It is natural to wonder about sleep. These curious hours when we’re oblivious to ourselves and our surroundings have been discussed in depth for centuries, yet are still a topic of much mystery. What we do know is that sleep is vital to our health and productivity; another reason why people are so interested in the subject.

It is no surprise, then, that there is a great deal of technology that focuses on our sleep performance, much of which is available through our smartphones.

There are various apps and gadgets that monitor your nocturnal (or nap-time) movements, as well as some that measure your pulse rate, heart rate and blood pressure. They all aim to provide you with a variety of statistics that represent how you sleep. However, what does one do with such data?

Fitbit sleep tracking

Fitness experts Fitbit have ventured into the world of sleep tracking. A range of their bracelets Gathering data on how we sleep is easier than ever - but how can we actually use this information?have a sleep mode that gathers data on users’ periods of restlessness and sleep. Recent models, the Charge HR and Surge, also have the capability to monitor heart rate, to show how relaxed the user is throughout their night’s sleep.

George West, a representative of Fitbit,explained to The Sleep Matters Club when asked how users can act on this data:

‘Data can help the user identify any sleep problem they have, and encourage them to think about whether this is caused by stress or anxiety at a given point in time, or if it is a wider reaching problem.’

This is certainly borne out by anecdotes posted on the Fitbit community forum. One user was concerned when he noticed his sleep stats were showing between 25 and 55 red lines a night (indicating times the user is awake). After comparing this figure to a friend, who only had up to five awake periods, and corroborating the statistics at a sleep clinic, action was taken.

The user started using a CPAP machine (a mask that opens the airways to combat sleep apnoea) and reported feeling ‘better than I have in ten years’.

How useful is the data we can now collect using the many sleep apps available?

Can this technology replicate genuine medical advice?

An interesting element to this story is that a sleep doctor visited by the user believed the technology in the Fitbit device was similar to that used in the clinic.

However, in an interview with the New York Times, Dr. Clete Kushida from the Standford Sleep Medicine Centre, seems less convinced:

‘Without EEG — brainwave activity — it’s very hard to tell different stages of sleep apart,’ said Dr. Kushida. ‘People can stay still and the device will think the person’s asleep.’

Dr. Kushida goes on to say that ‘the advantage of these devices is that they can help individuals become more aware of a potential sleep problem’. This may be the key to the success of the technology. While it may be interesting to pore over figures showing the hours spent in certain sleep cycles, it is perhaps flagging up any issues with users’ sleep that is most beneficial.

Sleep Cycle App

When discussing the Sleep Cycle app, Malin Eriksson of developers North Cube describes how a user can adjust their lifestyle in response to the findings of the app.

Sleep Cycle IOS app graph. How can you use the data it gives you? Read more on The Sleep Matters Club.

‘If the graphs show lower sleep quantity and quality on days with high stress levels or lots of coffee consumption, they would be able to adjust their lifestyle and see if it improves.’

‘Each person’s sleep needs and patterns are different, and, therefore, each person knows what best affects their sleep. Sleep Cycle provides the tools users need to get to know their own sleep patterns, and finds ways to improve them.’

The Sleep Doctor’s opinion

Dr Breus has his own thoughts on the uses of sleep data which can be gathered from app and other devices.

Dr Breus, Board Certified Sleep Specialist, author and expert.

We asked Dr. Michael Breus, a renowned ‘sleep doctor’ and clinical psychologist, about the usefulness of this data.

He believes that, while such devices and apps have their uses, there is a problem. ‘The biggest issue with all these devices is that they rarely tell a person what to do with their data,’ says the author of Good Night: The Sleep Doctors 4-week Program to Better Sleep and Better Health. However, Dr. Breus does advocate the technology and praises their uses to him as a sleep doctor:

‘Trackers for exercise or weight loss… will often have features that will use the data to develop a personalised programme for weight loss or fitness. To date, I am unaware of any device that can develop a personalised programme for improving sleep based on data. The S+ by ResMed does, however, email you tips based on what it learns and is one of the ‘smarter’ devices on the market. In my office, I am often reviewing this data and use them in conjunction with other information I collect to develop these programmes myself.’

So, can you count on sleep data to help you?

It seems that the data now at the fingertips of anyone struggling to get a full night’s sleep does have its uses. This information can be of real benefit to someone who constantly struggles with feeling tired. It can be frustrating to experience such lethargy day after day, knowing you are not getting the rest you need, but not knowing why. Sleep data from these devices can help someone to understand the problem and assist specialists like Dr. Breus in addressing the causes.

If you are having trouble sleeping, take a look at our doctor-approved tips for fighting insomnia.