaustion, cynicism about work, decreased productivity and extreme emotions.

However, it’s also worth noting that some people are more prone to burnout than others. “More often than not these are the more idealistic, committed and dedicated employees,” said Gallagher.

Dr Sarah O’Neill, chartered psychologist and chief clinical officer at Spectrum Life, agrees that it can often affect the most high-achieving employees. However, she said there are other people who can be prone to burnout too.

“People can also experience ‘bore-out’ when they are in a role that is dull, repetitive and there is a distinct lack of stimulation. The third common iteration is when people become worn down over a period of time,” she said.

“While the first example may be much more aligned with what we think of when we imagine burnout, the end result is the same.”

When the elastic band snaps

Burnout occurs when there are unusual levels of pressure or stress over a prolonged period of time. Those who start to suffer the symptoms will most likely have been ‘on’ for a long time with no opportunity to rest and recover.

“Think about an elastic band,” said O’Neill. “They stretch and bounce back. If the band is stressed, stretched out without the opportunity to bounce back and reset, overtime it loses its stretch. You can think about stress this way. Then burnout is when the band eventually snaps.”

Often, employees don’t mean to ignore their own health. Even the overachievers would rather reap the rewards that come with rest and recovery, which are higher energy levels, more productivity and better focus.

But sometimes an ongoing stressful period seems never-ending, like during a pandemic for example, and it can feel impossible to find the time to actually stop and take a break. You might just feel like you have to power through your stress in the hope that you’ll make it to the end of the tunnel.

However, it is this ‘powering through’ that will directly result in burnout. While it’s important for employees to be aware of this, Gallagher said it’s vital that employers and managers know when to step in.

“What employers and managers will see if an issue isn’t addressed is that the person will pull back and distance themselves from their work, become more cynical and ultimately disengage from the workplace completely. The physical symptoms are similar to those seen across other mental health issues such as feelings of exhaustion and weariness, as well as bowel and stomach problems,” he said.

“It’s important that managers engage with employees early once they see any of these warning signs and that they check in to see if the person is OK. Often the people that are most likely of experiencing burnout are those who take on more and more work without raising any red flags about their mental health and ability to cope.”

O’Neill agreed that early intervention is key but that it’s also important that managers understand how each member of the team responds to stress and pressure within the workplace.

“It’s critical for managers to know their teams well enough to recognise when something is off. That makes it possible to mitigate issues before they progress too far by managing an employee’s workload and having open conversations with them about the mental wellbeing,” she said.

The pandemic effect

Burnout has been a concern for employers and employees for several years now but, as we have seen from recent surveys and reports, the pandemic has likely compounded the stressors that can bring about burnout.

O’Neill said there has been a 30pc increase in people presenting with burnout compared to pre-pandemic trends.

“The blurring of the lines between work and life has had an impact and we’re seeing pretty consistent results from research where employees are identifying blurring of boundaries impacting their mental health.”

Gallagher has seen a similar increase, including increased incidences of anxiety and depression.

“It would seem that mental health concerns will be at the core of our work in occupational health for the foreseeable future. There are the more obvious reasons for this – increased feelings of isolation, loneliness, disconnection from people, as well as the general stress and anxiety of living during a global health crisis,” he said.

“But this is all compounded by the fact that it is easier to hide any issues from your colleagues and employers while working remotely and being less connected in real life.”

However, it’s not all bad news. O’Neill also said there are some positives to be gleaned from the pandemic when it comes to mental health. “We have collectively lived through a traumatic time which has, at its best, given us a new perspective on our lives. The theory of post-traumatic growth shows how a difficult experience can shift your values and your perspective on different situations in life, allowing you to move through them and grow as a result.”

Employers’ duty of care

While it’s important for employees to watch out for signs of burnout in themselves, both O’Neill and Gallagher agree that managers have a duty of care when it comes to workplace risks for their employees and these risks must include psychosocial risks.

“What I always say is that managers and employers need to ‘ask, don’t assume’ when it comes to discussing mental health concerns. We can’t assume a person is dealing with an issue and we can’t leave them to handle it by themselves. Managers need to reach out to employees and ask them how they are doing, especially if there have been any warning signs,” said Gallagher.

“Sometimes employers and managers prefer to pull back when an employee appears to be dealing with a mental health issue but that is when we need to lean in and address it openly and directly.”

‘We need to ask ourselves why employees are more comfortable saying that they are having issues with their physical health as opposed to their mental health’
– JOHN GALLAGHER

O’Neill said it’s also important to look at the supports in place for teams, such as an employee assistance programme, and examine whether or not they are sufficient.

“We know people are increasingly experiencing mental health distress, that impacts them in the workplace and the mental healthcare system is, like many parts of the health service, overwhelmed by demand,” she said.

“Even if mental health distress is not a work-related issue, it can be in the interests of companies to provide support to employees from both a cultural and business perspective.”

While having support systems in place are vital, Gallagher highlighted the fact that the area of mental health can still be highly stigmatised. “While we have seen great developments to date, there needs to be an increased effort made to eradicate any stigma around mental health in the workplace,” he said.

“We need to ask ourselves why employees are more comfortable saying that they are having issues with their physical health as opposed to their mental health – we still see employees asking for their medical certs to say they are suffering from back pain rather than stress, anxiety or depression. We need to cultivate an environment where employees are as comfortable saying they need time to care for their mental health as they are saying they need time to prioritise their physical health.”

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Best podcasts of the week: the life and death of Diego Maradona | Podcasts

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Picks of the week

The Last Days of Maradona
“Everyone – fans and non-fans alike – must have asked themselves: how did Maradona’s life end the way it did?” Thierry Henry narrates this podcast about the football legend’s death at the age of 60 in 2020 – part forensic investigation, part homage to his greatness. In a novel twist – and perhaps a sign of things to come for podcasting – the series is also available in French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian, via a series of hosts. Hannah J Davies

I’m Not a Monster
Listeners were captivated by the case of Indiana mother Sam Sally and how she ended up at the heart of the Islamic State caliphate. Now, host Josh Baker is back for two new follow-up episodes. He answers listeners’ questions – and heads back to Iraq. Hannah Verdier

Twenty Thousand Hertz
More offbeat sonic discoveries in a miniseries from the long-running audio show. It’s Not TV, it’s HBO, tells the story of the network’s bombastic 80s theme song as well as its iconic – if more understated – “static angel” sound, as heard before everything from The Sopranos to Sex and the City. HJD

Behind the Wand
More than 20 years after Harry Potter’s first film adaptation, Potterheads are still looking to learn something new about the wizarding world. Here, Emma
Watson’s body double Flick Miles takes us behind the scenes with crew members. It’s not as exciting as, say, the upcoming TV reunion, but fans might enjoy the nitty gritty details about how the story came to life on the big screen. Hollie Richardson

Even the Rich: Murder in the House of Gucci
With Lady Gaga and Adam Driver ’s new film throwing the spotlight on to the Gucci dynasty, this podcast tells the story of the family’s humble beginnings. Brooke Siffrinn and Aricia Skidmore-Williams bring their gloriously salacious tone to the tale, from observing Guccio Gucci’s knowledge of luggage to analysing Patrizia Reggiani’s controversial white fur school coat. HV

Sunny delight ... Rob McElhenney, Glenn Howerton, Kaitlin Olson, Danny DeVito and Charlie Day on the set of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia.
Sunny delight … Rob McElhenney, Glenn Howerton, Kaitlin Olson, Danny DeVito and Charlie Day on the set of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. Photograph: Michael Buckner/Getty Images

Chosen by Danielle Stephens

There is always a risk in learning how something you adore is made. That’s why I was slightly apprehensive to listen to The Always Sunny podcast, which launched earlier this month. The premise is simple: each week, the geniuses behind the hit show It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia sit down to bring us insider knowledge on how every episode came to be, starting all the way back in 2005.

The worry is that your favourite (terrible) characters are somehow played by an unfunny trio, but Rob McElhenney, Charlie Day and Glenn Howerton allay any fears early on, making one another laugh as much as you might imagine. The scoring is the same as the show, and sound design is nonexistent, so the content needs to carry – which it does. For true fans, it’s a must listen, as we hear how they developed ideas; the stumbling blocks they encountered; and, most interestingly, some of the things they regret with hindsight.

Talking points

  • As podcasts evolve, expect to see even more boundary-blurring with other creative mediums. A case in point: US culture show How Long Gone will release a double-CD album via Jagjaguwar on 17 December, featuring about releases from the record label’s other acts, including Moses Sumney, Dinosaur Jr and Angel Olsen.

  • Why not try: Close to Death | Is This Working? | Sh***hole Country

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