What are sleep trackers?
Sleep trackers help you track your sleep. You can find them as standalone sleep tracking smartphone apps, or as one of the features included in your fitness tracker or smartwatch.
In their most basic form, sleep trackers tell you two things: how long you’ve slept and the quality of your sleep (i.e. whether you woke up during the night at all). Some sleep trackers also offer listening capabilities, monitoring your sleep for sounds of snoring or sleep apnea, and some claim to tell you how much time you spent in various stages of sleep, light or deep.
If you’re using a sleep tracking app, you let the phone sleep by you in bed. If the sleep tracking is part of your personal fitness tracker, you simply keep wearing that device as normal when you go to bed. Then, when you wake up in the morning, you take a look at the tracker to see what helpful information it has to reveal.
How are these devices able to share the information they claim? Sleep trackers use the accelerometer in your smartphone, smartwatch, or wearable device. Accelerometers monitor your movement. If you stop moving, it’s likely you’re asleep. When you wake up in the morning and move around, your accelerometer senses that and knows that you’re awake. This seems straightforward enough. What does the science have to say?
What the Dr. says about sleep tracking
a British sleep expert has warned. Dr Guy Leschziner, a sleep disorder specialist working at Guy’s hospital in London, has said the use of sleep tracking technology can raise anxieties about sleep to the point where users can actually develop insomnia.
The concern is that by monitoring sleep and obsessively pouring over the data about your sleep in an app, you can become more anxious and preoccupied about whether you are sleeping enough. This preoccupation can cause problems through the nocebo effect, the opposite of a placebo, where you feel worse because you expect to feel worse after seeing data that suggests your sleep was poor.
“We’ve seen a lot of people who have developed significant insomnia as a result of either sleep trackers or reading certain things about how devastating sleep deprivation is for you,” Leschziner said at a talk at the Cheltenham Science Festival in the U.K., according to the Guardian.
Leschziner went on to say he doubted the utility of sleep apps. “My view of sleep trackers is fairly cynical. If you wake up feeling tired and you’ve had an unrefreshing night’s sleep then you know you’ve got a problem,” he said. “If you wake up every day and feel refreshed, are awake throughout the day and are ready to sleep at the same time every night then you’re probably getting enough sleep for you and you don’t need an app to tell you that.”
This follows a report in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine from 2017 in which sleep clinicians raised concerns about the use of sleep-tracking apps. The experts said they had patients coming to them with self-diagnosed issues with data from sleep trackers, and that these patients’ “inferred correlation between sleep tracker data and daytime fatigue may become a perfectionistic quest for the ideal sleep in order to optimize daytime function.”
Giving people access to more data about themselves and their habits can certainly be beneficial, and may allow them to see patterns and relationships between their habits and their mood. But the endless quest to optimize every aspect of our lives, even our sleep, may actually be causing distress and backfiring by making sleep worse. This could be one case where the perfect truly is the enemy of the good.
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