- A sleep expert says there are limitations of sleep trackers in terms of accuracy
- Orthosomnia is a condition where you obsess over your sleep data, often worsening your sleep quality
- Daylight savings is great opportunity to improve sleep — and there are positive ways to use a sleep tracker to do so
For the last 12 years, Kimberley Bowie, a self-described “lifetime insomniac,” has had a difficult time falling asleep — and staying asleep.
So, like 10 percent of Americans, the 35-year-old from Vancouver, B.C., started regularly wearing a sleep-tracking wearable device. Bowie thought knowing more about her sleep could help identify factors contributing to her insomnia, and empower her to improve her sleep.
But striving for better rest by monitoring her sleep data became an obsession, and quickly worsened Bowie’s insomnia.
“I would wake up in the middle of the night and focus in on my sleep data — even data from that night, in real time,” Bowie shared with Healthline. That practice only heightened the sleep anxiety that fed her insomnia.
In the age of wellness and the quantified self, this unhealthy focus on monitoring the hours of sleep you’re getting has become more prevalent. Researchers actually coined a term for it in a 2017 study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine: orthosomnia.
And no surprise: Researchers warned orthosomnia disrupts your sleep.
“The use of wearable sleep trackers is increasing, and most consumers are unaware that the claims of these devices often outweigh the science to support them as devices to measure and improve sleep,” the study authors wrote.
Orthosomnia might seem like one more sleep issue standing in the way of some solid shut-eye, especially with the end of daylight saving time last Sunday.
But it doesn’t need to be. Learning the best ways to use wearables for sleep — and the potential perils — can actually lead to a better night’s rest during the “fall back” transition.
Dr. Cathy Goldstein, a sleep neurologist at Michigan Medicine’s Sleep Disorders Centers, is seeing an increase in patients tracking their sleep data with consumer fitness trackers, like Fitbits, or smartwatches.
Goldstein has seen the upsides and downsides of sleep trackers. For instance, some patients who think they sleep soundly may see their wearable data shows disruptions in their sleep, and it could prompt them to consult an expert about sleep apnea testing.
When it comes to people with insomnia, though, Goldstein has witnessed sleep trackers heightening their sleep anxiety.
“People with insomnia tend to be hyper-focused on their sleep in general and might underestimate the amount of sleep they’re actually getting,” Goldstein explained to Healthline.
Since they’re getting poor sleep, people with insomnia tend to spend more time in bed trying to sleep. Then they associate their bed with being awake, leading to anxiety and excessive worrying over not being able to get enough sleep — which in turn prevents sleep.
“Throw a sleep tracker on top of that and you can have more problems sleeping because you’re adding extra attention to the sleep period,” Goldstein said.
Ultimately, people obsessing over their sleep data or zeroing on the data to improve sleep performance — treating it like a fitness goal — might be sabotaging their sleep by overthinking it.
“Some of the well-vetted behavioral treatments are paradoxical,” to the attention the sleep tracker brings, Goldstein noted.
You might be better off without using technology to help you sleep. Goldstein tells patients: “You have the biological toolkit there to sleep, but there’s nothing you can do to will yourself to sleep.”
Bowie has had trouble sleeping since she was a child.
”Once my mind gets going, there’s no way I’m going to sleep,” she said.
Then, she got a Fitbit to track her runs and soon discovered the sleep-tracking function.
Soon, Bowie wasn’t only ruminating over her sleep data in the middle of the night, but she was checking her sleep stats twice a day and, she says, thinking about her sleep performance “all the time.”
“I began obsessively checking my sleep measurements and far from improving, they got worse over time,” Bowie shared. Feeling defeated in the middle of the night — before she even started long days at work — became more common.
“Tracking my sleep was supposed to be making me healthier and it was making me sicker,” she said.
Bowie’s solution to her orthosomnia? Giving away her Fitbit.
“Whether my sleep has improved since, I don’t know,” Bowie remarks. “But at least I can no longer see that it didn’t.”
Sleep professionals are also concerned about the accuracy of wearables with sleep tracking functions.
Many of these apps not only measure the number of hours you’re in bed, but also give consumers reports on which stages of sleep, such as rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep or slow-wave sleep.
“These sleep stages are characterized by very, very specific brain-wave patterns and eye movement patterns,” explains Goldstein. “Our gold standard for measuring true sleep is by bringing somebody into a sleep lab and monitoring their brain waves.”
Apps attempt to estimate sleep stages by tracking heart rate and motion only.
“That’s going to be very, very difficult,” according to Goldstein.
“The problem is that most manufacturers of these devices don’t go through the process of making sure that the output of their device is correct compared to a PSG sleep study — those brain waves.”
In the 2017 study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine the authors also pointed out that other research has found these devices aren’t very accurate when it comes to detected sleep cycles.
“Multiple validation studies that have demonstrated consumer-wearable sleep tracking devices are unable to accurately discriminate stages of sleep and have poor accuracy in detecting wake after sleep onset,” the authors wrote. “In addition, lack of transparency in the device algorithms makes it impossible to know how accurate they are even under the best circumstances.”
While you shouldn’t rely on a fitness tracker to tell you whether or not you’re well rested, Goldstein believes there are a few positive ways to use apps to get consistently restful sleep.
- Get lots of light as soon as you wake up. Lock in your early bird status by opening the blinds right away. A sun lamp can help, too.
- Use sleep apps to make sure you’re giving yourself enough time. While apps might not be super accurate in terms of sleep and wake cycles, they can be great for tracking the number of hours you spend in bed. “A lot of people don’t devote enough time to sleep,” Goldstein explained. Tap into your app to make sure you’re setting yourself up for enough shut-eye.
- Use mood or exercise data as motivation. Whether or not your wearable has a sleep tracking function, you can take note of your mood or check workout performance data to see if getting more sleep is improving other parts of your life. It may motivate you to keep up your new sleep routine.