Sleep Trackers Versus Sleep Studies

Exploring the latest in sleep tracking tech + when to take sleep issues to a professional.

As a society, we’ve been thinking about how to use technology to improve our lives for a long time. Not only does technological innovation drive much of our waking life these days—it is an increasingly prevalent feature in our bedrooms as well, with the rise of sleep tracking, AI powered beds and on an even more basic level, smartphones. Today, there are a variety of tools we can use to learn about how we sleep and improve our sleep habits. Sleep trackers now come in all different shapes, sizes and functions, as the technology behind them continues to be expanded and refined. With this week’s new release of Google’s Nest Hub 2 with Sleep Sensing, we’ve been thinking about the best way to integrate sleep tracking into your nightly routine—and when it might be time to go beyond tech tools to solve a sleep problem. 

Google’s New Nest Hub 2 With Sleep Sensing 

Sleep trackers have certainly become ubiquitous recently; nearly every technology company is offering one, and bedding and mattress manufacturers are too. So what makes Google’s new Nest Hub feature special? The Nest Hub 2 with Sleep Sensing is a tech toy that does all the typical Nest activities like controlling lights and thermostat, voice-activated TV and music control, task management and more PLUS sleep tracking. The biggest differentiator is that it’s the first smart display and speaker product that is offering sleep tracking (no, Amazon and Apple’s products don’t offer a feature like this yet). Touted as an “effortless way to track your sleep,” it uses a radar to sense micro-movement and sound—so you don’t have to wear anything or charge it the way you do with more traditional sleep trackers. 

With this new solution, the sleeper can wake up in the morning and ask Google how they slept the night before and receive radar-informed insights into their respiration while sleeping, their sleep environment (this tool can detect details like room temperature and noise intrusion) and even insights into how their routine could be altered to support better sleep. Google recommends that users track for a week before seeking out advice from the new Nest Hub because it takes at least a week for it to pick up patterns in your sleep behavior. 

While Google’s sleep tracking is probably not the most cutting-edge (given that the tracker isn’t the main focus of the device), it stands out from the crowd in that there is no wearable component and it can still collect meaningful data about how users sleep. While for many sleepers, sleep trackers have proven useful, especially those that provide solutions and ideas for improving sleep and not just raw data, there’s also a growing body of perspectives out there that suggest that sleep tracking can have detrimental effects. Some experts have found that these devices can cause users to feel more anxious about sleeping, finding sleep problems the sleeper may not have known existed. 

It’s not a bad idea to use data to inform and evaluate the approach you take to improving your sleep—but, at the same time, it may not be necessary to track your sleep every night. Even if you’re using a sleep tracker “just for fun,” paying too close attention to how you sleep could create more anxiety around sleeping, especially if you don’t have a sleep issue you’re concerned about. And, according to this article from Johns Hopkins, sleep trackers can only tell part of your sleep story. Typically, sleep trackers use inactivity or motion to estimate how much you actually sleep; they can often tell you that you snore, cough or toss turn and may even be able to tell you about your sleep environment. But they cannot measure your sleep directly to really know when you are definitively sleeping versus when you are lying very, very still. This is where a sleep study can provide more detailed information.

If you are struggling with sleep and think that a more severe sleep disorder might be to blame, you likely cannot solve the problem by utilizing a fancy sleep tracker. Instead, you may need to turn to a professional to help study your sleep more scientifically and diagnose the situation. Typically, the first place to start is with a conversation with your doctor. Before suggesting a sleep study, they may potentially ask other questions about your habits—caffeine intake, diet, sleep environment and nightly routine. They’ll use this information paired with the hard data found during your sleep study to take a holistic approach to rooting out what could be wrong and devising a best course of action. 

What is a sleep study? 

When undergoing a comprehensive sleep study, you’ll work with a sleep technologist, also called a polysomnographist, who will monitor your sleep phases and cycles. They’ll capture much of the data you can collect with your tracker with more accuracy and also be able to collect additional information. Sleep studies are conducted in sleep labs, but don’t worry—sleep labs often have comfortable hotel room environments in them to facilitate a normal night of sleep. Because who can sleep normally on an exam table? 

However, when undergoing a sleep study, patients do wear adhesive sensors on their heads and forehead to measure brain waves as well as chest and abdomen belts to measure breathing. None of these materials are very heavy or cumbersome and most patients are able to get used to them quickly. Data from sleep studies offer a depth of knowledge about your unique sleep patterns drawn both from movement and breathing as well as from brain activity detected by the sensors—including how long you stay in each sleep phase, how often you wake up in the night and much more. The results of sleep studies are communicated through numerous pages of reporting that the specialist will then send to your doctor. This data supports a formal diagnostic process to determine the cause of sleep issues like insomnia, sleep apnea, sleep walking, night terrors and more.  

While overnight sleep studies in a lab are the best way to make a formal diagnosis, home sleep studies can be used to diagnose sleep apnea in particular.

Key Takeaways

Sleep trackers are great for overall healthy sleepers or sleepers who suspect that minor adjustments to their sleep habits could remediate the sleep problems they are experiencing. It can also simply be fun to learn more about how you sleep at night (and how much your cat interrupts your rest). In addition to detecting patterns in your nightly routine, sleep trackers can also pair with any other health data you monitor to give you health insights beyond your doctor’s office. However, if your sleep problems feel more severe than a little bit of tossing and turning now and then, it is likely best to turn to a professional to get to the bottom of the problem. And, if you are prone to anxiety or hypochondria and are sleeping just fine, it might be beneficial to steer clear of sleep trackers altogether. 

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