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Do wearable sleep trackers really work?

Wearable technology has become an increasingly common thing in the last few years. From Fitbits to Apple Watches, step counters and heart rate monitors, the types and functions of these wrist-worn gadgets are as varied as the people who use them.


But as popular as they have become, a lot of us still want to ask the question, are they really that useful? Are they a help or a hindrance in life? And in particular, can they help me sleep better?

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To answer this question, we’ll take a quick look at how sleep trackers like this actually function, before comparing some of their benefits and drawbacks, to help you make a decision about whether these devices are for you.


How do wearable sleep trackers function?


Up until recently, wrist-worn sleep trackers have worked by detecting movement when you sleep. This data has then been transferred into an estimation of length and quality of sleep, with movement levels equating to deep, light, REM or no sleep. While this might give a rough estimate of the kind of sleep you have, it’s far from a perfect representation.


Recently though, there have been advances in these devices that now allow them to track heart rate as well as movement. So with both of these bodily inputs being transformed into sleep data, the accuracy of sleep trackers like this has improved significantly. However, they are still not going to give you an exact record of your sleep health.


The benefits of wearable sleep trackers


Though the data from these devices isn’t perfect, they can still be useful. Results from wearable sleep trackers can help you identify broad patterns in your sleep health, and highlight the ways that certain bedtimes or daily activities will affect your sleep or mood the next day.


For example, you might have slept 6 hours and been in a bad mood the next day, whereas when you slept 8 hours, you felt fine. Or perhaps you go for late night runs on certain days, and have noticed that you take longer to get to sleep on those nights (likely because of increased body temperature).


But while these very general trends and issues can be identified and amended quite easily, sleep trackers should not be seen as an alternative to visiting the doctor. If you have concerns about your sleep health, you need to speak to a GP; as we’re about to discuss, sleep tracking devices can’t help with everything.


The drawbacks of wearable sleep trackers


As we’ve already mentioned, sleep trackers don’t actually measure sleep; just movement and pulse data which is transformed into an estimation of sleep. This means that wearable commercial sleep trackers are unable to diagnose serious sleep disorders like sleep apnea.


While they can be helpful, they shouldn’t be viewed as the fix-all pathway to better sleep, since there are a range of serious sleep problems they can’t identify.


A second drawback of these gadgets is that they can trigger severe anxiety. If you are a person who suffers from anxiety generally, or particularly sleep related anxiety, then sleep trackers can place undue pressure on you to get enough sleep and to sleep well, thereby having the opposite effect and damaging your sleep quality.


Should you use a wearable sleep tracker?


As long as you understand that sleep trackers won’t magically solve all sleep issues, and that sleep studies and sleep doctors are still vital in the diagnosis and treatment of severe sleep disorders, then using a wearable sleep tracker is fine, sometimes even helpful.


Also, for people who like to gather data on other things like steps, heart rate and general exercise, these wearable devices are perfect for that as well. If that’s you, then using one of these could kill two birds with one stone.


But in the end, sleep tracker or no, if you’re someone who struggles with the length and quality of their sleep, then please talk to your doctor, and get in touch with us to see how we might be able to help.


Sleep Well - Live Well


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This article is from Keystone Medical Media, a sub-entity of Keystone Content.


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