Sleep has become a national obsession – and as the clocks go back this weekend, we’ll be glued to our wrist trackers to see the effect of the extra hour on our bedtime routines. But could your pursuit of the perfect night’s sleep be keeping you awake? Jessica Salter reports.
There was a period when the first thing I would do when I opened my eyes was roll over to grab my phone and pore over the morning’s graphs and numbers. But it wasn’t sales stats from my global company, or stock market reports, it was something much more prosaic: the precise details of how much sleep, and of what quality, I’d achieved overnight.
If my results weren’t optimal – and they never were – I found myself hit with a wave of tiredness. Then that evening, before bed, I’d get panicky – especially if anything kept me from getting into my sheets at an acceptable hour. If – when – I woke up at 3am, I’d lie there mentally calculating just how bad my results were likely to be the next morning. It was obviously a form of madness.
Back in 2011, when I was testing out an early fitness tracker that had a sleep function, there wasn’t a name for it. But with the rise and rise of sleep tech (a 2018 report by Future Market Insights predicts the global sleep-tracker market will be more than $3 billion by 2028) there now is: orthosomnia.
Researchers at Rush University Medical School and Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine coined the term to describe that powerful anxiety many of us have around getting and maintaining perfect sleep. And in their paper, published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, the authors suggested that our trackers are to blame.
As with many forms of stress and anxiety, orthosomnia can, ironically, have a knock-on effect on our sleep. ‘I am concerned that tracking sleep could be problematic for those who are vulnerable to developing insomnia,’ says Professor Alice Gregory, author of Nodding Off: The Science of Sleep from Cradle to Grave.
Of course, the reason sleep trackers are so seductive in the first place is due to a heightened awareness of the health benefits of sleep. Barely a week goes by without a new study telling us the perfect number of hours to get, and the toll it can take if we don’t.
While lack of sleep used to be something to brag about – think Margaret Thatcher’s famous four hours a night – now a full eight hours are fetishised, almost as a mark of luxury. But for such an essential biological function, it isn’t always easy to accomplish.
Midlife women suffer particularly from sleep disruption. ‘Insomnia rates are so great in women in their 40s and 50s because of the transition from perimenopause to menopause that typically occurs during this time,’ says Dr Shelby Harris, a clinical psychologist who specialises in behavioural sleep medicine and author of The Women’s Guide to Overcoming Insomnia.
‘Menstrual cycles become irregular, oestrogen and progesterone levels shift dramatically, and these changes all lead to hot flushes, night sweats and busy minds in the middle of the night.’ She adds that busy midlifers who have ‘increased demands with family, often taking care of teenage or older kids plus ageing parents, as well as social stressors and work’ often find their sleep is even more compromised.
Trackers promise to help us keep on top of the one thing we feel slipping out of our grasp. After all, we use them successfully to make us exercise more: a recent review published in the American Journal of Medicine found that they do increase our motivation to work out. But those same tools can turn against us at night.
Charlotte Dormon, 40, a health and well-being brand consultant, suffered from chronic insomnia for years. ‘I had therapy [CBT] and got to a point where I was OK with the fact that I was a restless sleeper and had techniques to keep calm. But then I started using my fitness tracker to monitor my sleep, and suddenly I was straight back to having those horrible feelings when I woke up in the middle of the night, panicking about how little sleep I was getting. I’d wake up in the morning and stress out further, and feel anxious before bed. Tracking my sleep totally stressed me out.’
It’s a common issue. ‘Tracking sleep with wrist trackers tends to make insomnia worse in those who suffer from the issue already, as it heightens the focus on sleep,’ Dr Harris says. ‘If you see that only “x” number of hours was achieved the night before, extra focus is put on the next night trying to force yourself to get even more sleep – and trying to force sleep to happen is the worst thing you can do.’
One core problem with trackers is that the data they provide is what has been described by researchers as a ‘guesstimate’. Many claim to track the number of hours you sleep along with the shift between phases of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep (the dream stage) to non-REM sleep.
‘Every device currently on the market that’s been tested by an unbiased laboratory has shown that they underestimate the quantity and quality of the wearer’s sleep – and the worse their sleep, the more inaccurate the device is,’ Professor Hawley Montgomery-Downs of West Virginia University, who has studied sleep trackers, says.
In one recorded experiment, a woman reported that her tracker showed she was getting an average sleep efficiency of only 60 per cent. She saw her doctor, was prescribed medication and still complained of poor sleep. But after spending three nights in a sleep lab, the data showed she slept more deeply and better than most of her age group. Yet her tracker still told her she wasn’t sleeping well.
What’s more, the targets the trackers set are not achievable for everyone. ‘I’ve come to the realisation that I just don’t need seven hours’ sleep a night,’ Dormon says. ‘Using sleep trackers is like weighing yourself and beating yourself up that you’re not the perfect weight – if you’re just not that person, you’re not that person and you’re going to make yourself miserable and anxious trying to become it.’
‘There is no such thing as “perfect sleep”, we all differ,’ Prof Gregory agrees. ‘Yet [because of sleep trackers] someone may have an idea of how they should sleep in terms of length and composition of different sleep stages, and become overly worried that they are not obtaining this.’
She says that as a result of sleep trackers, some of her colleagues have reported an increase in the number of good sleepers that are contacting them for help. The first step to getting better sleep is to ditch the tracker. ‘If you have insomnia, avoid sleep trackers. They only worsen the issue,’ Dr Harris advises.
Prof Gregory adds that it’s important not to overthink our sleep: we should simply ‘ask ourselves whether we are waking up refreshed and functioning well during the day’. If not, it’s time to check in with a doctor, not a smartphone. But if you feel fresh, then you’re sleeping fine, whatever the numbers say.
Sleep solutions: Banish trackers from the bedroom with these lo-tech sleep aids
This luxury brand sells two types of sheets, depending on whether you like to be cool or warm at night
A soothing herbal blend designed to send you off.
Buy an alarm clock, so you can leave your phone downstairs at night.
Make dressing for bed fun with Desmond & Dempsey 100 per cent cotton luxury pyjamas.
How often do you check your sleep tracker? What helps you get a good night’s rest? Tell us at Instagram/@telegraphstella
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