man in purple shirt sleeps in bed wearing sleep tracker watch

Is Your Sleep Tracker Keeping You Up at Night?

We know that sleep is essential to our health. It improves concentration, mental health and even strengthens the immune system. 

But do you actually know how well you’re sleeping? Better yet, do you need to know how well you’re sleeping? That’s the ongoing debate about sleep trackers.

Beyond the question, “Do sleep trackers work?” lies the question, “How do sleep trackers help you sleep better?”

Technically, they don’t. Not directly, that is.

Sleep trackers allow you to monitor sleep patterns, but they do nothing to actually help you improve your sleep habits.

Let’s dig a little deeper into the pros and cons of sleep tracking devices.

The Rise of Sleep Trackers

In recent years, sleep trackers have become very popular.

We’re a curious breed—it’s in our nature.

So when sleep trackers were introduced with the promise to not only show you that you’re not sleeping as well as you could be, but also claiming to help you get a better sleep … well, obviously we were all over it.

But how accurate are sleep trackers really? And how exactly can they improve your sleep? First, let’s talk about the technology.

man uses hand to set sleep tracker watch

How Do Sleep Trackers Work?

Simply put, sleep tracking devices monitor your movement and vitals. They come in a variety of wearable options, the most popular being worn on the wrist.

You can also get sleep trackers that clip onto your pillow or sit on your bedside table.

Depending on the model, they come with a wide variety of capabilities, including:

  • Sleep duration
  • Sleep quality
  • Sleep phases
  • Environmental factors
  • Lifestyle factors

That’s a pretty smart device. But how did it get to be so smart?

At the simplest level, sleep trackers monitor your sleep by recording motion.

They have  internal sensors, called actigraphy or accelerometry, which can detect how often and how much you’re moving throughout the night. 

The algorithms interpret the data based on several known factors.

For instance, when we’re in our deepest sleep cycle, we move the least.

And when we’re in our lightest sleep cycle, which is typically when REM (rapid eye movement) happens (aka: you’re dreaming), we move the most.

The sleep tracker’s algorithm detects your movement and decides which phase of the sleep cycle you’re in.

Some devices are also capable of tracking your breathing and heart rate. Again, the device is built with sensors that can “feel” your breathing and pulse.

Their built-in algorithms collect and translate all this data into a layman explanation about the way you sleep.

explanation of sleep cycles by Hopkins Medicine
Source: HopkinsMedicine.org

The Darker Side of Sleep Trackers

Try not to be drawn in too quickly by the marketing hype. Realistically, you have to wonder just how accurate is a sleep tracker? 

Sure, they’re sold as being the answer to all your sleep problems, but that’s not the whole truth. The truth is, they come with some pretty major limitations.

  • Apps and wearable gadgets are limited by their inability to measure the one part of your body that actually reveals the most information regarding sleep quality: your brain. 
  • There are often inaccuracies in data collection due to the complex nature of sleep. For example, a sleep tracker might mistake ambient sounds for movement, leading to an inaccurate analysis of your restlessness. 
  • There’s also a possibility that it can overestimate the amount of time you’ve slept due the assumption that a low heart rate equals sleep. You might be lying down and breathing deeply, but still be wide awake. 

Another caution that has been raised, is the ability that a sleep monitor has to track phases of sleep. When compared to professional brain scan technology, they simply don’t offer the same accuracy. 

Some aspects of sleep simply cannot be measured. Numbers and analytics can’t paint the full picture of your sleep quality, nor do they take into consideration whether you share your bed with a partner or pet.

Bed Too Small?

It’s important to remember that sleep tracking devices are only offering a slice of information—just one small piece of an otherwise very large puzzle. 

Sleep trackers can’t diagnose sleep disorders and they most certainly should not be treated as medical aids.

If your struggle with sleep is serious, seek help from a professional. 

woman obsessively tracking her sleep by watch and phone

Stop Stressing About Your Sleep

We saved the most important part for last. 

Stop stressing about your sleep!

Experts warn that obsessively analyzing data about your sleep can actually compromise your sleep quality. 

Should you use a sleep tracker? Maybe. Maybe not. Only you can decide.

If you’re just a curious person, and you don’t take the information too seriously, and if you can use the data to make healthy choices, then sure, go for it.

But if you’re going to worry about what the data reveals, then better to leave it alone ... and let sleeping dogs lie.

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