Just as fitness trackers have become ubiquitous on wrists, more and more people are now implementing sleep trackers in an effort to understand and improve their sleep habits. But even though consumer awareness of sleep trackers is on the rise, there are still a lot of misconceptions about what these tools can and cannot do.
So let’s clear a few things up. Once you have a better understanding of the potential benefits and limitations of sleep trackers, you’ll be more equipped to decide whether and how to implement a tracker in pursuit of better sleep.
What Is A Sleep Tracker?
A wide variety of sleep trackers have hit the market, with more being released all the time. Many are wearable trackers that you can strap to your wrist. Others clip on your pillow or sit on your bedside table.
Essentially, sleep tracking devices track movement while you are sleeping and translate this information into a period of sleep and awake. By using a sleep monitoring device, you can measure things like, the number of hours you sleep, the ideal number of hours you personally need to sleep per day, and the best time to go to bed.
How Sleep Tracking Can Help You Sleep Better
A couple of studies have shown that many people who are bad at getting sleep are also bad at tracking it. Meaning that people who are suffering from things like insomnia are not the greatest at approximating how much they slept. Which makes sense because when you start your night tossing and turning it can be hard to know when exactly you went to sleep. Which is why sleep tracking can be such a nice way to get on top of your sleeping habits. As it gives you a pretty clear pattern of when you are sleeping and when you are awake.
If you are looking to catch a couple more hours of sleep or see when you wake up and fall asleep then sleep trackers are great for regular snoozers. Many sleep trackers offer the capability to see the time when your body began to settle down. Along with the time when you wake back up. Seeing these times can be helpful when are looking to make broad changes to your sleep schedule.
Being able to visualize the times you are asleep can be a very effective tool! This tool is especially helpful if you track your general sleeping patterns over a longer period of time. Such as a week, a month, or even a couple of months. After a few days of sleep tracking, you should already be able to see trends emerge. Are you a night owl? An early bird? Are you averaging at about six hours of sleep per night? Being able to see these trends through real numbers makes it easier to tackle the issue of sleep.
Movement & Sleep Tracking
Many sleep trackers also include an accelerometer, which tracks movement. This is a useful little feature if you are mostly concerned about how much you toss and turn. Seeing how long you are restless or even at what specific times you move more than others can inform you on what’s the best bedtime for you.
Also, many wearable sleep trackers can track your heart rate and breathing. This is a benefit that is specific to wearable sleep trackers that you have to have on you as you sleep. Which isn’t always comfortable for some people. However, this feature adds to the accuracy of your sleep tracker. Pretty obviously, your breathing and heart rate slows significantly when you sleep. Being able to track these trends as you sleep gives greater insight into just how deeply you slept.
In general, sleep tracking is a great way to find broad trends in your day to day life. Do you feel sluggish when you sleep from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.? Are you energetic if you shift your shuteye to 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.? Do you sleep better when your bedroom is cooler or on days you exercise? Is your sleep disrupted if you have caffeine after lunchtime? All of these questions can be delved into with the help of a sleep tracker.
The Negative Side of Sleep Tracking
In the age of all of this data, especially health data, we can often feel overwhelmed. There is actually a term for being overwhelmed by sleep data. Orthosomnia has popped on the health horizon as a preoccupation with getting the perfect nights sleep. This term was penned in 2017 by researchers at from Rush University Medical School and Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.
The study found that through the ability to track sleep, people became somewhat obsessed with it. Focusing too closely on scores of deep sleep or overall sleep quality. When in reality these scores and ratings are very generalized approximations of your sleep. Sleep tracking, in reality, is just a general look into your sleeping patterns. Not a scientific study of your in-depth sleep quality.
For exact data about your sleep habits, you’d have to do a medical sleep study. Which monitors brain waves to analyze the stages of sleep you cycle through during the night. Such studies are helpful for diagnosing conditions like sleep apnea and other sleep disorders. If you are suffering from a similar disorder, make sure to consult your primary care physician. They can help get you back on track.
What Sleep Tracking Doesn’t Track
These devices don’t directly measure sleep quality. However, they do track movement. This movement tracking is helpful to help estimate the time your body enters deep sleep. This is because your body enters temporary sleep paralysis as you dream. This happens to help you not actually act out the actions in your dream. So, the idea that you are essentially still in that deep, dreamy sleep helps these movement-based trackers determine when you are approximately in and out of deep sleep.
In general, you can track mainly whether you’re asleep or not. However, factors like how long it takes you to get into REM sleep or pre-REM sleep is not as easily tracked. Also, there’s a concern that these devices overestimate the duration of sleep you are getting. As many devices recognize when your body is still and your heart rate has slowed, which can happen awake as well. And at these instances they may falsely assume that you’re asleep.
The National Sleep Foundation notes that all of the phases of sleep are needed for muscle repair, memory consolidation, and release of hormones regulating growth and appetite. The big key to getting restful sleep is getting quality REM sleep. REM sleep is required for a number of restorative processes in your brain and body.
Sleep trackers also won’t diagnose sleep disorders. Because these types of diagnoses require detailed physiological information (including brain wave activity). A consumer sleep tracker is not equipped to serve as a diagnostics tool. For the same reason, it’s not a substitute for medical care. Because of these limitations in 2018, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine released a statement asserting that consumers and doctors should not utilize these tools for diagnosing sleep disorders.
If you have any concerns about the quality of your sleep, it’s a good idea to talk to a doctor. If you’re an otherwise healthy person who just wants to gain some insight into your sleep routine, tracking devices might be a good option.