How to Use Sleep Data From Your Tracker

Pretty much every company geared towards health is starting to realise the potential of sleep. Therefore, they are developing tools to improve it. So how do you improve it?


How to Use Sleep Data From Your Tracker

Although we need 7-9 hours of sleep, we’re the only beings that willingly deprive themselves of sleep. We either sacrifice it for work, party, study or TV. Now, we’re starting to realise the effects of sleep and its deprivation. Everyone does.

Companies such as Headspace now offer tools to specifically improve sleep. Every new fitness tracker out there also measures sleep and offers some kind of visual representation of how you slept during the night.

There are a ton of sleep trackers you can use, from smartwatches to sleeping mats and smartphone apps. In the end, they all measure the same things, some better and some worse.

There are usually 4 basic measurements that they track: deep sleep, light sleep, REM sleep and wakefulness. Additionally, some also track snoring, movement and heart rate. Some new ones even oxygen saturation.

So what do these parameters tell you:

  1. Light sleep: this is the first phase of sleep that happens during the night. It’s also the one that, combined, is the longest. It consists of NREM sleep stages 1 and 2. What does this mean? NREM is the exact opposite of REM sleep, it stands for non-REM sleep. These are the first 2 phases we experience during the night. Our brain is slowly shutting off for the night.
  2. Deep sleep: as the name suggests, this is the deepest phase we experience during the night. It’s the hardest to wake us up during this phase. The primary task of this phase is to rest the body and to transfer short-term into long-term memories. It’s also the part of the night where our brain is cleaning up all the residue that accumulated during the day. More precisely, deep sleep consists of phase 3 and 4 of NREM sleep. What’s particularly interesting is the type of brain waves that occur during this time. All of the neurones start “chanting” as if they were one.If we look at an EEG, we’ll see long and slow waves, called delta waves. If you look at the graph closely (not EEG), you’ll see that it takes place during the first part of the night. Studies show we should aim for about 2 hours (out of 8) to feel refreshed the next day.
  3. REM sleep: most probably already heard of REM sleep. It stands for “rapid eye movement”. It has a few characteristics. It appears in the latter part of the night, towards the morning. Our muscles are paralysed during this phase so there isn’t any movement, except for our eyes. During REM sleep, our brain is interconnecting long-term memories and experiences with one another. It’s no wonder we dream most vividly during this phase and that a lot of world’s finest ideas occurred during REM sleep. We should once again aim for about 2 hours a night.

You’ll also notice that the sleep stages are repeating approximately every 90 minutes. While deep sleep stages are getting progressively shorter, the REM sleep is getting longer towards the morning.

These are the basic parameters that tell you how you slept during the night. If we sleep 8 hours a night, this should consist of 2 hours of REM and deep sleep each and the rest goes to light sleep. If your sleep tracker is telling you you have too little deep sleep, you should go to bed earlier. If you have too little REM sleep, you should wake up later. That’s how I decide when I want to go to sleep. I think it’s a useful strategy.

What is the best sleep tracker?

The best one is polysomnography. It measures muscle activity, brainwave activity and eye-movement activity. This is of course only used in clinical environments. Imagine having to sleep every day with electrodes stuck throughout your body. When it comes to sleep tracking, the rule is this: “pick one and stick to it”. If you’re into smartwatches or simple fitness trackers that measure sleep, that’s it. If you want something like a sleeping mat, stick to that. Why? Because sticking to the same tracker will give you reference. Whether a sleep tracker is good or bad, it will be good or bad every time. This way you can compare how you sleep even though it might not be the most precise method. But if you have to know, the standard is probably the Withings’ Sleeping Mat.

The one I’m excited about, however, is the Withings’ ScanWatch. Apart from measuring the basic parameters, it will also feature an oxygen saturation sensor to detect apneic episodes. Along with oxygen saturation, it will also track any heart arrhythmias that may occur during sleep. Pretty awesome for a watch.

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