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Is Your Sleep Tracking App Keeping You Up All Night?

A new paper warns that sleep-tracking apps and devices are leaving some people so anxious about their sleep, it's keeping them up at night.
Image: Woman sleeping
Woman sleepingNBC Photo illustration/Shutterstock

It’s bad enough that our fitness devices and apps act as biological overlords, making us feel inadequate during the day. But it seems that some of us can’t even catch a break at night.

Apparently some of us get so worked up about our sleep apps and devices telling us we’re sleep failures that we wind up anxious and stressed, potentially causing even lousier sleep, according to a new case series published in the current issue of the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.

They cite the case of a 39-year-old man who discovered he had fewer fights with his girlfriend after getting a full 8 hours of sleep, as measured by the sleep-tracking device she gave him. He became so fixated on getting a good night’s sleep that he would lie awake worried about it.

The researchers call this “orthosomnia,” which, for those of you who aren’t sleep experts, is an actual thing, meaning “correct sleep.” Curiously, the behavior isn’t even confined to the sleep obsessed.

"We chose this term (orthosomnia) because the perfectionist quest to achieve perfect sleep is similar to the unhealthy preoccupation with healthy eating, termed orthorexia,” the authors say in the journal report.

Although most sleep experts find the trends in consumer sleep tracking devices to be somewhat helpful for people interested in learning more about their sleep patterns and finding ways to improve their sleep, “too many people become fixated on the hours of good sleep they get according to the tracker, which causes a lot of stress and, in some cases, leads to insomnia,” says lead author Dr. Kelly Glazer Baron, a clinical psychologist with Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

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These devices may even boost poor sleep habits. In hopes of increasing the sleep tally on their trackers, patients in this report spent more time in bed, behavior that runs contrary to the recommendations of sleep therapists. Plus, data can be inaccurate since devices can vary greatly in terms of detecting movement, for example, and can’t differentiate between light and deep sleep.

“I’ve had patients that have come in to see me and their main problem is their devices are telling them their sleep isn’t good, but they aren’t having any symptoms and they wind up with normal sleep studies,” says sleep medicine specialist Dr. Samuel Friedlander of University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center, who was not involved in the report. “The consumer devices and apps aren’t medical grade, so people have to take the data with a grain of salt.”

One thing is clear: We are a sleepy bunch of people. In fact, more than a third of American adults aren’t getting enough sleep on a regular basis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And this lack of sleep can affect a laundry-list of biological functions like emotion and mood regulation as well as appetite. Poor sleep has also been linked to heart and immune system problems. Plus, you even look lousy with too little sleep.

So anything that can help us potentially improve our sleep isn’t all bad. “I use the technologies myself and they can be great in helping a person understand more about their sleep patterns and work toward a healthier lifestyle,” says Baron. “Just don’t stress.”

If you want to improve your own sleep, here’s the drill. Experts like those at the National Sleep Foundation recommend sticking to a sleep-wake schedule, maintaining a temperature of 65 to 67 degrees in your bedroom, avoiding late night snacks and exercising daily, to name a few.

Most of all: be realistic about your sleep. “Having a perfect night’s sleep every night is simply not possible,” says Baron.

If you do find yourself falling asleep during the day or continually feeling exhausted, see your doctor, says Friedlander. There are effective treatments that can help you get your ZZZZZZs, without resorting to counting sheep or apps.