Cristina Cuomo: Congratulations on creating an incredible product to help people achieve the maximum benefits of a good night’s sleep. It’s the foundation for good health. What is the science behind sleep?
Tara Youngblood: It’s crazy that we’ve only really started recognizing the health benefits of sleep. If you look at the melatonin mechanism that helps put you to sleep, it’s 700 million years old—even the simplest organisms, like amoebas in the ocean, have this same mechanism. It’s primarily driven by the environment, called a sleep switch. Clifford Saper from Harvard discovered it.
CC: What is that, like an on-and-off switch?
TY: It’s a change of temperature. When it starts to cool down at night, our core body temperature, which adapts to that outside environment, is supposed to drop 2 degrees. That cooling is what triggers us to release melatonin in the evening. And you turn off sleep in the morning and get a release of cortisol as you warm back up those 2 degrees. So it’s an on/off switch. The closer we can get that to turn on and off like a switch, the better we sleep.
CC: We also hear so much about the circadian rhythm and light, and how light impacts cortisol levels and the release of melatonin; for instance, we know to turn the phone off an hour before we go to sleep for the brain to release that melatonin. Can you talk a little bit about light versus temperature?
TY: They both play a role. Light can affect some people more than temperature, but both of them are really big influences. Temperature’s a little bit more powerful and more succinct. Light can be nebulous depending on what type of light. We have so much artificial blue light, which is much more like bright sunlight. We evolved to live mostly outside, and now we live mostly inside in this regulated fake environment. When it comes to sleep, our body’s like, “I don’t know, am I supposed to be sleeping, am I supposed to be awake? Is it 9AM or 10PM?” If it all looks the same, our body doesn’t know what to do.
CC: What about the myth of eight hours of sleep?
TY: As a scientist, there’s lots of room on what that total number is. Eight hours, if you’re struggling to sleep, can help. But it’s not the only way to sleep. Our bodies are very adaptable to sleep. Again, triggering it better and emphasizing it with temperature is a way to manage that, but we don’t all have to sleep the same; we can all be different, and sleep however works for you.
CC: What are the benefits of sleeping cool?
TY: There are different types of sleep. REM sleep is where your brain looks almost awake. Then you go into light, non-REM sleep. Then your brain waves slow down, and that’s called slow wave sleep or deep sleep. Deep sleep is really hard to get. It’s kind of like the unicorn of sleep. The beauty of temperature is that deep sleep loves it cooler. Even though you move through different sleep sessions, you’re going to have more deep sleep in the first half of the night.
CC: What is the ideal sleeping temperature?
TY: It can differ. It’s more about your heat profile, that’s going to tell you how cool you need to be. Most people think of temperature in terms of room temperature, but your body temperature is what really matters for sleep. Your mattress, your covers, your ambient temperature, and then your size and your metabolism are going to dictate how much cooling you need to drop that 2 degrees.
CC: So you’re a scientist with a B.S. in science and physics, and you’ve studied traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic practices, neuroscience and psychology. But your real exploration of sleep began when you lost a child and you began a 10-year healing journey. Can you tell me a little bit about that and how it impacted your creation and focus of your entire life on better sleep?
TY: Yes, so unfortunately, between the grief and depression that resulted after we lost Benjamin, I basically stopped sleeping. You can go longer without food than you can without sleep. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has studied it; it’s comparable to driving drunk. But we don’t recognize that that level of sleep deprivation and mental illness is going to lead to something terrible just like drunk driving does. I had to get myself out of it. That’s where I started to research. When you look at the three pillars of sleep—environment, behaviors and mindset—they exist for everybody in sleep. How do you find balance to get to that perfect recipe for sleep? That’s really where you pull from all those different disciplines to find the truth of what is really going on.
CC: You have award-winning technologies and apps that are changing the way the world sleeps.
TY: We just got on Time magazine’s Invention of the Year list this year. So super, super fun. My husband and I came up with this company. Honestly, it started because he sleeps really hot. So we were having to try to put pillows to insulate the heat and keep his heat on his side. But then at the same time, there were cars where you could have a passenger and driver at different temperatures, and I wanted that for my bed, I wanted to be at the same temperature as him. So we started playing around with it. We played around with all different things to try to get the right range of temperature, the right noise level, the right delivery system to make sure we’re taking off enough heat and doing it in a quiet, safe way in your bed.
CC: Tell us about the Dock Pro. It’s a mattress pad that regulates your cooling and heating temperatures of your body, and you have an app that controls it.
TY: Picture your programmable thermostat—the app can do that. If you’re interested in tracking your sleep, we just came out with a sleep tracker. What’s different about it than any other one is it is real time. If you connect it with the Dock Pro, it takes a lot of the complexity out of figuring out that schedule. It has an AI system to manage your temperature dynamically.
CC: So it’s not just about comfort, the Dock Pro, it literally takes that core body temperature, and reduces it to the temperature that the body and the brain require to get the maximum good night’s sleep.
TY: Temperature really talks to the unconscious part of your brain. In deep sleep in particular, for example, your brain is starting to fall into deep sleep as waves are slowing down, and your resting heart rate is dropping lower and lower. When you drop the temperature just even a little bit dynamically during that time, your brain waves slow down a little bit more, your heart rate slows down a little bit more, you spend a little bit longer time in that deep sleep state. When you add that up over the course of the night, you’re gonna get a bigger chunk of deep sleep. And it does the same for REM, just in the opposite kind of way. But it’s doing that dynamically in the background for you.
CC: And circulation is a big part of this. One of the benefits of sleeping cool is that your body is maximizing your circulatory response to your sleep state, right?
TY: Once you fall into deep sleep, one of the first things that happens is your spinal fluid comes up over and it cleans the toxins out of your brain. Your brain actually doesn’t clean toxins out unless you’re in deep sleep, and in that state. In Alzheimer’s patients, that spinal fluid isn’t coming up to clean. Over time, there’s a degradation of that as we get older, so those tau proteins build up. We want to make sure that there’s a healthy cleaning process. All of the maintenance doesn’t happen during the day; it happens at night, and deep sleep is one of those times when that maintenance work is done. It works for the circulatory system. The lower resting heart rate is really good for our whole cardiovascular system, but all the way down to the cellular level. The cooler we get, the more we maintain great sleep. sleep.me
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