The trick is to keep breathing: Wearables changed my life
It started out as a gadget thing, but within a year, wearable technology was responsible for a fundamental impact on my future health. Part two of the story, by WearableTechWatch lead author Simon Jones
In part one of the story I explained how smart wristbands had highlighted that I wasn’t getting enough proper sleep at night. This led to an overnight test that showed I might have the medical condition sleep apnea. Today’s post covers what happened next.
I’m So Tired
Fast forward two months without much change in my perma-tired condition, and I check into the Asklepios clinic in Gauting. I’m just down the road from the Bavarian village of Andechs, famous today for its monastery-brewed beer, but also well-known among somnographists: It’s where the German scientist Rütger Wever conducted his breakthrough research into the body’s circadian rhythm, back in the 1960s and 70s.
After a day of being weighed, interviewed, signing a large number of official forms and disclaimers, I’m instructed to take a test nap during the afternoon, while wearing a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) mask. Well, if it’s doctor’s orders, all good to take an afternoon nap. About an hour later I awoke and was told to report back at 8pm: hopefully tired and ready for a good night’s sleep.
Let’s Spend the Night Together
After returning, I’m consequently wired up with what felt like 100 electrodes, but was actually a total in the high teens. This included five in my hair, four under my chin, and several more on my temples, on my chest, belly and legs. All were wired (technology note: Bluetooth LE would be a good idea for the future) into a central SOMNOscreen Plus box strapped to my chest.
That wasn’t all, I had a pair of nostril pipes to detect airflow, and an audio recording unit. The whole night was captured on video with an infra-red camera, and there’s a full soundtrack. Probably a good thing that the clinic wouldn’t share a copy of my sleeping video – but there are plenty of examples of sleep apnea already on YouTube. My polysomnography was in the form of a so-called “split night” study. Once the wiring was complete, I was able to try and sleep without a mask.
Falling asleep fully wired wasn’t actually as bad as I had feared – even though it was a pretty early night (9.30pm-ish). The actual monitoring was remote, which meant that the team of clipboard-bearing medics was out of sight. I did get to check out the back room, and it’s full of large PC monitors and other tech paraphernalia. My room was quiet and dark except for the red glow from the panic button, and the luminous blue from the SOMNOscreen unit on my chest. Although it was bulky, this was fitted neatly, so that lying on either side, or my back, would be comfortable.
When I asked the nurse who fitted me with all this kit if she’d ever heard any jokes about the bionic man, she just rolled her eyes: I took that as a yes.
Sometime between 1am and 2am (forgive me for not taking an exact note of the time, but my eyes were blurry), I was woken up. The airflow monitor under my nose was replaced by a CPAP mask. In layman’s terms, think of the mask as providing a jet of lightly pressurized air against your nose – which is less foreboding than it sounds. Once the mask was on, it was time to roll over and go back to sleep: something that the statistics revealed that I achieved in a mere 12 seconds.
The Trick is to Keep Breathing
Despite my huge reservations about sleeping with a mask covering my nose, on the test night, it actually helped. I woke up, fairly refreshed, at 6.30am. Later I learned that the somnography team had let me sleep on past the usual waking time for clinic patients since I was still in a fairly deep stage of sleep: thank you. For the first time in a long time I remember the feeling of jumping – not forcing myself – out of bed.
During the morning I had the chance to see my sleep statistics – let’s call it the Pro version, in comparison to the basic but helpful info provided by my Fitbit Flex. The analysis is based on SOMNOscreen’s DOMINO software. During the second half of the night, I’d achieved 15 percent deep sleep, in comparison to under two percent in the first half, without the mask, which is usually the time when the deepest sleep occurs. Furthermore, wearing the mask means it’s almost impossible to snore.
Step By Step
For me personally, CPAP may or may not be the answer, but it is certainly a step in the right direction: I’m planning to rack up a few nights as the Man in the Mask before doing the CPAP testimonial video (“it changed my life!”). The machine itself makes a gentle whooshing noise which is very much like white noise and easy to ignore.
I’ve also got a dry nose – the same feeling I get after a long-haul flight – but have received the additional water module. The ResMed unit is relatively bulky – about the size of a 1990s “brick” laptop, and, as a fairly frequent business traveler, I’ve inquired about the lighter, smaller version of the device. However, this is also apparently noisy and much more expensive. I’ll give the regular unit a try for a month or so before making any further commitments. Also, I’m due back in the clinic in a month for a progress report, which includes reading the data collected by the CPAP unit on an SD card.
I Don’t Sleep I Dream
What I’ve learned is that there are also preventative measures that can be taken by anyone who snores – no matter their age. These are to lose weight (the clinic said that 85% of their patients were overweight) and drink less or abstain from alcohol in the evenings. This is because weight gain reduces the diameter of the throat, while alcohol helps paralyze the throat muscles, both causing airway blockages. If your idea of wrapping up a great night out is a burger and fries from a fast food joint after a few beers, you’re probably not going to get a good night’s sleep just thinking about this.
For me, leaving the clinic is the start of the real sleep trial: to find out whether, over time, the CPAP mask helps tackle my sleeping problems, to see if I can live with wearing the mask all night, every night (because I have some fairly major but perhaps unnecessary hang-ups about this), and – most important of all, if I’m finally less perma-tired during the day.
The Fat of the Land
There’s also a possible upside: the doctor didn’t order me to lose a load of weight or suggest that I refrain from drinking alcohol, full stop. Since I live in Bavaria, I could always follow the tradition of enjoying a beer for breakfast, but unfortunately this is accompanied by weisswurst: veal sausages that are absolutely packed with cholesterol.
Sometimes, you just can’t win.