Ever Heard of Orthosomnia?

I get the Well newsletter every week from the New York Times (it’s pretty great and you can sign up for free) and an article stuck out to me because of our obsession with fitness trackers, sleep apps, and instant feedback.

Dr. Kelly Baron, who helped coin the term and write the paper that first identified it, said that orthosomnia occurs when, essentially, we act like hypochondriacs about our sleep and obsess over it, which could, in turn worsen things for those suffering from insomnia.

Remember my post about getting enough sleep every night? I track my sleep with the Sleep Cycle app, which is supposed to track things like snoring, deep sleep vs regular sleep (which is different for every individual, notes Dr. Baron), and helps me identify patterns of good sleep and bad sleep. Now, there are A LOT of apps, trackers, and other tech out there, including “nearables” for people who don’t want to wear their Apple Watch to bed (good moves, but keep reading).

The app usually tells me that I’m in the 60%-75% range for sleep quality. It shows me when I tossed and turned in the night, and when it detected extra movement. Now it’s not all accurate because the dog usually gets up or shifts, and picked up background noise like my mom snoring. However, it has helped me make sure I get enough sleep and has done a decent job of waking me up when I’m in the lighter part of my sleep cycle. Every so often, not so much. This morning the app woke me at a bad time and I could feel the sleep inertia pulling me back into bed and the blankets begging me not to go.

But practitioners are seeing patients get anxious about how much sleep they’re getting, and even after some have gone through professional sleep studies, then challenging their doctor’s findings with “well why doesn’t my FitBit tell me that?”. The growing trend that these doctors see is the pitfall of data and technology. We become obsessed with data about our health but we’re failing to use it in action, despite our call to action for better health. Susan, your FitBit doesn’t tell you that you’re getting deep sleep because it uses algorithms and estimations based on statistics to calculate your sleep quality. We also need to recognize that each individual is unique in their sleeping patterns and needs, so using compiled data is good for generalizations, but not for the specifics (like diagnosing real sleep problems). So essentially, it assumes how well we slept, and we all know what happens when we assume.

But the numbers are clear. When it comes to identical apps and devices, the apps and data only match 70% of the time based on algorithms and estimations (I mean, do you really want to trust your FitBit over your doctor, when we know that companies use this data in a lot of inappropriate ways?). When a human analyst does the same test, the data matches 90% of the time.

Identifying patterns, bad habits, and creating awareness is the true purpose of any tracking app. Just like “if you bite it, you write it”, the sleep apps are designed to help bring awareness to your sleep patterns and help you establish a consistent, nightly routine. It only works if you do, so make sure you’re doing your part to establish good sleeping patterns (not having a screen in your face before bedtime, having a regular schedule, having a nightly routine, etc.

Remember, sleep quality is the best predictor of life expectancy, so obsessing over a sleep tracker that’s only 70% accurate but scrolling through Instagram in bed does not help you.

Want to find out the optimal amount of time asleep you need to feel good? While you’re on vacation (say, a week or more), Dr. Hawley Montgomery-Downs, who is a Professor of Psychology at West Virginia University and conducted extensive research on these sleep tracker apps, recommends going to bed at your regular time and sleep until you naturally wake up. After a few days, your body will adjust and start back into the circadian rhythms.

Data is great, but it only tells part of the story (and sometimes the wrong one). Don’t let FitBit override your doctor’s opinion. They have, like 10 years of schooling and a lot of practice. I think they know what they’re doing.

Happy LIFTing, Les

Read this article on Medium too!

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