It is crazy to think about how many benefits come with getting a good night’s sleep. With how hectic our work schedules and social lives can be, it shouldn’t surprise you that the Centers for Disease Control reveal that at least one in three adults has trouble getting the recommended amount of sleep each night. Anything under seven hours of sleep for an adult can signify serious health conditions, such as a weakened immune system or a seemingly ever-growing number of sleeping disorders.
So what can we do to ensure our sleep is long and restorative enough to keep us in good health and great performance in our day-to-day lives? Most of us aren’t medically trained in any way, and we may not have time for a series of detailed and regular check-ups because of our work or other common obligations. The main method we suggest is sleep tracking. In short, sleep tracking is a process where you collect data about when and how you sleep in order to fix any lifestyle mistakes that could lead to inadequate levels of rest regularly. We will cover the main benefits of sleep tracking, explain how you would go about tracking your sleep patterns and which apps you can use to get the job done without any financial investment. Be sure to consult your doctor about the results of your chosen sleep tracking method.
The Benefits of Sleep Tracking
While there are general guidelines for how much sleep you should be getting and what your sleeping environment should look like, there are minute differences that depend on our individual quirks and details. Not everyone will get optimal sleep in the same conditions. Sleep tracking helps you find out what the ideal sleep conditions are for you specifically, which is crucial if you want to discover problems in your daily routine that may be causing sleeping issues. For example, eating heavy meals right before bedtime (or late in the evening, in general) is likely to disrupt your sleep schedule. This disrupted sleep schedule can then manifest as one or more out of a host of health problems, including low energy levels, headaches, lowered appetite, weakened libido, etc.
The bottom line is, sleep tracking helps you achieve more restorative and better sleep. You get all the information you could need, and you use that information to either take direct action and fix bad habits or consult your doctor or a sleep specialist so they can interpret the results for you. Sleep tracking is especially useful for people who frequently deal with jet lag, or have irregular work shifts that constantly disrupt their sleeping schedule and biological rhythm.
Additionally, most devices and apps that track your sleep are programmed with special alarms that minimize the shock of waking up by detecting when you’re in the lightest stages of sleep. The lighter the sleep, the easier it is to your body to “kickstart” and achieve good performance.
Note: Sleep tracking is at its most accurate when done over a longer period. Don’t panic over the results of one night’s sleep analysis, since those can be caused by any number of external factors that have nothing to do with how you sleep.
Sleep Tracking Methods
Sleep tracking has existed in one form or another for ages. Ever since people started connecting the dots and diagnosing sleeping problems, there have been methods of tracking exactly how much rest a person gets throughout a given period. In this article, we will look at the most common methods of tracking sleep that are still used today, and how they perform in terms of effectiveness and convenience.
Let’s get into it:
- Visiting a sleep lab is universally considered the best option if you have the time to spare for it. Sleep labs have the most accurate and advanced equipment when it comes to monitoring your sleeping pattern, and regular check-ups are almost guaranteed to result in an accurate diagnosis. However, this is also the most time-consuming approach to tracking sleep, and as such, it may not appeal to some people. Sleep labs and specialists can be recommended by your PCP (primary care physician) if they are unable to diagnose your problem. Alternatively, they may have a theory or hunch that their tools simply aren’t adequate to effectively prove or disprove. If this happens, you will often get redirected towards a sleep lab for more detailed analysis. The typical procedure at a sleep lab begins with an interview with a sleep specialist. Be as descriptive and accurate as possible while answering questions. After this, you will often get treated to a polysomnogram, which is just a fancy name for a sleep observation. These specialists monitor your body overnight in a variety of planned sleeping positions and patterns, ready to spot any signs of sleeping disorders. It’s also possible to have this observation take place during the day, but it’s less likely (typically only done if they’re looking for symptoms of narcolepsy).
- Sleep journals (also known as sleep diaries) are a simple and low-tech way of tracking sleep. This method is often recommended by your PCP or a sleep specialist, in cases of extended observation or therapy. You may be asked by your doctor to write down information that includes when you go to sleep, how long it takes to fall asleep, when you typically wake up, whether and how often you wake up during the night, etc. While this is simple to do, a tired and drowsy person may not be able to remember all this information accurately, and their responses can be too subjective to get concrete value out of. If your doctor suggests maintaining a sleep journal, you should definitely do it, but don’t treat it as a fail-safe method.
- Sleep tracking devices are everywhere on the market, with wearable and non-wearable versions that can track the amount of movement you make in your bed, as well as your heart rate. More advanced models track more things, but the core functionality stays the same. The less you move, the more the devices register you as being asleep. Non-wearable versions often come with respiration tracking that adds to the accuracy and helps you get a complete picture of what’s going on while you’re trying to sleep.
- Sleep apps are currently trending, and not without a good reason. They’re by far the most convenient and easily accessible method of sleep tracking since a majority of sleep apps are completely free in your smartphone’s app store. Once installed, they are intuitive and easy to put to use. A lot of sleep apps rely on your microphone’s ability to pick up subtle movement noises and vibration, meaning your phone should be placed roughly 30cm away from you. Some apps can even notice when you enter REM sleep (the most restorative period during sleep), or they offer special alarm systems that wake you up when your sleep is at its lightest, so you don’t feel like you got shocked into being awake.
Pro Tip: As a rule, take the results presented by a sleep tracking device or app with a grain of salt. It’s so easy to panic and trick yourself into thinking you’ve got a serious condition. If you’re worried, do yourself a favor and see your doctor. They’re much more capable of making an accurate diagnosis than you are, even with the findings from your device or app. Claims are circulating around the internet about how sleeping apps aren’t always accurate since there’s still room for human error in the placement of the device and the microphones may not be delicate enough to pick up on subtle movement sounds, making the diagnosis spotty. If you’re ever unsure, consult a medical professional.
The Best Sleep Apps on the Market
Because of their accessibility, we’ve decided to isolate a handful of top-notch apps for sleep tracking. Some of these are available on more than one platform; others are system-specific, so you have to be mindful of which operating system you’re using on your smartphone.
Pillow is an iPhone-exclusive sleep tracking app that doubles as an alarm clock. By connecting to Apple’s Health App, it has access to your heart rate, blood pressure, caffeine consumption, and other metrics normally used for fitness purposes. It is able to monitor your sleep by detecting motion and sound vibration patterns. Pillow creates a whole comprehensive diagram detailing how long you spent in each sleep phase, which can be crucial information when presented to a specialist, or even just your PCP. Because the app keeps track of your weight, blood pressure and similar metrics, you can use it to plan changes in your schedule and compare the sleep statistics before and after the change. Thankfully, this application is completely free in Apple’s app store, so you don’t have to worry about subscriptions or anything like that.
Sleep Time monitors the movements you make while sleeping by detecting sounds and vibrations you create anytime you move. Using this data, it creates detailed data on your sleep cycle that you can customize in the settings. This data is presented using intuitive charts and graphs that clearly lay out everything you need to know about your sleeping patterns. Additionally, this app comes with an alarm that is designed to wake you up during the lightest phase of your sleep. The main benefit of this alarm is that you very rarely have those groggy mornings that make work difficult to perform or make you less patient with your child. If you are forced to wake up during the deeper phases of sleep, your body takes much longer to “recover,” often as much as one full hour. If you have a busy schedule, this can spell disaster. This app is free on both Android phones and iPhones, which is extra-convenient.
It’s good that the developers chose an alarm clock as the icon for this app. It features probably the best alarm system out of any sleep tracking app we’ve seen, with lots of options for alarm ringtones and soothing sounds. This alarm will wake you up at some point within a 30 minute period you specify. Using your microphone, the app detects movement and concludes which sleep phase you’re currently in. Whenever possible, it will wake you up during the lightest phase it can select, to ensure you wake up smoothly, without needing an hour or more to become fully operational. If you snore in your sleep, Sleep Cycle can monitor and track the snoring, helping you get rid of it through various means. Sleep Cycle is free on the Android and Apple app stores, making it an easy application to try if you’re looking to track your sleep.
This application is the closest thing to having regular consultation with a sleep expert. It tracks everything you would want it to and creates detailed data about your sleep cycle and habits. This alone would make it similar to most other sleep apps, but SleepScore doesn’t stop there. It gives you direct advice on how to fix your sleeping problems, as though you asked a knowledgeable friend. It can be easy to get a bunch of information presented and not know what to do with it. SleepScore makes sure you’re able to plan how you’re going to deal with the problems that the app detected. The smart alarm the app comes with does much of what you’d expect from a sleep app – it helps you wake up feeling more rested and less groggy. The free version offers data for periods of one week at a time, which is often enough to get informed enough to take action. The app works on newer Android phones or iPhones, making it relatively easy to obtain for free.
Co-founder of Counting Sheep and Sleepaholic