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May 01, 2018

Sleep trackers actually may make you sleep worse, study finds

Experts say an over-reliance on data from devices and apps can cause the disorder orthosomnia

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Sleep.

Presumably, you purchase and use a sleep-tracking device to help you sleep more soundly. But some recent research finds that those devices, well, may have the opposite effect.

A study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine last year tracked three patients who religiously used sleep trackers. 

What they found was that trying to adhere to the devices' standards actually screwed up their sleep, or at least made the patients think so:

...there are a growing number of patients who are seeking treatment for self-diagnosed sleep disturbances such as insufficient sleep duration and insomnia due to periods of light or restless sleep observed on their sleep tracker data. The patients' inferred correlation between sleep tracker data and daytime fatigue may become a perfectionistic quest for the ideal sleep in order to optimize daytime function.

Dr. Sabra Abbott, an assistant professor of neurology at Northwestern University, explained further in a recent interview with Health.com:

“We realized we had a number of patients coming in with a phenomenon that didn't necessarily meet the classical description of insomnia, but that was still keeping them up at night,” Dr. Abbott tells Health. “They seemed to have symptoms related to concerns about what their sleep-tracker devices were telling them, and whether they were getting good quality sleep or not.”

In other words, people were stressed out — and in some cases, their sleep was suffering further — because they weren't measuring up to their tracker’s definition of “good” sleep. “They were actually destroying their sleep by becoming so dependent upon these devices,” says Dr. Abbott.

Notes from the study reveal a bizarre pattern in which the patients trust their devices more than their doctors. There's the 27-year-old woman who went in for an in-lab sleep test. After being told she slept deeply during the test, she asked, “Then why does my Fitbit say I am sleeping poorly?" And there's the 40-year-old man who presented his sleep schedule as "according to my data.”

Per the study:

Each patient was seeking treatment due to perceived insufficient sleep or periods of restlessness or light sleep. Despite multiple validation studies that have demonstrated consumer-wearable sleep tracking devices are unable to accurately discriminate stages of sleep and have poor accuracy in detecting wake after sleep onset, we found patients' perceptions difficult to alter.

The disorder has been dubbed "orthosomnia." "Ortho" means straight or correct while "somnia" means sleep. Abbott told Health.com that at the end of the day, each individual has to decide whether a sleep tracker is helping or hurting.

She also said that patients should listen to their doctors, but also listen to their bodies: If you're feeling refreshed and energized, you probably got a good night's sleep, no matter what your device tells you.

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