This story is part of a series that explores the growing health trends that have been shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic. Will these trends remain or disappear in the post-pandemic era?
Key points to remember
- Sleep disruptions during the pandemic may have prompted people to pay more attention to their sleep quality and rhythm through tracking apps and wearable devices.
- Clinicians have noticed an increase in the number of patients with insomnia since the start of the pandemic.
- Experts say sleep monitoring can help people better understand their lifestyle, but they shouldn’t be obsessed with the data.
In recent months, some people have turned their eyes more closed due to canceled events and work-from-home facilities, while others have not been able to sleep long enough due to anxiety over them. uncertainties.
The recent sleep disturbances have been dubbed “coronasomnia,” which refers to the drastic increase in insomnia during the pandemic. The phenomenon has sparked 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, residents of metropolitan areas got 20 minutes of extra sleep on average, according to an observational study conducted by Robbins.
“One of the things that matters most to us is our ability to control, prepare and be ready for the future,” Robbins told Verywell. “But that has been rare over the past year and a half. And it wreaks havoc in our sleep because… what allows us to fall asleep is the ability to look forward to the next day, to plan ahead, and to be excited for what is to come.
Why is sleep important for your health?
Studies suggest that losing sleep can impair immune function and lead to serious health problems. Adults who sleep less than seven hours a night are more likely to suffer from heart attacks, asthma, high blood pressure, and depression.
Molly Atwood, PhD, clinician at the Johns Hopkins Behavioral Sleep Medicine Clinic, has noticed an increase in the number of patients with insomnia since the start of the pandemic.
“Stress obviously has an impact on sleep, but there have also been some pretty big lifestyle changes,” Atwood told Verywell.
Changes such as COVID-19 closures have caused people to stay more at home, exercise less and have less exposure to light, she adds. People may also wake up at different times each morning due to disruptions to their regular schedule.
Getting enough exercise and a predictable schedule helps people regulate their mood and sleep patterns. Exposure to light in particular helps regulate the circadian rhythm – “the internal sleep-wake clock,” explains Atwood.
Are portable sleep trackers accurate?
At the Sleep Clinic, Atwood favors a cognitive behavioral treatment approach for insomnia (CBTI). It is the recommended first-line treatment for insomnia before sleeping pills. CBTI typically lasts about six weeks, during which a provider educates patients about the science of sleep and helps them notice and think about their own sleep patterns.
A critical part of CBTI is asking patients to record the quality and duration of their sleep in a physical or digital sleep diary, explains Atwood.
Outside of sleep clinics, some people have started to track their sleep on portable 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.
Social media consultant Nina Ottaviano started tracking her sleep after receiving a Fitbit as a Christmas present five years ago. She considers sleep tracking to be similar to monitoring water intake and encourages people to make the practice part of their lifestyle.
“It’s something that I prioritize very high on my list,” Ottaviano told Verywell. “I know it sounds silly, but getting a certain amount of sleep is important so that I can be successful in whatever I do.”
Now that business and travel are reopening, she is having a harder time controlling her sleep levels. On nights when she doesn’t get enough sleep, she tries to make up for it the next day.
“You can do 10 million things a day, especially things that are meant to improve your health, go to the gym, exercise,” says Ottaviano. “But if you don’t sleep, your body doesn’t have time to recover. How good is what else you have done? ”
In a recent survey, around 39% of people said COVID-19 and mitigation strategies caused extreme disruption to their sleep.
Atwood says commercial sleep trackers tend to be good at showing a person how long they’ve slept at night, but are less accurate when it comes to detecting specific stages of sleep.
“You really have to see what’s going on inside someone’s brain to be sure what’s going on in terms of the stages of sleep,” she says.
Since most portable sleep devices measure body movement and heart rate, they tend to overestimate total sleep time and sleep efficiency.
To accurately identify stages of sleep, 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 is not available over the counter but can be prescribed in a hospital setting or in a sleep clinic.
Not all sleep trackers are “validated” and backed by science, Robbins adds. The easiest way to check the legitimacy of a product is to look at its available data. A follow-up company that has researched and medically reviewed the product will not hesitate to offer this information to the public, she says.
Sleep monitoring in moderation
Robbins, who has studied the use of smartphones for sleep tracking, says the method was popular even before the pandemic. Almost a third of participants in his 2019 study said they have a habit of monitoring their sleep.
“Following up is an extremely positive behavior to help keep you on track, to help you think,” says Robbins. “It provides you with advice on how you are doing with your sleep in terms of the metrics you receive.”
As long as people are aware of the limitations of sleep trackers, she says, they have certain advantages.
Similar to stepping on a scale to check your weight, sleep trackers provide information about your lifestyle rather than monitoring it, she adds.
If your tracker says you slept poorly the night before, a good next step is to pay more attention to your activities during the day, Robbins recommends.
As with weighing yourself too often, focusing on your sleep data can lead to increased anxiety. This can lead to orthosomnia, which refers to the risks of worrying about improving sleep parameters.
“If this is causing you stress, maybe it’s time to take a break or stop,” says Robbins. “So maybe go back to follow-up [and] making sure it doesn’t stress you out, but helps you reach your health goals.
What it means for you
Using a wearable device to track your sleep won’t solve a sleep disorder, but can give you information about your sleep patterns and energy level. If you develop an obsession with a tracking device, it’s a good idea to take a break.