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Sleep technology apps

Can all of the apps and gadgets really help you get better sleep? (photo credit: BigStockPhoto.com)

Apps and technology tools that help us track everything about our lives are the newest craze and one of the things everyone seems to want to track is their sleep.   But is it possible to get accurate sleep data from nothing more than your smartphone and some software?  Let’s look at what these tools offer and see if the help they provide lives up to the hype.

The most popular kinds of apps for monitoring sleep are the sleep trackers.  These apps use the capabilities built into your smartphone like the motion sensor or accelerometer to monitor how you move while you are sleeping and then use that data to make some assumptions about what those movements mean.  When you wake up, you have a report that explains specific details about how you slept including how much time you spent asleep, how much time you spent in deep sleep, and how many times you woke up over the course of the night.  Sounds kind of like magic, right?

Well, in some ways it is or at least magical thinking.  See, one of the main downfalls of these types of apps is that they have to make some really big assumptions about you and your sleep in order to provide you with that helpful report in the morning.  Most apps require you to sleep with your phone under your pillow in order to monitor your movements but they don’t take into account the fact that you may not be sleeping alone.  They also assume you are a healthy sleeper and do not suffer from any sleep disorder.   The primary problem is that the app isn’t actually measuring anything about your sleep, it is only measuring your movements and then using broad assumptions to determine what those movements mean.

You can invest in something like a FitBit which is a tool you wear on your wrist that allows you to measure several things about yourself, including sleep.  But the FitBit uses actigraphy, which is a way of measuring your movements during sleep.  This method is more accurate than relying on your smartphones sensor and does remove the possibility of your partner mucking up your data, but it still doesn’t actually gather actual comprehensive data about your sleep.  Though this data is not medically defining, it can be beneficial to use it when discussing the need for more formal testing with your doctor.  But remember, it still doesn’t measure anything related to your actual sleep.

So, while the more advanced tech like the FitBit may be beneficial in providing some initial information that you can use to discuss your sleep concerns with your doctor, these types of sleep apps can’t get a sleep disorder diagnosed or help you determine what is causing you to wake up 34 times at night.  For this, you will need to work with your doctor to determine if more advanced sleep testing is needed and if it is, visit a sleep center for a more comprehensive, diagnostic sleep study.