31/08/2015 6:42 PM IST | Updated 31/08/2016 11:29 AM IST

Look Beyond Pills for Better Sleep

The stool of a healthy life has three legs: nutrition, exercise and sleep. We shun unnatural substances from our food -- locally-grown and organic offerings are exploding, even at Walmart. We insist on better fare in school cafeterias than what was dished up when I was a kid. Back then, everything was served with a single ice cream scoop, and your ball of turkey tetrazzini risked rolling over your ball of "green" beans. As for performance-enhancing substances, just ask Lance about our tolerance for those. Why is sleep the odd leg out? In the U.S. over 9 million people use prescription sleep medications. With one termite-ridden leg, the holistic wellness stool topples over. It is within our power to do better, particularly in the era of wearable technology.

We've all felt the effects of not getting enough quality sleep. The CDC calls insufficient sleep America's newest "public health epidemic," afflicting some 70 million people. For some, it's an occasional thing that can range from a squiggly pen trail off the paper's edge all the way to life-threatening risks: In the past year, 37 percent of people admitted to dozing behind the wheel.

While we've all endured the distress of lack of sleep; it's almost too much to bear seeing someone you cherish suffering from a debilitating, unceasing sleep disorder. I know. The medications intended to help my daughter get the deep, restorative sleep she needs wreaked havoc on her body.

And what about the difference between drug-induced sleep and natural sleep? Many substances rob us of consciousness, but if we can't be woken, are we truly asleep? Drugs are not the answer. So what is?

While the medical community doesn't fully understand everything about sleep, we do know three things for sure:

1. We need sleep.

If rodent response correlates with human response, we can literally die if we don't get enough sleep, even if we have no other medical issues. Short of death, sleep deprivation in humans leads to a host of problems, including psychiatric issues and heart failure. Recent research associates insufficient deep sleep with the buildup of "junk" in our brains that may lead to dementia. We need to practice good sleep hygiene and spend enough hours in bed to make the most of our time there.

2. When we sleep, our brain activity slows.

It's no secret that our brain activity slows when we sleep, but we need to better use this phenomenon in our war on insomnia. We would benefit from natural, drug-free methods that encourage neurons to fire less frequently and literally lull our brains to sleep. Throughout time, many methods have sought to achieve this end, such as meditation, soothing sounds, controlled breathing, and hypnotism. Hypnotism is particularly intriguing: Studies indicate that 95 percent of us can be hypnotized to some degree. Many feel unnerved by the image of a goateed hypnotist swinging his pocket watch to and fro while telling his subdued subject, "You are getting sleepy." Hypnotism is about our brainwaves falling into step with a repeating stimulus, such as the swaying of the pocket watch. This phenomenon is known as "brainwave entrainment."

3. Technology can reduce dependence on pharmaceuticals.

With the advent of wearable tech, we've now got products that can report on the quality of sleep. Accelerometers are incorporated into smartphones, Fitbits and Jawbones, to tell us how often we move during the night, although being still doesn't always equal being asleep. Others will complement this with other measures, such as pulse rate, oxygen saturation, respiration, etc. While it is useful to record metrics related to sleep quality, wearables that actively usher us to sleep would of course be better. After all, what's important is how rested we feel -- not how our watches tell us we slept. I created the first of these active devices, the Sleep Shepherd, out of my desperation to help my daughter. It is a high-tech nightcap that plays hypnotic binaural beats, controlled by real-time brainwave measurements, to slow brain activity to deep sleep. It is now available commercially. I'm excited that other personal sleep technologies are no doubt on their way.

And my daughter? She's been sleeping so well under the Sleep Shepherd's guidance for the last six months that she's off the wretched nighttime drugs and doing things that seemed unimaginable a year ago. I'm excited about how the Sleep Shepherd can help others get better sleep, too.