The danger in tracking your sleep
By Aisha Sultan | STLtoday | Feb 3, 2018
When I first started tracking my sleep with a Fitbit I was shocked at what it was telling me.
Surely, I was getting more sleep than six hours and change. Then I realized that the tracking device subtracts all the micro times I wake up, even without realizing, throughout the night. This awake time totals from half an hour to an hour each night.
Like lots of other people trying to get better sleep, I joined an ironic vicious cycle: losing sleep worrying about my lack of sleep.
“Sleep is like sex for a man. If you think about it, you can’t do it,” explained Dr. Joseph Ojile, the founder and medical director of Clayton Sleep Institute. When sleep becomes a task or a job, it’s suddenly a lot harder to do. Unlike eating or exercise, it’s a biological function outside our control. There’s no simple way to switch it on. At the same time that there’s growing public awareness about the importance of sleep to good health, Americans have been getting less sleep.
The rise of sleep tracking devices has opened a whole new world for those of us who like data and a sense of control. An estimated 10 percent of U.S. adults use a wearable fitness and sleep tracking device on a regular basis. A small percentage of this group becomes a little too obsessed with the data.
Doctors have come up with a term for it — orthosomnia — to describe patients who are preoccupied with improving or perfecting their wearable sleep data. Physicians are seeing a rise in orthosomnia, according to research published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine. “There are an increasing number of patients who are seeking treatment as a result of their sleep tracker data because of concerns over both sleep duration and quality,” the study reported.
But the data itself may be imperfect.
“The validity of it is sometimes questionable,” Ojile said. The best thing sleep trackers can offer is an outline of general patterns, he said. “They don’t have scientific validation to say you’re getting this much of this type of sleep.” The focus should be on broad strokes and the structure of your sleep routine, he advised. That means going to bed and waking up at roughly the same time every day.
I sent Ojile screenshots of my weekly sleep data for the past couple of months. When he responded that he had “many concerns” about it, I slept poorly that night.
“Your bedtimes are all over the place,” he said. “It’s not a personal criticism,” he quickly added. I get up early and around the same time each morning, but the time I go to sleep varies greatly depending on my writing schedule. This is an area I could improve, we agreed.
He also warned me not to get too hung up in the details. Ask yourself if the data correspond to how you feel during the day, he said.
But how do you create an environment conducive to falling asleep earlier? Stop looking at devices an hour before bed and switch the screens to nighttime mode. Work on relaxation techniques that ease yourself into sleep. When Ojile treats religious workers, such as nuns and priests, he suggests praying or reciting a rosary as part of a meditative ritual. Once he worked with a bass player who said the most relaxed he feels is when he’s playing music. Ojile suggested that he play his bass guitar for 15 to 20 minutes an hour before bedtime. It helped him fall asleep much easier.
When you meditate, the parts of your brain that correspond with happiness light up, he said. The parts that help you go to sleep are in the same area of the brain, he explained. Gentle yoga also stimulates the region of the brain that eases you into sleep.
Children’s sleep habits tend to get off track in their teenage and college years. They stay up late, driven by changing biology and often looking at devices well into the night. Then, they are forced to wake up early for school. They carry a chronic sleep deficit, which they try to make up by crashing on the weekends.
Given that poor sleep habits can put you at greater risk for heart disease, diabetes, anxiety, depression, obesity and accidents, it makes sense to try to see better sleep as a way to be healthier and happier.
Humans are eager to compare ourselves to others. We are curious about how much money, sex and sleep everyone else is getting. Surprisingly, it was this impulse that helped me relax about my sleep data.
I looked up last year’s data on Fitbit users. The report revealed that the average user got six hours and 38 minutes of sleep per night. That’s below the recommended amount of seven to eight hours, of course. But, it’s not too far off my own numbers.
Just knowing that everyone else is also tired and sleep deprived helped me sleep better that night.