December 8, 2023

In this digital age, people use many apps to enhance health. One sector of these apps is sleep-tracking apps, which often offer a variety of features, from white noise to data about movements during the night. Many apps even offer a measurement of sleep quality, and apps such as Apple’s own Sleep app on Apple Watch even provide information about the time spent in each sleep stage: awake, rapid eye movement (REM), core and deep.

Kaiden Joseph, junior biomedical sciences major, said that he believes having the ability to track one’s sleep and stages of sleep is beneficial.

“You would be able to see the quality of the sleep you’re getting and figure out ways to improve your sleep,” Joseph said. “REM sleep is the most important part of a good night’s rest, so tracking this would be very helpful. You could also use these patterns to determine if any other health issues are present as a result of poor sleep. Overall, I see a net positive result coming from tracking someone’s sleep.”

While there are potential health benefits to tracking sleep patterns, is it actually possible for an app to accurately measure these elements of a user’s sleep patterns?

Sleep trackers come in several forms. Many apps work as bedside trackers, which collect information about body movements, breathing and sleeping environment during the night. Wearable sleep-trackers, such as the Apple Watch Sleep app, gather data about movement and heart rate, and some also monitor breathing.

There are four major stages of the sleep cycle, according to the Sleep Foundation. During the first stage, which lasts about one to five minutes, the body has not fully relaxed and brain activity has begun to slow. 

During the second stage, which is a deeper non-REM sleep, the body experiences a decrease in temperature, a relaxation of muscles and a decrease in breathing frequency and heart rate. 

During the third stage, known as deep sleep, the body relaxes more, leading to relaxed muscles, slow pulse and a slow breathing rate. 

During the fourth stage, known as REM sleep, the sleeper experiences their most vivid dreams and the brain becomes highly active, accelerating heart rate and leading to irregular breathing. Most muscles also become temporarily paralyzed during REM sleep.

Sleep-tracking apps attempt to use these differences in movement and breathing among the stages of sleep to distinguish between the different stages to rate sleep quality and share data about sleep cycles.

However, users should be careful about how much faith they place in the apps. While measuring movements and similar parameters during sleep can help create estimates about sleep stages and sleep quality, sleep-tracking apps ultimately cannot be expected to provide completely accurate information about sleep patterns.

“A sleep tracker can make an educated guess about your sleep stages,” reads a Mayo Clinic article. “But the only way to accurately identify what stage of sleep you are in is to measure brain activity during a clinical sleep study (polysomnography). None of the consumer devices on the market capture this kind of data.”

Esmeralda Gonzalez, junior psychology and philosophy double major, said she can see the value of these devices, though she does not entirely trust their accuracy.

“I think that tracking sleep patterns would be helpful because normally the devices used also show you heart rates, and when it comes to sleeping I’ve seen some that monitor when you are having trouble sleeping such as waking up during the night or even when the person is moving around during their sleep cycle,” Gonzalez said. “With that information, the person is able to find ways to sleep better. I wouldn’t completely trust an app that tracks sleep, but I would try it just to see exactly what it would tell me.”

Although users should be cautious of data collected while using sleep-tracking apps, it can still be helpful to use other features offered by the app, such as alarms, white noisemakers, screen time limits and information about when a user goes to bed and wakes up. These features can provide concrete ways to improve sleep habits.

“I personally don’t track my sleep patterns and it’s partly because my sleep schedule is so messed up,” Joseph said. “I do believe that tracking my sleep and seeing how bad it might be may help me think more about my sleep and fix my schedule.”

However, sleep-tracking mechanisms can also lead to orthosomnia, a newer term to describe the obsession with reaching an optimal level of sleep due to tracking sleep through devices.

“For some people, using a sleep tracker leads to increased feelings of anxiety,” reads the Mayo Clinic article. “Are you staying up late to fiddle with your device? Feeling overly anxious about meeting your sleep goals? Or lying awake in bed thinking about how you’re not sleeping? If so, using a sleep tracker probably isn’t adding value to your life. It’s OK to let it go.”

Ultimately, it is best to speak to your doctor about sleep-related concerns. 

When using sleep-tracking apps, use features to help improve sleep schedules, but remember that any data about sleep patterns might be inaccurate.

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