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Sleep trackers: Do they work and should you use one?

We’ve all been told that a good night’s sleep is important for your overall health. This probably explains why there are so many apps, smart devices, and trackers claiming to measure your sleep. But do they work and are they worth it? Sleep medicine specialist Dr. Jacob Coleman at Tryon Medical Partners provides insight into what it actually means to track your sleep.

What can sleep trackers tell you?

Commercial sleep trackers primarily look at movement and changes in heart rate to try to estimate sleep. Since the most accurate way to analyze sleep is by monitoring brain activity, muscle tone, and eye movement, how reliable is the data you’re getting?

As Dr. Coleman explains, while sleep itself can’t be controlled, you can control some of the things that contribute to healthy sleep habits. And for this, there may be some value in using commercial sleep trackers. 

“Trackers can be helpful in giving yourself an idea of the sleep time you’re actually budgeting, and how much variability there may be,” he shares. “What time are you going to bed at night? Are you sleeping in? Try to establish a regular wake or out of bed time and stay active throughout the day.”

Regular exercise is important because it gives the body fuel for sleep. Using a tracker that also measures your daily physical activity (think steps, miles, heart rate, aerobic output) can provide you with information about one of the most modifiable contributors to more efficient sleep.

Something else to keep in mind about commercial sleep trackers is that it’s not always clear how they claim to work, with data processing that has not been critically evaluated by unbiased experts.

How do medical sleep studies differ and how do they work?

Simply put, in-lab sleep studies are the most accurate test to determine if someone is awake or asleep, and are FDA-approved and peer reviewed (as are some home sleep studies prescribed by a physician). In-lab tests measure brain waves, eye movement, muscle tone, air flow, heart rate, effort to breathe, and muscle control. Home medical sleep screening devices look at movement, position, heart rate, oxygen, blood flow, and what the blood vessels are doing as a marker for sleep. 

If you feel like you are having trouble sleeping, whether it be falling asleep at night, waking up in the middle of the night or just not feeling rested in the morning and can’t figure out why, speak to your primary care clinician. They will listen to your concerns and can order a sleep study if they feel it’s warranted. Primary care physicians can order home tests but not in-lab tests at this time. At a multispecialty practice like Tryon, the findings will be read by a sleep medicine clinician but handled through your primary care physician, meaning you don’t automatically need to start with a specialist. Should your test results indicate needing to work directly with a sleep medicine clinician, you will be set up to do so.

“Our goal at Tryon is to provide access to more people, more efficiently,” says Dr. Coleman. 

So are commercial sleep trackers worth it?

Dr. Coleman does caution about focusing too much attention on specific night-to-night tracker data. Without correlating brain activity and eye movement, the actual sleep stage cannot be determined consistently, and sleep trackers may overrepresent specific sleep data. But you will be able to see trends to implement changes moving forward. It’s a good idea to look at a month of data at a time and compare it to the next month.

Most of us already have some sleep tracking abilities available to us on our smart phone or watch. As long as you level your expectations of their findings, trackers can provide insight about your activity level and sleeping patterns so you can make adjustments.

Want to discuss any sleep issues you may be having? Visit a clinician to make an appointment.