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Since scientists began studying how sleep affects the human body, they used sleep tracking to collect data. As technology has evolved, so have our sleep tracking capabilities. With the explosion of fitness tracking in the 2000s, there was a surge of commercial sleep monitoring too. If your tracker could count your steps and calories burned, why couldn’t it measure how long you were asleep?

Commercial sleep tracking has grown in popularity and many health-conscious individuals are trying to get better sleep through data from these trackers. In 2017, 29% of U.S. adult women and 20% of men had used some form of sleep tracking app at least once.

With a growing number of people joining the craze, should you use a sleep tracker?

What is a Sleep Tracker?

Sleep trackers, sometimes referred to as sleep monitoring devices, come in all shapes, sizes and configurations to accommodate any lifestyle. While the technology has changed, the basics are still the same, anything that can give you data on your sleep is a sleep tracker. While these tools can vary from a simple sleep diary to the most complex monitor, many consumer electronic sleep trackers fall into two categories:

  • Wearables: Any tracker you place on your body.
    • These include watches, bracelets, rings or headbands.
  • Non-Wearables: Any tracker that monitors sleep away from the body.
    • These can rest on top or underneath the mattress. Bedside monitors are another option. Most smartphones can use a variety of apps to track sleep if placed on the bed next to you.

How Do Sleep Trackers Work?

Sleep trackers use a wide variety of different data points, collected by things like heart rate monitors, accelerometers and more, to determine just how much you are sleeping on a given night. The complexity of the sleep monitoring device determines what kind of data is collected and what information is given to the user. Some of the most common ways sleep trackers work are by using:

  • Heart Rate Monitoring: Your heart rate lowers during sleep. These systems monitor whenever there is a dramatic change in heart rate and note it as a change in sleep.
  • Motion Sense: Most people don’t move when they are asleep. Sleep monitors use motion sensing to detect restlessness during the night. Accelerometers and actigraphs are two common ways these devices track your movement
  • Noise Monitoring: Many sleep trackers record any noise that can be interpreted as a sleep disturbance. Snoring is another noise that can help indicate if you are dealing with a more severe problem than not getting enough Zs.
  • Temperature: Some sleep monitors can detect your sleeping temperature. If the fluctuation is too much, it records the temperature change and adds it to the sleep data.

How Accurate Are Sleep Trackers?

Tracker data can be inaccurate. After being compared to more capable methods, many commercial sleep trackers and monitoring devices are less accurate. Since many sleep trackers rely on accelerometers to track sleeping data, the numbers can be skewed. Many chronic insomniacs are able to train themselves to lie completely still. Whenever someone is lying completely still, a lesser sleep tracker will record the lack of movement as sleep.

If you sleep reasonably well, sleep tracking data on your time-in-bed and sleep time can be fairly accurate. However, if you are dealing with a sleep problem like insomnia, and you want more comprehensive data about your sleep patterns, a polysomnography is going to deliver precise data. This is especially true with sleep stages. While many sleep tracking apps and devices claim to record what sleep stage you are in, most can’t actually determine the differences.

What are the Benefits of Sleep Tracking?

Sleeping data can be helpful in your journey to get better sleep. Here are a few of the reasons why sleep trackers are one of the best ways you can more accurately track your sleep.

  • Get a high-level picture. Sleep tracking can give you baseline information about your sleep. Heart-rate, movement and time in bed can help you to get an overview of your sleep. If you notice any patterns, it is easier for you to look for problems.
  • See underlying issues. Sleep tracking can also help to determine if you might have hidden problems with your sleep. A typical example of this is if someone with obstructive sleep apnea sees they have more “awake” periods than they remember occurring.
  • Develop an understanding. While sleep trackers aren’t comprehensive, they can give you a place to start asking questions about your sleep. If you are having difficulty sleeping and one of the metrics is off, this may be a way to start a conversation with your doctor. Remember, these devices are not diagnostic and shouldn’t be used for medical advice.

What are the Drawbacks to Sleep Tracking?

While sleep tracking can be useful, it can also be unreliable and unhelpful in your attempts to get good sleep.

Sleep tracking can detract from good sleep hygiene. If you are looking at a screen right before you go to bed or when you wake up during the night, it will be harder for you to fall asleep. Shutting off electronics an hour before bed can help your mind wind down to sleep.

People using sleep trackers can develop “orthosomnia.” Many sleep tracking apps and software have specific sleep goals or sleep efficiency metrics that assess how well you slept. There is growing evidence that people can become obsessed with attaining perfect sleep and form unproductive sleeping habits like spending excessive time in bed.

Sleep trackers don’t offer helpful feedback. The biggest issue with most sleep trackers is they are unable to provide feedback to help you improve. Unlike a doctor or sleep specialist, a sleep tracker can’t give you advice or help you to adjust your strategy for getting good sleep.

The Bottomline

If you are curious to see what your sleep looks like, a tracking device will give you a general look at your overall sleep health. If you want to use a sleep tracker, don’t rely on these metrics as a guide to sleep behavior. A sleep diary can be as useful as an electronic sleep tracker at a fraction of the cost.

If you are looking for help with severe sleep problems, you should consult a sleep specialist or your primary doctor. If you are dealing with chronic insomnia, cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia can help you to establish good sleeping habits and get a good night’s sleep.

Do you want to get your goodnight’s sleep back? Contact a sleep specialist at Somly today to see how we can help you get the rest you deserve.

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