Can sleep tracking lead to worse sleep in the end? A recent study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found some interesting answers.
If you're like the one in six US adults who owns a fitness tracker, you know about the data-measured life. But can sleep tracking actually lead to worse sleep?
If you suspect you're having problems from lack of sleep, you might start paying more attention to the sleep data on your fitness tracker, or even get a fitness tracker or sleep app to help you address the issue. After all, there are definite benefits to sleep tracking. Observing patterns in your sleep might help you figure out what's making you sleep poorly. It can help you set and stay accountable toward your sleep goals. And if you're trying out strategies for better sleep, tracking your sleep before and after could give you an idea of whether your new tricks are working.
The problem, however, is that better sleep isn't a straightforward goal like working out: just because you put in more time doesn't mean you see more results.
The (Potential) Problem:
The problem, however, is that better sleep isn't a straightforward goal like working out: just because you put in more time doesn't mean you see more results. In fact, the study found that when people were too focused on their sleep tracking data, it was actually counterproductive: feeling the pressure of looking at those numbers in the morning, people did things that actually made their sleep worse. They worried even more that they wouldn't achieve their sleep goals, which made it even more difficult to fall asleep. They started spending more and more time in bed, which sleep experts actually advise against if you have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep. Researchers even gave this issue a name: "orthosomnia," literally meaning "correct sleep," but actually referring to an unhealthy preoccupation with achieving the perfect sleep.
The Reality: How Sleep Trackers Work, and How They Can Help
It may help to understand how sleep trackers (and most fitness trackers) work. Most trackers (and phone apps that track sleep) work by detecting motion. Fitness trackers use accelerometers to monitor the acceleration, frequency, duration, intensity, and patterns of your movement. Basically, both trackers and sleep apps detect when you're moving, and then use software to translate those movements into conclusions about the sleep you got.
The problem, of course, is that this isn't a terribly accurate reflection of your sleep. Movement is one indication of how deeply asleep you are - but it's not a foolproof one. A sleep tracker might think you're asleep if you're sitting in bed reading, for example, or awake but not moving. Multiple studies have revealed that sleep trackers can't accurately discern between stages of sleep. Even trackers with more types of sensors - those that measure temperature and pulse rate, for example - can be fooled. In a lab setting, researchers use polysomnography, or PSG, which uses electrodes on your scalp to measure brain waves. Strange and sci-fi-sounding, but accurate!
In light of this, it's clear that sleep trackers can be helpful - but only so far. They're a good way to see approximately how much sleep you're getting in general. They can help you track patterns, which could reveal triggers for poor sleep you're not realizing, and can help you track the effectiveness of new sleep strategies you try. Bottom line: take their information with a grain of salt, as a tool in your overall sleep goals, but don't let the numbers rule you. If you feel yourself getting anxious when you look at your sleep tracking data, it may be a good time to stop tracking and start employing other strategies to improve sleep.