Sleep deprivation is one of the most serious things that can affect your health, but how do you know if you’re sleep deprived?
- Do you find yourself irritable in the mornings?
- Do you nod off after lunch?
- Is it hard to muster energy for everyday tasks?
- Do you fall asleep quickly if you’re sitting and reading or watching TV?
These are all signs of chronic sleep deprivation—and it can become a huge problem now and later, putting you at risk of things like chronic depression, hypertension, diabetes, and more. Sound scary? It is.
So, if you find yourself constantly exhausted, how do you correct it before it becomes a bigger issue? Sleep tracking. This simple habit helps you get a clearer picture of your sleep life, letting you see patterns and identify opportunities to change your sleep behavior so that you can sleep—and feel—better every day.
If you're not sure if sleep tracking is for you, here's why you should do it, plus our best tips to get started.
What Is Sleep Tracking?
Basically, sleep tracking is the habitual monitoring of your sleep patterns. This includes collecting data on things like:
- Sleep and wake times
- Hours slept
- Heart rate
- REM cycles
By monitoring this data, you get an intimate understanding of your relationship with sleep: how much you're getting, what's interrupting it, etc. This gives you the insights you need to adjust your behavior and, therefore, improve your sleep life.
Note: Sleep tracking isn’t a cure-all for insomnia, nor will it properly diagnose sleep disorders. Only a doctor can conduct a medical sleep study to diagnose these. But it is a simple way to find out if you are struggling to get the best sleep possible.
Sleep Tracking and "Good" Sleep
To know how to get good sleep, you first need to understand how sleep works and how it affects your body.
Fundamentally, sleep is a process that helps your body rejuvenate. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not necessarily a time when everything in your body shuts down. There’s actually a fair amount of activity, as your brain is forming new pathways and storing information while your body is repairing muscles and restoring itself. (While doing this, however, your body conserves energy, which is why your heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature drop.)
If you're getting "good" sleep, your body can do this work efficiently. If not, the process is interrupted and you don't feel refreshed. There are several factors that influence whether or not you get "good" sleep.
1) Going to Sleep at the Right Time
This is influenced by your circadian rhythms, which control the timing of when you fall asleep and naturally wake up. Our bodies' sleep cycles are based on a 24-hour period, and the circadian rhythms track to our environment. Hence, you naturally wake in the morning and fall asleep at night.
How sleep tracking helps: Sleep tracking helps you identify when you went to bed and when you woke up, helping you figure out your natural rhythms and making it easier to stick to a sleep schedule (one of the important ways to improve your sleep).
2) Getting Enough Total Sleep
This is related to sleep-wake homeostasis, the biochemical system that makes you want to sleep and regulates your sleep intensity. When you’ve gone too long without sleep, it makes the urge to sleep stronger.
How much sleep do you need? According to the National Sleep Foundation’s latest research:
- Newborns (0-3 months): 14-17 hours each day
- Infants (4-11 months): 12-15 hours
- Toddlers (1-2): 11-14 hours
- Preschoolers (3-5): 10-13 hours
- School age children (6-13): 9-11 hours
- Teenagers (14-17): 8-10 hours
- Younger adults (18-25): 7-9 hours
- Adults (26-64): 7-9 hours
- Older adults (65+): 7-8 hours
How sleep tracking helps: You can see how much sleep you regularly get and how much that fluctuates, as well as the outside factors that may affect this.
3) Getting Enough of Each Stage of Sleep
In essence, your sleep time is divided between REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM cycles. When you sleep, you cycle through these stages 4-5 times a night.
- Stage 1: This is when you get drowsy. As you transition to light sleep, everything slows down, including your brain wave patterns, heartbeat, breathing, and eye movements. This is also when you get those weird muscle jerks that can wake you up.
- Stage 2: This is a stage of light sleep. Everything continues to slow, muscles relax, and eye movements stop. This is the stage you spend the most time in throughout the night.
- Stage 3: This is the deep sleep stage, which makes you feel truly rested. This is when everything is slowest and most relaxed, including brain waves, heartbeat, breathing, and muscles.
REM sleep: This is usually your dream state, although some dreaming, such as nightmares, can occur during non-REM stages. Your eyes move rapidly side to side (while your eyelids are still closed), and your brain activity, heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing increase. However, your arm and leg muscles become paralyzed so you don’t actually move around.
If any of these elements are out of whack (e.g., you’re jet-lagged and your circadian rhythm is thrown off or your crying infant prevents you from entering REM sleep), you experience the effects of sleep deprivation. And we all know what that feels like: frustration, irritability, inability to focus, decreased cognitive and motor skills, etc.
How sleep tracking helps: Sleep tracking gives you a sense of how efficiently you’re moving through sleep cycles.
How To Use Sleep Tracking to Improve Your Sleep
Ready to start sleep tracking? Here are the steps to take, plus helpful tips to make it more effective for you.
1) Choose the Right Sleep Tracker For You
There are tons of sleep tracking options on the market, whether analog or digital. The one you choose depends on your lifestyle, budget, and unique needs. Some of the most common tools:
- Pen-and-paper tracking: This old-school method means you track sleep manually, inputting your data in a diary, log, bullet journal, or sleep-tracking data visualization poster. This requires more intention but can be a tangible way to understand your sleep.
- Digital apps: Phone apps monitor sleep patterns through sound and movement, usually placed on your nightstand.
- Wearables: This includes wearable tech like Fitbits or sleep headbands, which can track heart rate and even brain activity.
- Mattress trackers: These devices go under your mattress and collect data on things like breathing, snoring, heart rate, room temperature, etc.
2) Monitor Your Behavior for a Month
If you just want to experiment with sleep tracking but feel overwhelmed by the idea of doing it every day, committing to a month is the way to go. It isn’t an interminable amount of time, but it helps you generate enough data to see trends and become more cognizant of your sleep life.
3) Only Monitor What Matters to You
Tech devices provide a ton of data, which is great. But sometimes you can find yourself drowning in it. If you’re manually tracking or just want to keep it simple, start with the basics first: sleep/wake times and sleep duration (including naps).
4) Look For Trends
After a month, you should be able to get a sense of how much sleep you’re actually getting. (You may be more or less sleep-deprived than you think.) As you review the data and spot any outliers or trends, analyze your behavior or other factors that may influence it. This can include things like social obligations, diet, stress, your night-time routine, etc.
FYI, it’s helpful to visualize that data, letting you really “see” it. That’s why the data visualization poster is nice.
5) Adjust Your Behavior
Once you have a clearer picture of your sleep life, consider how you can adjust your behavior or incorporate healthy sleep habits that can improve your sleep life.
For example, did sleep tracking show you that taking a late-afternoon nap makes it harder to fall asleep on time? Only take naps before 2 PM. Does eating a mega-meal after your evening workout make you more restless when you sleep? Eat lighter.
Above all, don’t get frustrated if you’re not turning into a sleeping beauty overnight (and don’t stress yourself out even more if you’re not hitting your sleep goals). Sleep tracking is meant to be a helpful tool to improve your sleep habit. Like anything else, it takes consistency to build a routine. (That said, if you’re really struggling, do talk to your doctor.)