The Pros and Cons of Sleep-Tracking Devices

October 23, 2017
Saundra Jain

In this occasional feature on Psych Congress Network, members of the Psych Congress Steering Committee answer questions asked by audience members at Psych Congress meetings.

QUESTION: What are your thoughts on using wearable devices for sleep tracking by patients? Accurate? Helpful? Not?

ANSWER: This is such a timely question because wearable devices are all the rage these days. We are using wearable devices to track all sorts of things—exercise, sleep, nutrition, blood pressure, glucose levels, etc. Your question is about sleep specifically and whether the data is accurate and helpful. So, let’s consider some of the benefits of sleep wearable devices, and then look at accuracy and other concerns.

Without a doubt, tracking matters. We know that tracking food consumption often results in fewer calories consumed.  Tracking exercise often results in better adherence. Tracking is a way to increase one’s mindful awareness no matter what the activity of interest. When sleep is a problem, keeping a sleep diary is a great way to capture important information about one’s sleep patterns/habits. Sleep wearables capture similar information. As we mindfully begin to monitor and observe our sleep patterns, we often make pro-sleep choices by implementing better sleep hygiene practices. For example, being observant of the information a sleep wearable offers, we may choose to drink less caffeine, stop electronics 90 minutes before bedtime, make sure we get 6-8 hours of sleep each night, etc. resulting in better quality sleep. This is definitely a win-win situation for those using sleep wearables.

Regarding accuracy, as pointed out in a recent article in Sleep (2016) by Zambotti et al., even though many sleep wearables are thought to be reasonably accurate in certain populations, there are conflicting results from studies that have attempted to validate sleep trackers against the gold standard, polysomnography.

Another concern noted in the article in Sleep, is the fact that there are no accepted standards or guidelines regarding how to interpret the data from sleep wearables. It’s important to know that the FDA does not regulate these consumer wearables and the companies producing these devices state their products are not intended for scientific or medical purposes. So, when our patients bring in the data from their sleep wearables wanting us to decipher the information, please remember there are no available guidelines or standards.

Despite these concerns, I don’t believe this is reason to steer clear of sleep wearables. I think it’s important for us as clinicians to be aware of this information and share it with our patients. For our patients interested in using sleep wearables, let’s encourage them to do so because access to information is invaluable when trying to make changes to improve our sleep.

— Saundra Jain, MA, PsyD, LPC,​ Adjunct Clinical Affiliate, University of Texas at Austin, School of Nursing


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