Sleep trackers may help or hurt your sleep

We have fitness trackers and calorie-counting apps. And, now, a growing number of people are using high-tech sleep trackers.

You can choose between wrist monitors or wearable bands, smartphone apps and trackers you keep on your bedside, or nearby. Most of us would love to get better sleep. Dr. Sharon Bergquist, an internist at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, says that is why sleep trackers are so popular. They're a window what is happening when we go to bed at night.

"The intent is to give you a tool to help you understand your own sleep behaviors a little bit better," Dr. Bergquist says. "For example, if you drink alcohol or drink caffeine close to bedtime, or if you exercise close to bedtime, or if you don't exercise at all, how do these variables influence the quality of your sleep?"

Sleep trackers vary in what they do, but most track our movement during sleep, which can reveal if we are a restless or a deep sleeper, or fall somewhere in between.

If you're sleeping okay, but want to do better, or if you're curious about what's happening when you're not awake, Dr. Bergquist says a sleep tracker can offer feedback.

"One of the weakness, if you will, is they give you numbers," Dr. Bergquist says. "And, sometimes, we get so hung up on numbers, like what is my sleep score, what percentage of the time do I spend in deep sleep, versus light sleep."​​​​​​​

Bergquist says people can start to become obsessed with getting the perfect sleep.

"Sometimes, instead of helping you with sleep, they make you more of an insomniac, worrying about not getting the perfect sleep," she says.

So, Dr. Bergquist says, take the data you get from your sleep tracker with a grain of salt.

"Just use it as a tool," she says.  "The other important point is, these tools are not going to do the work for you, meaning you have to do the work to improve your sleep."​​​​​​​

And if you really want to know how you're sleeping, she says, think about how you're feeling.

"If you fall asleep and wake up tired, the quality of sleep wasn't good," Bergquist says. "If you wake up, and you feel refreshed, you had good quality sleep."​​​​​​​

Sleep trackers are not designed to diagnose sleep disorders. For that, you would need to undergo a sleep study. Dr. Bergquist says the trackers can help you get an idea of how you’re doing with your sleep routine, and what you need to tweak to sleep better.