In recent months, some people have fallen asleep due to canceled events and work-from-home facilities, while others have not been able to get enough sleep due to anxiety over the uncertainties.
Recent sleep disturbances have been dubbed “coronasomnia,” which refers to the dramatic increase in insomnia during the pandemic. The phenomenon has spurred a growing interest in tracking sleep and understanding how sleep patterns affect our health.
In addition to mobile apps, consumer sleep trackers like the Oura Rings allow people to measure the duration, quality and rate of their sleep.
Rebecca Robbins, PhD, a sleep researcher at Harvard Medical School, says the pandemic had a positive effect on sleep health initially, although it didn’t last. At the start of the pandemic, people in metropolitan areas were getting an average of 20 minutes extra sleep, according to an observational study conducted by Robbins1.
“One of the things we value most is our ability to control, prepare and prepare for the future,” Robbins told Verywell. “But that has been rare over the past year and a half. And that wreaks havoc on our sleep because … what allows us to fall asleep is the ability to wait for the next day, plan ahead, and be excited about what’s to come. ”
Molly Atwood, PhD, clinician at Johns Hopkins Behavioral Sleep Medicine Clinic, has noticed an increase in patients with insomnia since the onset of the pandemic.
“Stress obviously impacts sleep, but there were also pretty significant changes in lifestyle,” Atwood tells Verywell.
Changes like COVID-19 shutdowns resulted in people staying home more, getting less physical exercise, and less exposure to light, she adds. People may also wake up at different times every morning because of disruptions to their regular schedule.
Having enough exercise and a predictable schedule helps people regulate their mood and sleep patterns. Light exposure in particular helps regulate circadian rhythm—“the internal sleep-wake clock,” Atwood says.
Are Wearable Sleep Trackers Accurate?
At the sleep clinic, Atwood prioritizes a cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBTI) treatment approach. This is the first-line recommended treatment for insomnia before sleep medications. CBTI usually lasts around six weeks, in which a provider educates patients about the science of sleep and helps them notice and reflect on their own sleep patterns.
One essential CBTI component is directing patients to record their sleep quality and duration in a physical or digital sleep diary, Atwood says.
Outside of sleep clinics, some people have started tracking their sleep on wearable devices. Oura, a startup that sells a sleep tracking ring, said it sold around 350,000 rings last year and that its data has helped reassure professional athletes about their health during the pandemic.
Nina Ottaviano, a social media consultant, started tracking her sleep after receiving a Fitbit as a Christmas gift five years ago. She considers sleep tracking similar to monitoring water intake and encourages people to incorporate this practice into their lifestyle.
“That is something that I prioritize very high on my list,” Ottaviano tells Verywell. “I know that sounds ridiculous, but getting a certain amount of sleep is important so that I can be successful in anything else that I’m doing.”
Now that businesses and travels are reopening, she finds it harder to keep her sleep levels in check. For nights when she doesn’t get enough sleep, she tries to make up for it the next day.
“You can do 10 million things in a day, especially things that are meant to better your health—going to the gym, exercising,” Ottaviano says. “But if you’re not sleeping, your body doesn’t have time to recover. How good is anything else that you did?”
In a recent survey, around 39% of people reported that COVID-19 and mitigation strategies caused extreme disruption to their sleep.3
Atwood says that commercial sleep trackers tend to be good at showing a person how long they slept at night, but are less accurate when it comes to detecting specific stages of sleep.
“You really need to see what’s happening inside of somebody’s brain to be certain about what’s happening in terms of sleep stages,” she says.
Since most consumer sleep wearables measure body movement and heart rate, they’re prone to overestimating total sleep time and sleep efficiency.4
To identify sleep stages accurately, Atwood’s sleep clinic uses a sleep profiler, which looks like a thick headband with three sensors on the forehead to monitor brain waves. It’s not available over the counter but can be prescribed in hospital settings or sleep clinics.
Not all sleep trackers are “validated” and science-backed, Robbins adds. The easiest way to verify a product’s legitimacy is by looking at its available data. A tracker company that has done its research and has medically reviewed the product won’t be shy about offering that information to the public, she says.
Tracking Sleep in Moderation
Robbins, who studied the use of smartphones for sleep tracking, says that the method was popular even before the pandemic. Almost a third of the participants in her 2019 study reported the habit of monitoring their sleep.5
“Tracking is an overwhelmingly positive behavior to help you stay on track, to help you reflect,” Robbins says. “It provides guidance for you on how you are doing with your sleep in the standpoint of the metrics that you receive.”
As long as people are aware of the limitations of sleep tracking devices, she says, they do come with some benefits.
Similar to stepping on a scale to check your weight, sleep trackers provide information about your lifestyle rather than controlling it, she adds.
If your tracker indicates that you slept poorly the night before, a good next step is to be more mindful about your activities during the day, Robbins recommends.
As is true with weighing yourself too often, fixating on your sleep data may lead to heightened anxiety. It can result in orthosomnia, which refers to the risks involved with becoming preoccupied in improving sleep metrics.
“If it’s causing you stress, it might be a time to pause or stop,” Robbins says. “Then maybe come back to tracking [and] making sure that it’s not stressing you out, but it’s helping you reach your health goals.”