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Orthosomnia: The Obsession With Perfect Sleep

by Jimmy Leonard | Updated 12 Nov 2023

Sueño Labs does not provide medical advice. See our terms and disclaimers.

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In 2017, a study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine coined the term “orthosomnia” to describe our obsession with getting a perfect night’s sleep. Ortho- means “correct” and somnia means “sleep,” and it refers to the rise of wearable sleep tracking devices that give us every-morning metrics on sleep duration and quality.

The article presents a series of case studies of people who had unhealthy relationships with their sleep trackers, creating sleep-related anxiety and a unique set of challenges in cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I). Think: the doctor gives evidence-backed medical advice, but the patient ignores it because their smartwatch said something different.

In particular, the article authors take issue with the unreliability of sleep trackers and the black-box nature of their algorithms. You get a very impressive-looking chart on your phone app, but what exactly informed that graph? 

But as technology has improved and fitness tracking has become more normalized, is orthosomnia still a concern? And if so, what can we do about it?

Understanding Orthosomnia

Are Sleep Trackers Reliable?

This is really at the heart of concerns about orthosomnia. It’s not necessarily bad to pursue health and fitness goals at home, but people must have access to accurate data. Imagine if the nutrition labels on food lied about the ingredients or your bathroom scale had a +/- of 100 pounds.

In a medical sleep study, such as a polysomnogram, sensors measure your brain waves, eye movements, breathing patterns, blood oxygen levels, and more — and all of this data goes to a qualified technician for review and interpretation.

Because smartwatches can’t measure all of that, they typically use inactivity data to estimate sleep. If you aren’t moving much, you’re probably sleeping. Of course, if you’re a frequent sleep tracker like me, you know that the watch isn’t foolproof. If the strap is too loose, or if you go to bed at an unusual time, or if you lie in bed mostly motionless but are still awake watching TV — any of these things can mess up the data. It’s already difficult enough for scientists to define sleep, even when someone is hooked up to all the lab monitors. (For example, stage 1 sleep, which is that groggy, toss-and-turn, find a comfy position phase, is kind of a liminal state between sleep and wakefulness. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when someone’s brain switches from “awake” to “asleep.”)

Sleep trackers are a bit like those forehead thermometers everyone used during COVID. The data isn’t wrong, but a lot of things can throw it off, and it shouldn’t be the only way to assess a person’s health.

What’s your experience using a sleep tracker? Contact Sueño Labs to share your story.

Does Sleep Tracking Cause Anxiety?

There’s some evidence that fixating on sleep metrics results in difficulty falling asleep, waking up too early, and other symptoms commonly associated with insomnia. So, yes, obsessive sleep tracking can cause anxiety, but it’s possible to overreach here, too. Hyper-focusing on anything can negatively impact a good night’s sleep. It doesn’t mean that wearables are all bad, all the time, as long as you remember a few ground rules.

  • Listen to your body, not the sleep tracker. We already know that sleep trackers aren’t always accurate. Whether you feel tired and want to call it a night early or you awake before your alarm and feel amazing, your body’s signals matter more than getting a perfect score on the tracker.

  • Don’t use trackers to diagnose a sleep disorder. If you’re sleeping poorly or are chronically fatigued, see a doctor. Maybe it’s the opposite — you feel great, but your device says you aren’t getting enough sleep. Don’t rely solely on the health app to determine what’s best for your body.

  • Keep a holistic view of your wellness. Diet, exercise, relationships, meditation, purpose and fulfillment — sleep is one part of a healthy you. Don’t neglect everything else in pursuit of a perfect night’s sleep.

Sometimes, you just need to take a break. Experts recommend setting healthy boundaries with your fitness tracker, including your pursuit of better sleep.

In Summary: Is Sleep Tracking a Total Waste of Time?

Here’s my view. Stressing out about how to avoid orthosomnia is just as bad as stressing out about how to sleep better. All things in moderation, as they say.

I use the bedtime reminder on my iPhone to gently pull myself away from the computer screen, which I find helpful because I’m often working at night after my kids go to bed. I use sleep trackers in part because I’m curious and in part for accountability. Just like tracking steps draws my attention to exercise, tracking my slumber helps me focus on good sleep hygiene.

I do see the risk of orthosomnia, and that’s probably why I don’t have a specific sleep goal in terms of the number of hours in bed. I also don’t close the rings on my Apple Watch every day and I don’t log every sip on a water tracking app. Goals are helpful, but so is my sanity. Sometimes not caring about health metrics for a day is a way to being kind to myself.

The device is for you; you are not for the device.

Jimmy Leonard

Jimmy Leonard

Jimmy is a marketing content strategist and copywriter who moonlights as the editor of Sueño Labs. He writes about sleep, technology, and how to not let technology ruin your sleep.

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