I treat sleep like my religion. Sleep tracking using sleep apps has taken on an almost cult-like following, prompting app developers to capitalize on the mania.
Here’s the truth about sleep apps and tracking devices, supported by scientific evidence, which reveals that current consumer level sleep trackers have the potential to do more harm than good.
There is a tendency to panic when your sleep pattern is disrupted by something such as a late night or interruption to your usual profile. Your sleep app or tracking device will tell you to feel rested you should have gone to sleep hours earlier.
Not only does this mess with your mindset but it isn’t necessarily accurate either.
The Truth About Sleep Apps
Here’s why :
Anyone who pursues optimal health knows sleep affects every aspect of human function. The need for clean sleep through the appropriate sleep cycles is vital for your health on every level, right down to your cells.
In fact, even seven days of altered sleep, wherein you don’t achieve deep quality sleep, the very makeup of your cells will change and resemble those of a person who is sick or overweight.
During the course of one night, it’s common to go through four stages throughout the night. The cycles are broken into three non-REM (Rapid Eye Movement) stages, followed by a shorter REM period—over and over again until you wake up.
To break that down even further, you start by falling asleep (stage one), which can take anywhere from one to fourteen minutes—or longer or shorter if you happen to be stressed, distracted, intoxicated, caffeinated, or uncomfortable.
You will eventually settle into sleep (stage two). Stage two sleep is characterized by a drop in heart rate as well as a drop in your body temperature.
Finally, you continue down into the deep state (stage three), which is described by my sleep specialist Dr. Rolf Maijer, as slow-wave sleep, which then leads you to dream (REM).
Having your sleep interrupted continuously through various stages of sleep has a compounding effect on your health. In the short term, you will wake up feeling less than refreshed.
However, one night of inadequate sleep can be easily overcome the following night. In fact, your body will push you down into the deeper slow-wave sleep to compensate for the missed slow wave sleep the night before.
Where typically on most nights you will accumulate 100 or so minutes of slow wave sleep, when you miss a night, you will find a compensatory result of up to 200 minutes of slow-wave sleep.
Over the long term, however, the increased risk of disease and impact on every human function becomes a very real probability.
Relying on the data a sleep app is providing you concerning sleep tracking can be very misleading.
The reason? Sleep apps are missing critical pieces of data necessary to provide you with the information you need to assess your quality of sleep adequately.
Remember, quantity isn’t the be all end all… quality matters. Specifically, to measure slow wave sleep your sleep apps require electrophysiological measurements.
Let me give you an example.
Athlete A is very structured in his sleep regimen. Every night he falls asleep precisely around the same time. He follows a pre-sleep ritual and routinely gets 10 hours sleep.
Athlete B is not structured, typically gets around 6 hours of sleep per night and his timings are sporadic.
During performance tests who do you think performs better? Would you be surprised to learn it was Athlete B?
Here’s why. Even though Athlete A was getting more sleep and routinely tracking his 10 hours, his physical performance metrics were lower than Athlete B.
Further investigation into his lifestyle revealed part of the pre-sleep regimen included a hot drink which was a cultural norm for people from his country. The drink contained a stimulant.
When the electrophysiological data was compiled it revealed Athlete A was completely missing out on slow-wave sleep. Upon removing the stimulant from the pre-sleep regimen, the athlete’s performance skyrocketed.
Sleep apps would not be able to provide that much-needed data.
Sleep remains somewhat of a mystery; however, the CDC has already stated its position that sleep or rather the lack of quality sleep is an epidemic which poses a significant risk to our health.
However, all of this doesn’t mean we can’t try to use our knowledge to our advantage.
Conditioning yourself to fall asleep and wake up at specific times is an excellent practice. Creating the right sleep environment can also have a significant impact on sleep quality.
If you are facing sleep problems related to a pattern that you can’t seem to break there are particular regimens laid out in the book by Dan Garner who is one of the world’s top sleep architects.
My suggestion with respect to sleep apps is to take the information they provide as peripheral data. Rely on your own assessment of how you feel. If you are not feeling rested, follow some very specific recommendations compiled to address your issue. Failing that, you may need to seek the help of a specialist.