Smartwatches, apps and wearables are everywhere – but can they improve your sleep?
It seems there’s a constant flow of new health-focused devices becoming available to consumers, including more and more advanced sleep trackers. If you’re committed to sleeping better – and optimizing your health in the process – the prospect of gaining insight into quality of sleep is an attractive prospect. There’s no denying sleep trackers can be helpful in signaling serious issues, like sleep apnea or insomnia. Whether you’re thinking of buying a sleep tracker or just curious about what more they can do for you, this is essential reading.
What sleep trackers can do
Features vary from tracker to tracker, but most of them focus on two similar functions:
- Sleep duration, based on when you fall asleep and the time you start getting ready to hop out of bed
- Sleep quality, measured by how much you toss and turn before settling into a deeper sleep
Some devices may track your sleep cycles, which allow you to set an alarm during the lightest phase of slumber in the morning. Fancier types of trackers may record environmental factors like how much light you have in your bedroom and room temperature. Those bigger-ticket devices may also ask you to input lifestyle behaviors that could impact your sleep quality, such as how much caffeine or alcohol you’ve consumed, how long before bedtime you ate and whether you’re feeling a high degree of stress. Of course, the more bells and whistles your sleep tracker has, the higher the cost.
Types of sleep trackers
The challenge for anyone looking for a sleep tracker is finding the right one (for you) at a fair price that does all the things you want it to with accuracy.
Wearable trackers. Many of these devices are worn like watches, but do much more. They’re packed with features to paint a picture of your overall health and monitor things like heart rate, step counter, calorie counts and sleep duration. Some wearable sleep trackers come in the form of a ring you slip on your finger at bedtime to gather data. Or they may even be worn as a sensor-loaded headband. There are even ‘smart pajamas’ designed with patches wired up to one another to gather data on heart rate, breathing and posture.
Sensor trackers. If you’re not comfortable wearing anything around your wrist, opt for one of these flat devices that live on top of your mattress (under your sheets). Used in conjunction with a smartphone app, they’ll help you recognize patterns in your sleep and flag when you’re snoring or experiencing breathing disturbances.
App trackers. If you want to dip your toe into the world of sleep trackers without investing a lot of money, try a free app like Sleep Cycle or Sleep Watch, downloaded to your smartphone.
What the experts say about sleep trackers
Overall, expert responses are mixed when it comes to the value of sleep trackers. There are a few aspects of sleep trackers that healthcare practitioners really love and others they find troubling.
Martin Reed, a certified clinical sleep health educator and the founder of insomniacoach.com, often treats people who suffer with insomnia. “If someone has chronic insomnia, sleep tracking devices can be unhelpful since they often bring more focus and attention on sleep and risk increasing sleep-related worry and anxiety,” he says, “all things that can make sleep more difficult.”
Reed is also concerned about the accuracy of sleep trackers, especially for insomniacs. It takes work to establish better sleep habits, which he believes should be the real focus. “Ultimately, the key to better sleep for people with chronic insomnia is to tackle the thoughts and behaviors that perpetuate sleep disruption,” he explains. “This includes sleep effort, ongoing sleep-related research and sleep-related thoughts and worries.” He also points out that his clients with chronic insomnia often report how much better they feel when they stop using a sleep tracking device.
“Ultimately, when it comes to sleep, all that really matters is how you feel,” Reed says. “If you feel refreshed after a night of sleep and can get through the day, it’s likely that you’re sleeping just fine. If you’re tempted to put more effort into sleep or make a conscious effort to improve your sleep, this can lead to sleep disruption since sleep cannot be controlled.”
Family physician Dr. Waqas Ahmad Buttar (who works with Sachet Infusions, a company that offers hemp and CBD-infused powders that can be added to hot and cold drinks) says sleep trackers do not improve your sleep. “They just give you some insights on how much time you spend in bed (not necessarily sleeping) and if you’ve moved a lot. It’s an interesting insight but has nothing to do with improving sleep quality,” he notes.
Accuracy is an issue, too. Generally speaking, experts advise interpreting the data gathered from sleep trackers with a grain of salt. Devices sold to consumers are not medical grade and are not intended to be diagnostic. For a clear diagnosis, your doctor or sleep specialist is your best place to start.
Problems may occur when sleep tracker users put too much faith in the technology. “Despite some of the tracker’s inherent inaccuracy, users believed their data above that of professional sleep monitors,” says Dr. Buttar. “Even when they were experiencing good sleep, they would believe that they were not if the wearable said so. Second, the suspect data can actually cause anxiety which can make it more difficult to get a good night’s sleep rather than less.”
Still, if you’re just curious and want to see how you’re sleeping, you might find a sleep tracker useful to get a general idea. But as the experts point out, listen to your body first. If you wake up feeling reading to seize the day, then be rest assured that you’ve likely had a good night’s sleep.
You probably don’t need a sleep tracking device to tell you that.
Rest well & wake up ready to go!
Better sleep gives rise to better mornings, bringing your goals into focus and dreams within reach. Hungry for more sleep info? Dig into these posts:
- What’s the best sleep position for your health?
- 5 smart bedtime habits to help you sleep better
- Can melatonin help you get the good night’s sleep you’re craving?