Do Sleep Trackers Really Work?

Sleep plays a vital role in our overall well-being, yet many people struggle with disrupted sleep. Indeed, millions of Americans experience a sleep disorder such as sleep apnea. 

Big tech companies including Samsung and Google have recognized that poor sleep quality pervades modern life and have designed sleep trackers to help provide insights in to sleeping patterns. Yet, how effective are they, and can they really provide enough information to help improve your sleep?

How Sleep Works

First, let’s look at how we sleep. Sleep is not one steady phase, but rather four distinct stages.

  • Stage One lasts up to ten minutes and involves a light sleep where the heart rate slows and the muscles begin to relax. It is easy to wake up during this stage.
  • Stage Two can last up to an hour, as the brain waves slow. 
  • Stage Three is a deeper sleep, where the body begins the restorative processes which are key for physical health and for boosting the immune system.
  • Stage Four begins about 90 minutes into the sleep cycle and is the rapid eye movement (REM) stage. This stage is characterized by dreams and is when short-term memories are stored.

These four stages are repeated in a cycle every 90 minutes or so.

How Trackers Work

Sleep trackers are used to shine a light on our sleeping patterns. There are a whole range of sleep trackers on the market, with sleep duration and sleep quality the primary areas they track.

These devices track inactivity while you sleep, providing data on when you fall asleep and when you wake up the following day. They will also track interrupted sleep through movement caused by tossing and turning during the night.

Some devices are designed to collect even more detailed data. This includes:

  • tracking the different sleep stages so your alarm can go off during a light sleep stage, making it easier to wake up.
  • tracking lifestyle factors by prompting you to enter details about areas which can affect sleep, such as caffeine intake and when your last meal was prior to bed.
  • tracking bedroom environments, including temperature and light.

Therefore, depending on the particular device, the level of tracking and analysis provided can vary.

How Effective Are Sleep Trackers?

Today’ s generation gets on average two hours less sleep each night than their great-grandparents generation. A consistent lack of quality sleep can take a physical and a mental toll, and it is estimated that over one-third of Americans get less than the recommended seven hours of sleep each night.

Therefore, it is no surprise that there is a demand to monitor sleep and that sleep trackers seem to be an increasingly popular aid. Track how we sleep and we can make adjustments to improve sleep. The attraction of gadgets is also hard to deny, and trackers can come in different forms including bracelets, earbuds and rings.

The important element to remember is these trackers work on monitoring inactivity and movement. They do not measure direct sleep, and this is a key point. Trackers interpret inactivity and movement to provide data on sleeping patterns, and therefore there will be a certain element of estimation in any data recorded.

To gain definitive data on someone’s sleep, you would need to have a sleep test, where brain waves are monitored to record the four stages of sleep through the night. This is the type of study you may be referred to by your doctor if they suspect your sleeping problems and resulting fatigue are caused by a disorder such as sleep apnea.

However, just because the trackers do not measure sleep directly does not mean they can’t play a role in helping you address poor quality sleep. 

Trackers can help pinpoint patterns in your sleep. They could indicate your sleeping pattern when you feel the most sluggish the next day -- or if you tend to have a poor night’s sleep after drinking caffeine -- or when eating after a certain time at night.

Trackers can represent data in easy to digest reports or graphs, making it simpler to spot trends in your patterns of sleep. You may then want to discuss the patterns you find in your sleep with your doctor.

Trackers and Sleep Apnea

While trackers can display your sleeping patterns, you will need a sleep study to diagnose a sleep disorder such as insomnia or sleep apnea. 

Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common form of sleep apnea, with airways blocked constantly overnight, leading to breathing difficulties. Someone with obstructive sleep apnea can wake up frequently through the night, just to get air -- but they often don’t realize this is happening.

Trackers may prove useful to gain insights in to sleeping patterns and may even highlight disrupted sleep. But if you have symptoms of a disorder like sleep apnea, including excessive daytime fatigue, frequent nighttime awakenings, loud snoring and morning headaches you should consult with your doctor.

Closing thoughts

Trackers can be useful if you want to gain insight into your sleeping patterns, allowing you to make adjustments where appropriate. Sleep trackers may also indicate disruptions to sleep which you should discuss with your doctor.

A sleep study analyzing brain waves will be required to monitor sleep directly, as trackers only measure sleep through inactivity. Sleep studies help diagnose sleep disorders like obstructive sleep apnea, helping you receive the treatment that can return you to proper nights of restorative sleep.