Wearable Sleep Trackers Might Be Worth the Hype, Experts Say

A wearable fitness tracker isn’t just a great way to monitor your daily steps—it can also be a smart way to learn about your sleep. And as people open their eyes to how essential sleep is for both their physical and mental health, smart, wearable sleep-tracking technology has become a popular and convenient way to audit and understand their own sleep habits and patterns, and even resolve unique sleep-related issues (that don’t require further medical intervention, that is).

Why Good Sleep Is So Important

Sleep and mood are intricately linked, where a deficiency in one can cause dysfunction in the other. “Getting poor quality sleep or less sleep than what’s needed can cause severe mood changes ranging from irritability to anxiety, depression, and decreased resilience. And low mood from depression or anxious racing thoughts tend to significantly impair sleep quality and duration,” says Ben Spielberg, MS, neuroscientist and founder of TMS and Brain Health.

But what exactly qualifies as a good night’s sleep? According to Luis Javier Peña-Hernández, MD, FCCP, sleep and lung health specialist at PCSI, the largest integrated sleep, pulmonary, and chest specialty group in Palm Beach County, the ideal amount of sleep for an average adult is more than seven to eight hours per night. “Sleeping less than seven hours is associated with poor health outcomes,” he says.

While there isn’t one, magic formula for achieving optimal sleep, investing in a sleep tracker can provide some handy insight into your burning sleep queries. Dr. Peña-Hernández believes that, yes, the major trackers currently on the market, like OuraWhoopApple Watch, and Fitbit, are accurate enough to track the average user’s sleep.

Choosing the Right Sleep Tracker

Dr. Peña-Hernández, who personally uses an Apple Watch, says people should choose a tracker based on their lifestyle and needs. “Each tracker will have pros and cons depending on the user and any other devices used to pair and store the data,” he says.

For example, Fitbit has many affordable models, making it one of the most budget-friendly choices. Those who like jewelry or prefer a more stylish aesthetic might choose an Oura Ring—pricier to be sure, but minimal, lightweight, and highly reviewed for its tracking capabilities. If you’re using a tracker specifically for sleep data, Justin Roethlingshoefer (aka “The Data Guy”), founder of Own It, recommends Whoop for its accuracy.

Meanwhile Samantha Slaven-Bick of Samantha Slaven Publicity wears both a Whoop 4.0 and a Fitbit Versa and sees no major difference in sleep data between the two devices. “Whoop provides way more data on my workouts, recovery, and sleep, but Fitbit has a screen that shows my steps, heart rate, and calories burned—the Whoop doesn’t have a screen,” Slaven-Bick says. “Both track my sleep, but the Whoop also tells me how much sleep I should get the next night based on the previous night’s score.”

However, those with daytime sleepiness, obesity, or medical conditions like hypertension may want to consider a more comprehensive health tracker like the Apple Watch because, as Dr. Peña-Hernández notes, the latter series of this device can measure health markers such as oxygen saturation, heart rate, record breathing, and capture snoring sounds. “The information recorded can be useful to recognize the need to seek medical advice to evaluate your sleep in a more professional manner for those individuals at higher risk of suffering from sleep apnea,” he says.

Those with serious sleep issues may want to consider an in-mattress tracker such as Beddit or Sleepme, which is a favorite of Roethlingshoefer. “Sleepme controls body temperature by heating and cooling appropriately,” he says.

Key Sleep Data to Track

Sleep Stage Measurement (Sleep Quality)

Normal sleep architecture in humans is characterized by cycles made up of four different stages of sleep. These cycles tend to last about 90 minutes (on average), and during an ideal night of sleep, the average person will go through four to six cycles. No matter what tracker you choose, Roethlingshoefer recommends yours measures every individual sleep stage, as each stage provides its own set of benefits (he also recommends one that measures your respiratory rate).

“Stage one is also known as light sleep, and it’s the typical transition from wakefulness to sleep. It can last somewhere between one and five minutes, and occasional muscle twitching or hallucinations can occur. Stage two is also a phase of lighter sleep—one from which it’s easy to be woken up—and represents 45 to 55 percent of the night,” Dr. Peña-Hernández explains.

Next is stage three, known as deep sleep or slow-wave sleep. “During this phase, it is more difficult to be aroused and your blood pressure and respiratory rate drop,” he says.

Stage four is called REM sleep, which stands for rapid eye movement sleep. The first REM sleep cycle occurs approximately 90 minutes after falling asleep and accounts for approximately one-quarter of sleep time. “During REM sleep, our muscles completely relax, our eyes move in a rapid random pattern and the refreshing effect of sleep takes place,” Dr. Peña-Hernández says. “It is during REM sleep that we can remember our dreams and the consolidation of memories takes place.”

Sleep Duration

Duration of sleep is probably the most essential statistic to look at on your tracker, as “we tend to overestimate how long we sleep and underestimate the importance of sleep,” says Dr. Peña-Hernández. The longer you sleep for, the more likely you are to experience several sleep cycles (going through all four stages of sleep several times through) and the most replenishing night of rest.

Incorporate a Sleep Tracker Into a Regular Routine

Using a sleep tracker to monitor nightly rest and make connections between sleep patterns and overall health is a great start—but it’s not the be-all and end-all solution for ensuring better sleep. Any sleep gadgets should augment other healthy sleep habits, rather than replace them.

“The best way to optimize the amount of sleep you get and the quality of your sleep architecture is by maintaining a regular sleep routine and allowing enough time to relax at least one hour before bedtime,” confirms Dr. Peña-Hernández, who also suggests avoiding alcoholic beverages at least three to four hours before bedtime; foregoing the use of sedatives or narcotics altogether; and waiting three hours after larger meals to go to bed.

Another of the simplest sleep-promoting habits to adopt is enabling the “Night Mode” setting on your smartphone a few hours before bed to reduce exposure to blue light. “Blue light inhibits naturally occurring hormones that induce sleep such as melatonin,” Spielberg says.

An added bonus to using a sleep tracker is that it can help make these pre-sleep habits stick. First and foremost, simply having access to all of your sleep information can improve awareness and overall sleep hygiene. Spielberg, who personally uses a FitBit, has noticed a difference in his lifestyle since tracking his sleep, becoming “more mindful of [his] sleep quality and duration now.” The Apple Watch has a “Wind Down” function that disables device notifications, reduces distractions, and helps you relax properly before hitting the sheets. If you opt for an Oura Ring, you’ll find several features for helping you maintain a nighttime routine, including suggesting a bedtime, sleep-related notifications, and other helpful suggestions based on your individual habits and lifestyle.

However, if a lack of sleep truly impacts your ability to function, you may want to visit your primary care physician or get a referral for a sleep specialist.


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