We all know that a good sleep cycle is essential in order to understand if were leading a healthy lifestyle or not. It is very important to be aware of it to ensure our wellbeing. With the rise in people being more mindful about their health and with a surge in technological advancements, it has become possible to track our sleep without needing medical aid for the same, with the use of sleep trackers.
Health experts for the longest time have used polysomnography test to analyze our sleep cycles and to diagnose sleep disorders. These tests study heart rate, breathing as well as eye movement during sleep, additionally, these also studies the brain waves by attaching electrodes to the skin and scalp. Reading of these brain waves are to date the only readings which can give an accurate picture of the sleep pattern of an individual.
With these sleep trackers coming into the picture, it is important to be aware of how they work and what methods they use to analyze and track our sleep before we choose to invest in them.
First, let’s look at how these works. Our sleep goes through three cycles, the light sleep stage, the deep sleep stage and finally the rapid eye movement (R.E.M.) stage. These sleep trackers mainly function by tracking the movement of an individual during the course of their sleep.
Some of them even dig a little deeper and give information based on the evaluation of changes in heart rate during sleep to estimate how much time you spent in each sleep cycle.
However, studies have shown sleep trackers are only accurate 78% of the time when identifying sleep versus wakefulness. This accuracy drops to around 38% when estimating how long it took participants to fall asleep. This may be as sleep trackers usually only track movement during sleep and as every person may have a different sleep pattern and mannerism, the data might get skewed a little .
These tests also due to misanalysing movement, fail to differentiate between the three stages of sleep, and may therefore reduce the accuracy of the reading. These trackers also have not been compared and studied alongside the traditional polysomnography tests and thus, it becomes tough to decide if they serve their function or not.
Further, the algorithm used to collect and analyse the readings by these trackers is completely unknown and therefore, the readings given by the tracker might sometimes just be misrepresented assumption regarding one’s sleep pattern.
Studies have also demonstrated how these trackers fail to correctly represent the situation when used by people with insomnia. Many insomniacs are known to remain still in bed for a long while in attempts to fall asleep. As these trackers decipher and exhibit readings and results based on movements made during sleep, these trackers may show a wrong reading as they fail to differentiate between phases of sleepiness and wakefulness and may mistake a long, still wakeful attempt at sleep as a phase of deep sleep.
Some devices study the heart rates as well however, much research is left to be done and the little that has been done till now does not help the case of these trackers.
Let us also look at a condition called sleep anxiety and how sleep trackers are connected to this condition. Sleep anxiety is a form of performance anxiety. Many people may stress about not getting enough sleep to function, but the stress alone of trying to sleep can cause people to sit awake for hours. This preoccupation with sleep causes anxiety and low mood over the loss of sleep – leading to further sleeplessness.
Research and studies have shown that sleep trackers may worsen this condition. In one study participants were given sleep watches and were asked to complete measures of mood, daytime thinking processes and sleepiness at regular periods throughout the day.
However, the sleep scores were manipulated, reflecting for some that they had gotten an increased quality of sleep while for others, a decreased quality of sleep was shown, while in reality, all the participants had attained the same quality of sleep. It was found that those who were told they had a poor night’s sleep showed lower mood, difficulties with daytime thinking processes and increased sleepiness. Those who were told they had a great night’s sleep showed the opposite.
This reflects that the sleep trackers do not only collect information to inform the user about their sleep, but also has enough power to influence the psyche of the user and their perception towards their own health and well-being.
This does pose a real issue, especially threatening the mental health of the users of these sleep tracking devices and gadgets. More and more people are now seen having perceived sleep difficulties due to the feedback given by these somewhat inaccurate sleep trackers, even when the conventional and accurate polysomnography test shows that everything is perfectly normal. These devices then become a source of sleep anxiety.
Just like many studies have shown that overuse of other wearable trackers may lead to anxiety and depression, these sleep trackers may follow suit and become a source of mental health issues just like their other tracker brothers.
While sleep trackers can be used, it is important to understand the drawbacks and not take them too seriously. For those who want to use them in general, it is completely fine, but those with mental health problems and sleep disorder might just want to give this a miss.
While technology is known to provide answers about ourselves, it is good to be knowledgeable and aware of what it is, in turn, doing to our bodies and minds as well. If you’re really suffering from sleeping disorders, it is best to seek help from a certified medical professional. And if you’re just having mild issues, there are traditional methods you could follow to ensure a healthy sleep schedule, maybe try sleeping a little early every night. As they say,
‘Early to bed and early to rise, makes one, healthy, wealthy and wise.’
Are sleep trackers always accurate?
Unfortunately, the research that has been done regarding sleep trackers explicitly shows that these trackers lack the functionality and mechanisms to accurately and efficiently depict sleep patterns and are, therefore, unable to give correct information or diagnose sleep disorders.
What is sleep anxiety?
Sleep anxiety is a form of performance anxiety. Many people may stress about not getting enough sleep to function, but the stress alone of trying to sleep can cause people to avoid sleeping for hours together.
Written by Preeti Gokhale
The author is a sleep enthusiast. When not writing about sleep they prefer to either sleep or play games online. They also like to eat pizza and drink cranberry juice. You can often spot them on their way to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. You can connect with them via email!