Should You Monitor Your Sleep With a Digital Tracker?

Modern technology can help improve virtually every aspect of our lives, including exercise habits and physical condition. People of all ages and from all walks of life can be seen wearing colorful “smart” wristbands or trendy smartwatches as they go about their daily activities. Called fitness trackers, many people use the wristbands to create records of their physical activities, such as the number of steps walked, miles run or laps swam in a pool. Most of today’s smartwatches have similar activity-tracking capabilities. The data gathered by the devices is used to help these people achieve personal fitness goals and improve their overall physical condition. Both types of trackers gather and store summaries of the day’s activities by interacting with smartphones and other digital devices via Bluetooth.

Digital tracking devices aren’t limited to monitoring walking, jogging or other daytime exercise and fitness activities. Regularly getting a good night’s sleep is essential to achieving and maintaining good physical and mental health. Sleeping poorly can result in decreased motivation for achieving goals, increased cravings for junk food and sugar, as well as a higher risk of illness due to the negative effects too little sleep has on the immune system. Many people who consistently have trouble sleeping are now using digital sleep trackers to record the time they fall asleep, when and how often they wake up during the night and how much time they actually spend sleeping.

Types of Sleep Trackers and What They Detect

The most common types of digital sleep trackers are wearable wristbands and smartwatches and standalone systems clipped to a pillow, placed under a mattress or inserted between the bottom bed sheet and the mattress top. Both types of trackers gather and store information related to the quality, duration and trends of the user’s sleep.

  • Wearable Sleep Trackers contain sensors called accelerometers that monitor the sleeper’s rest/activity cycles, although they’re not entirely accurate. When a body lying in bed is still for an extended period of time, the accelerometer might record the lack of movement as time spent sleeping. Although the person may actually be asleep, the tracker might interpret nocturnal tossing and turning as awake time.

In addition to sleep cycles, some wearable trackers also monitor the sleeper’s heart and respiratory activity, which change during the four different levels of sleep. Most wearable sleep trackers cost between $150 and $250, depending upon the number and types of features they include.

  • Standalone Sleep Tracking Systems don’t come into contact with the body. Most contact-free sleep trackers use thin strips of fabric with built-in infrared sensors that detect the sleep/wake cycle. They’re placed either under the mattress or on top of the mattress beneath the bottom sheet. Standalone trackers use ballistocardiography (BCG) to create graphical representations of changes in the sleeper’s heart rate. Both types of sleep trackers keep records of nightly sleep activity and trends over periods of weeks or even months by connecting to smartphones or other digital devices through Bluetooth. Some trackers will also interface with Alexa and similar home automation systems. Because they lack the technology to monitor daytime activities, non-wearable trackers are less expensive than wearable trackers. Prices for basic non-wearable trackers start at less than $100.

Additional Sleep Tracker Features

Both wearable and non-wearable sleep trackers monitor each phase of the nightly sleep cycle. There are four stages of sleep in each cycle, three of which are Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) phases called quiet sleep and one Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage known as active sleep. Sleep trackers sense and record the amount of time the sleeper spends in each of the four stages, which are:

  • NREM Stage 1 – This is a short, 5 to 10 minute period of transition between being awake and falling asleep.
  • NREM Stage 2 – During this period which lasts about 20 minutes, the body’s temperature drops and the heart rate begins to slow. There are also sudden bursts of brain activity during Stage 2.
  • NREM Stage 3 – This is when the deepest sleep occurs. The muscles relax, blood pressure drops and the breathing rate decreases.
  • REM Sleep – During the REM stage, brain activity increases, the body is relaxed and immobilized, the eyes move rapidly and dreaming occurs.

A full sleep cycle takes about 90 minutes, after which stages 1 through 4 are repeated throughout the night, all of which are captured and recorded by the sleep tracker. Ideally, healthy adults should complete four or five sleep cycles each night.

Some of the more advanced sleep tracker systems come with listening technology to detect snoring or other breathing abnormalities that could be indications of sleep apnea or similar sleep disorders. Many tracking systems will also monitor the sleeper’s surroundings, including the bedroom’s temperature, ambient noise level and air quality. Both wearable trackers and contact-free trackers typically include silent alarms, which awaken the sleeper through vibrations rather than the sound of an alarm.

Do Sleep Trackers Actually Work?

Sleep trackers can gather lots of information about sleeping habits. According to Alan Schwartz, M.D., the Director of Sleep Disorders at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore, however, they don’t measure sleep directly, but rather sometimes interpret periods of inactivity as being sleep and episodes of restlessness as being awake. Although they’re not totally accurate, Schwartz believes sleep trackers can be useful in helping identify specific sleep patterns. He adds, however, that if you are concerned with the quality of your sleep, it’s a good idea to discuss the matter with your doctor.

For some people, sleep trackers appear to hinder rather than help them get a good night’s rest. In some instances, sleep trackers actually lower sleep quality by inducing anxiety that can result in insomnia. A recent article in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine describes a growing number of cases of a new sleep disorder called orthosomnia, which is an unhealthy obsession with the results of a sleep tracking device’s findings. In most cases, orthosomnia ends up worsening rather than improving sleep quality.

Although some people find sleep trackers to be both entertaining and a useful way to monitor their sleep habits, they’re not for everyone. If the tracker’s data contradicts the way you actually feel, listen to your body rather than the device. Take sleep tracker readings with a grain of salt – otherwise, you may find yourself suffering from the effects of orthosomnia.

Regardless of whether you use a sleep tracker, having the right sleep system will directly affect the quality and duration of your sleep. Stop by one of Sit ‘n Sleep’s 38 conveniently located Southern California Mattress Superstores and speak with one of our knowledgeable sleep consultants who will help you find everything you need for consistently getting a good night’s rest.

For more information on sleeping well with or without a tracking device, read Stress-Reducing Tips for Getting a Better Night’s Sleep from Sit ‘n Sleep’s Blog archives.

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