Smartphone Alarm Clock Offers Better Mornings

Want to wake up feeling well-rested more often? Smartphone apps can monitor your sleeping phases and wake you up when you’re the most likely to feel well-rested.

Waking up every morning without an alarm would be nice, but that usually happens only on the weekends. The problem with alarm clocks is that they wake you regardless of where you are in your sleep cycle, which often means sleep interruption.

A bio-alarm, however, offers a nearly painless way to wake up all week long. It rouses you when you’re in the lightest phase of sleep or when you wake up briefly as you go in or out of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.

The alarm won’t help you feel well-rested if you’re already sleep deprived, said Robert Oexman, DC, director of the Sleep to Live Institute. But if you’re getting the right amount of sleep at night, the alarm will help you avoid the annoyance of being woken during a sleep phase, he said.

Thanks to health apps, getting a bio-alarm is now as simple as downloading one to your smartphone. One of the most popular is called Sleep Cycle, which works on iPhones or devices running on iOS 5.0 or later.

Your Sleep Phases

To understand how a bio-alarm works, it’s important to know a little about sleep cycles. As you sleep at night, you alternate between non-REM sleep and REM sleep.

When you fall asleep, you go into non-REM sleep, which has three stages, Dr. Oxeman said. The first stage is light sleep. That’s time when you’re between wakefulness and falling asleep. You move into stage two once you fall asleep. During this stage, your breathing and heart rate become regular, your body temperature drops, and you become unaware of your environment.

As you go deeper into a restorative sleep, you enter stage three. Your blood pressure drops, your breathing slows, your blood moves to your muscles and your muscles relax. During this stage, your body repairs itself and restores your energy. Growth hormones are released, which is necessary for your muscles’ development.

About 90 minutes later, you enter REM sleep, in which you dream, your eyes move beneath your eyelids, and your body becomes immobile. This stage helps give you energy during the day.

When REM sleep is over, you cycle through non-REM sleep again. The process helps your immune system stay strong, balances hormones related to appetite, and maintains high energy levels.

You spend more time in deep sleep during the first third of the night, Oxeman said. During the last part of the night, when you’re closer to waking up, you’re more often in stages one and two, or in REM sleep.

Bio-Alarm Clock: How It Works

The Sleep Cycle app works by monitoring your movements during the night when you place your phone near your pillow under your sheet. It tracks your sleep phases during the night based on when you move. The app uses a 30-minute window to wake you during the lightest sleep phase, avoiding sleep interruption at the wrong time.

“We all move a lot at night, especially in the morning,” Oexman said. During that time, we go into REM sleep more often. “As we go in and out of REM, we have a tendency to wake up, make a body movement, and go back to sleep, even when we don’t remember it,” he said.

Bio-alarms work by catching you when you’re making a movement, so they work more as a reminder to wake up when you have already woken on your own rather than waking you while you’re sleeping, he said.

In the past, bio-alarm clocks cost hundreds of dollars. And some health gadgets have a sleep component, such as Fitbit, which includes a band you wear around your wrist to track your sleep that costs $99.95.

But now that bio-alarms can be downloaded to your phone, they’re much more affordable. The Sleep Cycle app costs only $1.99 and has been called the most popular sleep gadget or app by Other health apps for Android phones include Sleep Time, which is free, and Sleep as Android, which is $2.99.

An extra advantage: If you’re currently seeing a sleep expert for sleep problems, you can track your sleep with a health app for a minimum of two weeks and bring your data to your physician, suggested Sanjeev Kothare, MD, an associate professor and director of pediatric sleep medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City. The information your physician receives will help with your treatment.

However, there’s one thing to watch out for: Using a bio-alarm on a smartphone means placing your phone in bed with you, and bringing technology in the bedroom is usually a no-no for optimal sleep. Oexman suggested putting your phone on airplane mode so you’re not being disturbed during the night by incoming texts or status updates. If you do that and avoid constantly checking your phone as you use a bio-alarm, you should have better mornings.

By Marie Suszynski