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Do Sleep Trackers Actually Work? Read This Before You Buy One!

The scientific field of human sleep is a fascinating place. Within the last few years or so, the increasingly problematic insomnia epidemic has instigated an urgent push to really dive deep into the how and the why of human sleep. As recently as a decade ago, most people thought that all you needed was a certain quantity of sleep in order to look and feel your best. Now we know that the quality of your sleep is just as important - if not more.

Sleep Tracker

Also as recently as a decade ago, the only way to really test the quality of your sleep was to offer yourself up as a guinea pig to a local sleep research clinic and hook yourself up to all sorts of scary machines and wires. But technology has come a long way, too. This is especially true with fitness tracking devices. In the beginning, they only counted how many steps you walk in a day in order to make you more cognizant how much physical activity you get and how you can increase it for better health. But these days, fitness trackers can measure everything from your steps to your heart rate to your daily calorie burn and even automatically detect when you are exercising as well as what type of exercise you are currently doing.

In case you haven't already guessed, yes, fitness tracking devices are now being designed to track your sleep. But it's not just the quantity of sleep you get that they measure - some of the more advanced devices can also measure your sleep stages. But how accurate are these devices, really? Some people are skeptical. And they may actually have a reason to be. Below, we'll look into the technology behind these devices as well as the source of controversy surrounding their legitimacy and accuracy.

How Sleep Trackers Work

Many fitness tracking devices have gyroscope motion detectors which measure if, when, and how you move at night while you are sleeping (among many other things). Years ago, this was the only way for fitness trackers to measure the quantity of sleep you got and whether or not your sleep was disturbed at night. This type of sleep tracking device can definitely shed some light and insight into the quality of your sleep, which can be a helpful way to improve your overall health and wellness. But tracking your sleep based on movement alone is like trying to see everything in a room through a keyhole on the other side of the door. You're not getting the whole picture.

Newer, more technologically advanced devices are starting to improve the accuracy of their sleep measurements. They do this by using a combination of movements and heart rate in order to get a measurement of your sleep stages. Movement alone cannot calculate how much time you spend in deep sleep, light sleep, or REM sleep. But changes in heart rate - along with measuring your physical restlessness - can provide even deeper insight into your nightly sleep cycle.

The latest and most advanced trackers are now incorporating three different metrics into their sleep measurement calculations: movement, heart rate, and temperature. These tend to be a little bit more on the expensive side, but the added data from body temperature fluctuation helps get you that much closer to accurately pinpointing the quality of your sleep.

Critiques of Sleep Trackers

There are certain metrics which no sleep tracker will ever be able to accurately measure - at least, not for the foreseeable future. Those metrics are:

Despite the fact that's wearable sleep trackers don't measure as many variables as you would in a sleep clinic, this doesn't mean that you should throw the baby out with the bathwater with regard to the data they provide. If you think about it, the data you get from being closely monitored in a sleep clinic has its own margin of error which is inherent to the process. You're sleeping in a strange bed, which causes sleep problems for most people. You're hooked up to different machines and monitoring devices which can make it uncomfortable and awkward to find a comfortable position to sleep in. Lastly, there's the psychological factor: you know you're being watched. Even if you're just wearing a Fitbit on your wrist while sleeping in your own bed, the fact that you're measuring your sleep and your actual, natural sleeping environment means that you have a smaller margin of error - even if you aren't measuring as many variables.

How to Interpret the Data

There are many different ways you can interpret the data depending on weather you are concerned with the quantity or the quality of your sleep. If you are only worried about how much sleep you get and you're concerned that maybe you have some sort of sleep disorder or sleep apnea, you should obviously talk to your doctor first. If your sleep tracker shows that you are waking up in the middle of the night and moving restlessly, it's definitely worth it to bring that to your doctor's attention. They can refer you to a specialist if there is a more serious, underlying issue.

If you're concerned about quality, then you'll definitely want to pay attention to how you transition between deep sleep, light sleep, and REM sleep throughout the night. You want a healthy balance between those three sleep stages. Too much or too little of any stage is bad for your long-term wellness and could be a sign of a more serious problem. Also, keep in mind that there are many substances which can significantly alter your ability to transition between sleep stages or spend a healthy amount of time in each stage. Alcohol, cannabis, over-the-counter sleep aids, and prescription sleeping pills can all inhibit your ability to spend sufficient time in each sleep stage, especially with regard to deep sleep and REM sleep.

If your sleep tracking device shows that you aren't getting the quality sleep that you need, you'll need to rethink your nightly habits in order to get better rest. This could involve changing how you eat your evening meals, when you exercise, and what things you should decrease or eliminate from your diet. You may also want to get rid of your prescription sleep drugs or over-the-counter pills and opt for a natural herbal supplement instead. We've reviewed the best products out there that don't require a prescription and don't come with the safety issues of most chemical sleep aids out there. Check out our reviews page for more information.