Sleep trackers keeping people awake with undue worry

Sleep tracking is becoming big business. While the industry is still in its infancy, there has already been a boom in health and fitness wearables offering advanced sleep tracking. But sometimes these devices may do more harm than good according to a new paper recently published in the journal Sleep Medicine.

We all know sleep is important. It plays a vital role in good health and well-being throughout your life. Getting enough quality sleep at the right times can help protect your mental health, physical health, quality of life, and safety.

The global market for sleep technology is expected to hit $77bn in three years time. About 60% of the demand for such products comes from the anxious and sleep deprived people in the US. Some researchers are, however, questioning the usefulness of sleep tracking devices and apps.

Essential reading: Ten gadgets for advanced sleep monitoring

Specialists at Rush University Medical Center noticed an increase in patients coming in and complaining of sleep disorders. Many of the people mentioned they were having problems hitting the recommended 8 hour sleep target. Researchers looked into this more closely and found that in some cases sleep-tracking devices were to blame. It seems that such devices were actually causing people to lose sleep due to an increase in sleep-related anxiety.

“They are having anxiety about sleep, they are trying to get more sleep and also they are spending more time in bed trying to sleep and that results in them having more awake time at night and also having their sleep more fragmented,” Kelly Baron, clinical psychologist at Rush University Medical Center and co-author of the study, explained.

Researchers even coined a new phrase to describe the fixation: “orthosomnia.” The name is derived from the term “orthorexia” – the unhealthy preoccupation with healthy eating.

One of the case studies in the report describes a patient who complained he had been waking up irritable and unrefreshed. A recent gift from his girlfriend, a sleep tracker, indicated that this only happened when he had less than eight hours of sleep. Determined to set things right, he set himself a goal to hit this figure every night. Ultimately, it turned out that this caused added anxiety about his need to achieve the target, so his sleep kept getting worse and worse.

Sleep tracking is not an exact science. While many of these devices claim to be able to differentiate between different stages of sleep, all this should be taken with a grain of salt. The truth is, fitness trackers aren’t always accurate when it comes to sleep tracking. They may miss out on those afternoon naps or think you are sleeping when you are just lying in bed watching TV. The best way to measure sleep is still in a sleep lab, but this is not necessary unless you have a sleep disorder.

“We measure sleep by the EEG of brainwaves, so the wrist is not going to pick up some of these little awakenings, so most of the time it’s going to overestimate,” added Baron.

Most people should definitely aim for 7 hours of sleep per night. But the best gauge on whether you have had enough sleep is how you feel the next day, not your fitness tracker. If you feel tired or are awake for long periods of time during the night, then perhaps it’s time to seek professional help.

Most important of all – if you can’t sleep? Don’t lay in bed stressing about it!

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