Does tracking your sleep actually help you sleep better? We asked an expert

Modern life simply isn’t conducive to getting a good night’s sleep. There’s artificial light everywhere, we spend hours glued to screens, and it’s not unusual to be checking work emails on your phone at night, last thing before you go to bed. We know that the potential health consequences of not getting enough sleep are severe, ranging from obesity and hypertension, to diabetes and heart disease. There’s also the immediate impact on work performance, the risks of drowsy driving, and the higher incidence of accidents to contend with when we’re tired.

It’s no wonder sleep technology has been on the rise. There’s no shortage of gadgets and apps that claim they can offer us a sound night’s rest, or help us better understand whether we’re getting the recommended full forty winks every night. There’s a myriad of sleep tracking options out there, from fitness tracking bands to mats you put under your mattress, and even apps that run on your phone on the nightstand next to you.

The question is, even with the best sleep trackers, does tracking your sleep offer any tangible benefit?

Not necessarily

“As a sleep researcher and clinician, I think it’s absolutely fabulous that people want to improve their sleep and they want to know about their sleep,” Dr Kelly Baron, a clinical psychologist and expert in behavioral sleep medicine from the University of Utah, told Digital Trends. “But probably the majority of people who have devices, are not necessarily getting anything useful out of them.”

Sleep trackers come in all shapes and sizes, but all of them generate data — lots of it. This nightly data is typically organized into user-friendly charts, breaking down our hours of slumber into color-coded sections and counting the minutes we spend in bed.

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Under-the-mattress sleep tracker

“A big question is, what do people actually do with it? The device is not offering empirically supported therapies or research supported therapies that will improve their sleep,” explains Dr Baron, and there’s a risk that data could actually cause problems for users. “Either they’re not sure what to do with the data, or the data is making them more anxious.”

A study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, which Dr Baron co-authored, coined the term “orthosomnia” to describe people seeking treatment due to concerns about sleep duration and quality based on their sleep tracker’s data. We know that fitness trackers aren’t very accurate and it seems that dedicated sleep trackers aren’t any better. This comparative study of ten sleep trackers by a researcher at Brown University shows a lot of variance in the results. A number of other studies have questioned the validity of sleep tracker data and found that they tend to overestimate how much sleep people are getting.

“They’re probably about 70% concordant,” suggests Dr Baron. “But the more disruptive your sleep gets, the worse they perform.”

That’s troubling news, as those who need accuracy the most are coincidentally the least likely to get it. Part of the problem is that people who are already worried about their sleep are more likely to buy a sleep tracker, pay attention to the data, and determine from this if they have an issue or if what they’re experiencing is normal.

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Wrist-worn sleep tracker

“It’s hard for the public to interpret this data and to know what’s actionable,” says Dr Baron. “Say my sleep tracker says I don’t get a lot of deep sleep — I get less a little less than is average for my age — if I didn’t know better I might be concerned about that.”

Trackers inevitably tend to generalize and measure your sleep against averages, but everyone is different. People also have a tendency to place too much trust in the technology’s accuracy.

“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,” Dr. Guy Leschziner, a sleep disorder specialist working at various London hospitals, at the Cheltenham Science Festival, told the Guardian. “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. 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.”

“It’s not so much about relentlessly using a sleep tracker to keep track of your sleep, but more about what you learn in the process.”

While tracking your sleep isn’t necessarily going to help you sleep better, it doesn’t have to be detrimental. A lot of sleep trackers and tracking apps add value with additional functions, such as soundscapes or stories designed to help you fall asleep. They can also include useful advice, help raise awareness of a problem snoring, or just help you to think about your sleep more.

“The way we see it, tracking sleep should never be something you lose sleep over,” Carl-Johan Hederoth, CEO of popular sleep tracking app Sleep Cycle told Digital Trends. “It’s not so much about relentlessly using a sleep tracker to keep track of your sleep, but more about what you learn in the process and what benefits you reap in the long run.”

The Sleep Cycle app for Android and iOS used to rely on an algorithm based on accelerometer tracking, but has switched to sound technology. It’s able to detect and filter all kinds of sounds, particularly rhythmic, reoccurring sounds such as breathing and snoring.

“Sleep tracking helps you get to know your own sleep patterns, and learn of the benefits good sleep brings. Getting to know your own sleep patterns can be both reassuring and surprising. Sometimes even upsetting. But nevertheless, insight remains the first step towards a conscious decision to make a change,” says Hederoth. “We continuously work hard on tailoring our communication to exclude content and wording that might trigger guilt or anxiety.”

Sleep Cycle also offers stories to help you fall asleep, recordings of snoring for your analysis, and a customizable alarm window that aims to wake you up when you’re in a light sleep phase.

Sleep Cycle
The Sleep Cycle app Simon Hill / Digital Trends

This last alarm feature is common among sleep tracking apps and gadgets. It’s based on the idea that waking up in a lighter sleep cycle will leave you feeling better-rested rather than slingshotting you to wakefulness from a deep sleep. People are usually asked to define a wake-up window of up to 90 minutes so that the app may decide when best to wake them within that period. But there isn’t really any evidence to show that this is beneficial.

“In the early morning hours you’re more likely to be in light sleep or REM sleep anyway,” says Dr. Baron. “I’m usually in light sleep in the early morning hours and so what it does is it wakes me up on the early end of that window and I would have rather slept longer.”

The verdict is in

While generalized tracking of your sleep patterns likely won’t help you sleep better, and the benefit of an alarm window is dubious, there is room to go deeper. Sleep Cycle and other sleep-tracking apps are now leveraging years of data to create new sleep aid content that’s tailor-made for different types of sleepers, offering more tailored analysis and recommendations to improve sleep. Many apps are moving in that direction, but for now anyone experiencing sleep problems should consult a doctor.

“If they’re having insomnia, they need cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for insomnia,” says Dr. Baron.

Technology can also be leveraged to offer tried and tested techniques like CBT. An online sleep improvement program called Sleepio employs CBT to help those who are struggling to get enough sleep. It has been getting such positive results that it’s offered by the National Health Service (NHS) in parts of England. It’s a bit more involved than simple tracking; you set goals, fill out an in-depth questionnaire, and then receive a tailor-made program of CBT lessons.

Ultimately, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be more informed on your sleep — in fact, that’s great! Just be aware that while sleep tracking apps and devices can offer useful, sometimes tailored tips to get better sleep, the tracking devices themselves aren’t great indicators of your sleep quality. At the end of the day — er, end of your slumber, it’s best to rely on your own intuition and the advice of medical professionals.

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