Sleep Tracking Devices: How Tech Helps Identify Sleep Patterns

Did you know that up to 70 million people in the U.S. suffer from sleep disorders? Poor sleep quality may be attributed to several reasons, and not knowing the exact one can be frustrating. Sleep tracking devices are a sophisticated technology that can track sleep patterns, collect important data such as physical motion and breathing, and derive important insights to help identify sleep issues. This provides an opportunity for informed decision making and timely intervention.

How do sleep tracking devices work?

Sleep tracking devices — such as a sleep tracking ring or a sleep tracking watch work by using various sensors and special technologies to keep track of different health parameters like heart rate, breathing rate, and activity levels at rest, giving clues about your sleep quality.

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Features that are common to most sleep tracking devices include:

  • Duration of sleep. By tracking the time that you’re at rest, the devices can monitor when you fall asleep at night and when you wake up.
  • Quality of sleep. Sleep tracking devices can detect periods of uninterrupted and interrupted sleep.
  • Phases of sleep. Some systems track and monitor your sleep phases, noting when you’re in deep and light sleep.
  • Environmental factors. Sleep trackers also have sensors that detect the amount of light in your room or measure the temperature of your surroundings.
  • Lifestyle factors. Sleep tracking watches prompt you to provide information about your lifestyle, such as your activity level, caffeine intake, stress levels, and smartphone usage, as studies suggest there is a direct correlation between sleep and lifestyle.

All the information gathered is then put together and analyzed to give you a detailed overview of your sleep, including how long you slept, how well, and the time spent in each sleep stage. This can help you understand your sleep patterns better and make changes for a better night's rest.

Can you trust your sleep tracker?

Some studies have shown that when compared to polysomnography tests (which experts use to diagnose sleep disorders), sleep trackers are only accurate 78% of the time, and others show that they might not always be as reliable as you’d like. Polysomnography tests are the most accurate because they track a person’s brain waves, heart rate, breathing, blood oxygen levels, and body and eye movements during sleep through electrodes attached to the skin and scalp.

Since many sleep trackers have not been tested against polysomnography tests, it may be difficult to assess their accuracy. It also depends on where you put the device. For example, sleep trackers that are worn on the wrist estimate sleep efficiency by measuring body movement and heart rate data occasionally. As movement is common during all stages of sleep, it provides few clues about what sleep stage we’re in. Many sleep devices also fail to differentiate one stage of sleep from another based on motion alone.

Some sleep trackers monitor your sleep patterns and habits, but they don’t necessarily measure your sleep directly. Instead, they measure periods of inactivity as an estimate of how much sleep you are getting and, in turn, how much sleep you need. In some cases, this may do the job, but when choosing sleep trackers, it’s always good to pick those that have been tested for their accuracy.

While these trackers can give you a good idea about how you sleep, they cannot replace doctor’s appointments. It's still crucial to talk to healthcare professionals if you are having sleep issues that are affecting your quality of life. As technology gets better, further research is still needed to investigate the accuracy and efficiency of sleep tracking devices.

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How to read data from a sleep tracker?

Reading data from a sleep tracker involves understanding the various metrics it records and gaining insights into your sleep patterns. Sleep trackers, whether wearable devices or bed-based sensors, typically provide a range of data, including sleep duration, sleep stages, movements during sleep, and sometimes heart rate and breathing patterns.

  • Sleep duration. This metric tells you the total amount of time you spent asleep. Most adults require between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night for optimal health.
  • Sleep stages. Sleep is divided into light sleep, deep sleep, and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Knowing the time spent in each stage of sleep may provide additional insight. For example, failure to obtain enough of both deep sleep and REM sleep may explain its impact on memory.
  • Awake times. These are periods when you’re awake or restless during the night. It’s normal to have brief awakenings, but they shouldn’t be too long or too frequent. The average awake time in between sleep cycles is 55 minutes.
  • Sleep efficiency. Sleep efficiency is the percentage of time spent asleep while in bed. It is calculated by dividing the total time spent asleep by the total time spent in bed, then multiplying by 100 to get a percentage. Higher percentages indicate better sleep efficiency.

Once you start looking at data over days and weeks, you will be able to identify patterns or trends. If you notice certain patterns, like always waking up at a certain time, you can try adjusting your routine to improve sleep.

The data can also be compared to recommended guidelines or discussed with your doctor to map out a treatment plan. It’s not just about the numbers or complicated graphs but understanding how you feel after a night's sleep.

How sleep devices help spot sleeping issues

Sleep disorders refer to conditions that affect the quality, duration, or timing of sleep. They may be caused by underlying physical and mental health issues or emotional stress. If you experience one or more of the following signs, you should consult your healthcare provider for a broader discussion.

  • You have trouble falling or remaining asleep.
  • You find it difficult to stay awake during the day.
  • You are prone to certain behaviors that disrupt your sleep such as using your phone for prolonged periods before sleeping.

If you’re having difficulty sleeping, using a sleep tracker and knowing what it’s really measuring might help you understand the sleep issue and guide you toward an improved transition in sleep. Here are some ways sleep trackers can help you identify sleep issues:

  • Accelerometers detect your body movements during the night. The average sleeper moves about 40–50 times a night, and this may vary from person to person.
  • Photoplethysmography monitors your heart rate by measuring blood flow. Fluctuations or an elevated heart rate during the night can suggest disturbances in sleep, potentially due to stress, sleep disorders, or other health issues.
  • Built-in microphones can pick up sounds, such as snoring or other noises. Persistent snoring may result in poor-quality sleep and indicate certain health concerns.
  • Some trackers calculate sleep efficiency by measuring the percentage of time spent asleep while in bed. It is important because it provides a measure of the quality and restfulness of your sleep and can identify sleep problems.
  • Identifying consistent patterns or irregularities is yet another advantage of sleep tracking devices. You can discuss these trends with your doctor and map out a shared treatment plan that will guide improvements in sleep habits.
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How can you improve your sleep quality?

Once your sleep issue has been identified, your doctor will most likely prescribe a suitable treatment and recommendations. However, here are some additional tips that may help improve sleep hygiene:

  1. Maintain a consistent sleep schedule to help regulate your body’s internal clock.
  2. Establish a calming bedtime routine to signal your body that it’s time to wind down.
  3. Ensure that your sleeping environment is comfortable, as this will help you fall asleep.
  4. Limit screen time before sleep to allow your brain to produce sleep hormones in response to the darkness that helps you fall asleep.
  5. Avoid heavy meals right before bedtime.
  6. Limit daytime naps, as this may help you fall asleep quicker at night.
  7. Incorporate daily physical activity.

If sleep problems still persist, talk to your doctor and seek professional help.

Choosing the right sleep tracking device

To pick the right sleep tracker, you need to think about a few important things. First, make sure the device has been scientifically tested for accuracy to give reliable sleep information. It's also important that the tracking device, whether it’s a ring, bracelet, or watch, is comfortable to wear at night, so you can use it consistently.

Battery life is another important feature to consider — it should work all night without needing lots of charging. Make sure it works with your phone and has an easy-to-use app so the data can be stored in one place and shared easily. Look at what kind of information it collects and choose one that tracks things important to you. If it has extra features like checking your heart rate or the room's environment, that's a bonus.

All in all, sleep trackers offer a unique window into the different stages of sleep and provide data-driven insights that can reveal potential sleep issues, guiding us toward healthier sleep habits. By monitoring patterns in sleep stages, movements, heart rate, and other metrics, these devices can help identify irregularities that may otherwise go unnoticed. However, it's important to remember that while sleep trackers can be valuable tools for understanding our sleep patterns and making lifestyle adjustments, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice.

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