Campaign for better sleep week 1: How coffee and TV are sapping your sleep

Cutting down on coffee, alcohol and screen time
Campaign for better sleep week 1
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Long gone are the days when sleep was a total mystery. Those lost hours of the night were exactly that: lost. But times have changed; fitness trackers and smartwatches from the likes of Fitbit can tell us not only how much we’re sleeping, but whether we’re getting the right kind of sleep.

I'm James Stables, Wareable's director and co-founder, and I've decided to set myself a challenge: I want to see if Fitbit can guide me on the path to better sleep. Using a Fitbit Charge 3, I’m going to spend the next few weeks tracking my sleep, poring over the data and following Fitbit’s guidance to see if it really can have me waking up each morning feeling refreshed and ready to take on the day.

Explained: How Fitbit's sleep tracking helps you get better rest

Because at the end of the day, we all need sleep, but many of us aren’t getting the sleep we need. According to data from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 35% of Americans aren’t getting their recommended amount of sleep each night. The story across the pond isn’t much better: the same percentage of Brits have had sleep problems for more than five years, with 74% of people sleeping less than seven hours a night. That’s a staggering statistic when you consider how important sleep is for our various cognitive and physical mechanisms. Without it, we just don’t function.

No fitness tracker in the world can force you to sleep or break bad habits, but Fitbit’s toolbox of sleep features offer some impressive insights. Can they help me master the art of a good night’s sleep? Time to find out.

The expert’s view

So how much sleep do I really need – and how much am I actually getting? To get the answers, I spoke to Conor Heneghan, Fitbit’s lead sleep research scientist.

“For women, we see average total sleep times from 430 (older) to 460 minutes (younger); for men, the corresponding values are 408 to 440 mins,” says Conor. “The recommendations from the National Sleep Foundation in the USA are that adults should get between 7 and 9 hours.”

However Conor says that these times probably don’t account for the amount of wake time that an adult would have. Globally, Fitbit is finding that, on average, people are falling within the recommendations, but this does vary by country. Japan, for example, tends to fall shorter of the recommended average.

The next step was to open the Fitbit app and see how I compare. Immediately Fitbit’s Sleep Insights feature tells me that last week my average sleep was 6 hours and 36 minutes. Eesh. That’s below average and certainly below the recommended amount. Meanwhile Fitbit’s new Sleep Score Beta feature, which rates users on their sleep duration, depth and how much restorative sleep they’re getting, tells me I’ve slipped into the low 60s on some nights, out of a possible 100. Not great.

Learning to sleep better with Fitbit: Week 1

When it comes to looking at sleep, assessing your “sleep hygiene” is essential. This refers to sleep habits: what are you doing that may be preventing you from sleeping as well as you could be? This can include all manner of things, from getting the right temperature in your room to the type of mattress you’re using. Bad habits also include things like alcohol, coffee and screen time. Three things I have chosen to target first.

I drink a lot of coffee, sometimes later in the day than I know I should. But, even more of an issue, screen time is most definitely impeding my sleep. So many of us are guilty of browsing through social media on our phones just before sleep, and this can have a negative impact on our sleep quality, as light suppresses the production of melatonin from the brain (the chemical that regulates sleep).

Campaign for better sleep week 1: How coffee and TV are sapping your sleep

“Caffeine uses the same chemical pathways in the brain as adenosine, which is the natural hormone that makes us feel ‘sleepy’,” says Conor. “By blocking the adenosine pathways, caffeine reduces the natural feelings of sleepiness; while at the same time it tends to stimulate production of adrenaline which is a natural ‘fight or flight’ hormone.”

As for alcohol, “this tends to reduce the percentage of time in deep and REM sleep,” says Conor. Sure enough, a glance at my sleep data in the Fitbit app shows that over the last two weeks, on nights where I’d had a drink my amount of REM sleep was lower than on nights I had no alcohol in my system.

Coffee & TV (and alcohol)

The first thing on my agenda was to not touch coffee after lunch time. Caffeine takes 30-60 minutes to reach its peak level in your blood, but it can take a long time to leave your system. In fact, caffeine has a half-life of 3-5 hours and studies have shown that consuming caffeine within six hours of bedtime can reduce sleep by one hour. See that spike just after 9am where my heart rate jumped to 130bpm? That was two cups of coffee.

Learning to sleep better with Fitbit: Week 1

My usual routine is to have one cup of coffee in the morning and another in the afternoon, but this can be late in the afternoon – as late as 4pm or 5pm – and that means the caffeine can still be in my system come bedtime.

So the first point on my agenda was to cut out that second cup of the day. And already the results are paying off. For the last few days I haven’t once felt like the adrenaline was still pumping by the time I got to bed. In fact, I’ve swapped my late day coffee for a nice caffeine-free tea (ginger and apple, if you’re asking). And sure enough, I’ve noticed fewer nights where I spent the first 20-30 minutes staring at the ceiling, and more nights where I’m falling asleep faster.

Campaign for better sleep week 1: How coffee and TV are sapping your sleep

Screen time is, however, my biggest nemesis. Sure, I use “night mode” on my phone and laptop, reducing the amount of blue light getting in my eyes, but the truth is that these only lessen the problem, they don’t fix it entirely. Really, the best thing to do is to avoid using screens at all close to bed. To aid this, I’ve set a sleep reminder on my Fitbit, which sends me a notification 30 minutes before I should be in bed. As soon as I see this, I know it’s time to put away the tech.

It also just helps with clearing the head so I’m not lying in bed worrying about all those unfinished emails, while cutting down on the coffee means I’m going to bed each night without the risk of caffeine impeding on my rest time.

With all of these changes made, my nights are already improving. Reducing coffee and screen time is helping me fall asleep faster at night and get my stages in balance. Just take a look at this night below – I sleep for 7 hours and 38 minutes, my REM and deep sleep are both well within the recommended amounts, and it took just a little over 10 minutes after turning the light out to fall asleep (I’ve been writing down my bedtimes to see how long it takes me to drift off). It’s all about keeping that sleep-wake cycle in check, and reducing these inhibitors has a demonstrable effect: I’m falling asleep quickly each night, meaning longer sleep time and more healthy sleep stages.

Learning to sleep better with Fitbit: Week 1

Next week I’ll be looking at how maintaining a consistent bedtime can improve sleep and impact different sleep stages. In the meantime, I’ll be sticking to my new routine of cutting back on coffee, alcohol and Parks & Rec. Wish me luck.


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  • miyuumel·

    Fitbit charge 3 is a nightmare if you wear it whilst sleeping. It was bought for me to help me track my sleep but it has no 'night mode' and it constantly lights up every time i move in bed. The screen light even in the "dim" option is so bright it's like a searchlight. i get less sleep now, wearing the charge 3 than ever. People in the Fitbit community have been complaining about this since 2014 and still, 5 years later nothing is being done about it.