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Sleep tracking apps could keep people up at night, claims doctor

Along with the rise wearables and other smart home devices, sleep tracking products and apps have become a popular way for consumers to get a look at how they’re snoozing. However, a report today from The Guardian highlights a neurologist who says he’s seen people develop insomnia because of sleep trackers and details why he doesn’t think they’re necessary.

The report quotes Dr. Guy Leschziner, who practices at Guy’s hospital in London as a sleep disorder specialist and consultant and was speaking at the Cheltenham science festival.

“We’ve seen a lot of people who have developed significant insomnia as a result of either sleep trackers or reading certain things about how devastating sleep deprivation is for you,” Leschziner said before his talk.

One of his qualms with sleep trackers is that they aren’t clinically certified and don’t offer data about the quality of sleep, but rather how much a user is moving. His advice is to just listen to your body.

“My view of sleep trackers is fairly cynical. If you wake up feeling tired and you’ve had an unrefreshing night’s sleep then you know you’ve got a problem,” he said. “If you wake up every day and feel refreshed, are awake throughout the day and are ready to sleep at the same time every night then you’re probably getting enough sleep for you and you don’t need an app to tell you that.”

Other researchers have published studies with similar findings and one of the issues appears to be in the one size fits all approach of many sleep tracking apps.

Research shows that for most people the optimum amount of sleep is around eight hours, but this varies widely across the population. For people who naturally need less sleep, being alerted to the fact that they are not sleeping “enough” could result in the nocebo effect, where the expectation of negative symptoms leads to people actually feeling worse.

Dr. Leschziner also said it’s good to take concerns about caffeine before bed with a grain of salt.

“Caffeine is only applicable if caffeine disrupts your sleep,” said Leschziner. “There are genes that influence how your brain processes caffeine and so there are many people who drink two or three cups of espresso before they go to bed and not have any impact at all on their sleep.”

He echoed the same about blue light.

“If your sleep is a really good quality and you can sit there and watch Netflix until 11 o’clock at night, close your computer and then drift off to sleep and have a great night’s sleep then you don’t need to worry about it,” he said. “We know that sensitivity to blue light various tremendously.”

As for why tracking sleep may be unproductive for some users compared to something like tracking movement and steps, Dr. Leschziner implied there’s less of a clear path to making improvements to sleep.

“If you’re measuring your steps and you realise you’re not walking as far as you should you just do a bit more exercise. When you get into that obsessive state about sleep it makes sleep even more difficult.”

So far, Apple hasn’t officially offered detailed sleep tracking with iOS but includes a more generic “Bedtime” feature in the clock app on iOS with sleep analysis tools in the Health app to help users get into a consistent sleeping pattern.

However, Apple did acquire Beddit back in 2017, and sells a sleep tracking pad that features an iOS app still under the Beddit branding. A report earlier this year pegged 2020 as the timeframe when Apple will release native sleep tracking for Apple Watch.

If you’d enjoy using a sleep tracking app and find it valuable, check out our guide on how to get going with Apple Watch and a third-party app.

FTC: We use income earning auto affiliate links. More.

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Avatar for Michael Potuck Michael Potuck

Michael is an editor for 9to5Mac. Since joining in 2016 he has written more than 3,000 articles including breaking news, reviews, and detailed comparisons and tutorials.