Months Of Sleep Tracking Taught Me These 6 Essential Sleep Lessons
Sleep is something I think (and write) about a lot. And after years of interviewing doctors who specialize in the essential human function, it's become clear to me that quality is more important than quantity.
That is, spending eight hours in bed at night doesn't necessarily guarantee that you'll wake up refreshed the next morning. Sleep quality is more dependent on how much time you spend in the two last stages of sleep: REM and deep sleep, or slow-wave sleep. Those later stages are where the body recovers from the day and the brain flushes out waste and consolidates memories.
Unless you're sleeping hooked up to an ECG, it's impossible to know how long you actually spend in these later stages every night. But personalized sleep trackers, while not perfect, can give you a pretty good read on what's happening under the hood when you're snoozing.
Curious to learn more about my own sleep quality and what influences it, I connected with the team at Oura, who were kind enough to give me a tracker to try. What's unique about Oura is its ring design. Beyond being more comfortable to wear to bed than a watch, Oura CEO Harpreet Rai explained to me that the ring had a functional component too: Our fingers tend to have a stronger pulse signal than the front of our wrists, which Oura says allows them to take more accurate readings throughout the night. It uses this to approximate the amount of time you spend in the various sleep stages.
The ring also provides data on other factors that could be relevant to sleep quality, like average resting heart rate and body temperature (interestingly enough, some clinical studies have tested the ring for early COVID detection).
Clearly, "good sleep" doesn't rely on just one thing. "Sleep is a complicated metric to measure," board-certified sleep specialist Michael Breus, Ph.D., said of sleep trackers during a recent event with mattress company Hästens. For this reason, he recommends using trackers to measure any sleep trends that occur over time and not getting too hung up on the numbers that come in nightly. "It's not about the absolute data; it's about the relative data," he added.
With this panned-out perspective in mind, I started tracking my sleep in early January and have looked out for insights on what helps and harms sleep quality along the way. Here's what the experience has taught me about the factors that get in the way of deep, restorative sleep, at least in my bedroom:
Night 1: I have orthosomnia.
I started this experiment a little nervous. I wondered, slipping on my silver ring, do I really want to know how well I'm sleeping? Will knowing that my sleep is being tracked make it harder to relax? These thoughts raced through my head for what was, ultimately, hours, and I slept terribly that first night.
Looking back, I had a case of what Breus explained is now a legit condition: orthosomnia, or the preoccupation with perfecting sleep data. Thankfully, it faded after those first few nights, but anyone who has anxiety around sleep might want to keep it in mind when starting with a new tracker.
Night 18: Sleep support+ really works.
The Oura team recommended giving the watch two weeks to get to know your baseline levels before analyzing it for any changes.
A few days after that window had passed, I ran out of something I've been using to get a good night's sleep for a while: sleep support+. mbg's sleep supplement contains a blend of relaxing ingredients like magnesium glycinate, jujube, and pharmaGABA, and taking two every night has been helping me sleep more steadily since COVID-19 started.
Ultimately, I did find that my sleep was more fragmented (meaning, I woke up more during the night) and I spent less time in deep sleep on the nights that I was waiting for a refill.* While I can't attribute this solely to the supplement, I took it as a sign that I should keep taking it.
Night 23: Sticking to a bedtime is so key.
When I spoke with Rai from Oura, he said that the ring's data is meant to encourage people to do some self-reflection and decide for themselves what habits are most important to stick to for better sleep. For him, it's stopping drinking coffee before 10. a.m. and eating dinner earlier when possible.
It became abundantly clear around Week 3 that, for me, it's going to bed before 11:30 p.m. Every night that I went to bed later, my sleep quality suffered, even if I slept for the same number of hours. I consistently get less REM and deep sleep than recommended (something to work on), but those numbers were always higher on nights when I went to bed before 11:30. An important reminder that keeping up with a "bedtime" is just as important for adults as it is for kids.
Night 27: Yet another reason to exercise...
Another trend I picked up on was the importance of movement for deeper sleep: After those days that I spent glued to my desk, my sleep was always fragmented and my ring picked up on the fact that I moved around a lot in my sleep. It reminded me of advice that Breus had given to mbg in the past: "Sleep is recovery. If you haven't done anything you need to recover from, you're not going to sleep particularly well"—an especially important reminder in the age of the quarantine.
Night 31: Looks like I'm keeping up with Dry January.
I spent the first month of this year abstaining from booze. And once I started reintroducing alcohol to my nightly routine, my sleep suffered—but not in the way I imagined.
I usually reach for a nightcap to help my mind start to relax and stop thinking about any lingering stress from the day. But ultimately, on the nights I drank, it actually took me longer to fall asleep than on the nights I didn't. I then started to notice that I was, in fact, experiencing more racing thoughts in bed on nights I drank than on nights I didn't drink. Booze also seemed to cut down on the amount of time I spent in deep sleep—even if it was just one glass of wine. Time to get into mocktails I guess!
Night 45: Bring on the fresh air?
I spent the first chunk of this year sleeping in my NYC apartment. When I packed up and went to spend time with family in rural Vermont, things really got interesting.
Remember how I mentioned before that my time in REM and deep sleep is always pretty low? When I swapped the city for the country, it nearly doubled. Every night for weeks, I was consistently clocking more than enough of both and could feel it in my mood and energy levels the next day.
Maybe it was the newfound sense of quiet, or maybe it was the crisp, cool air. Either way, it's not necessarily a lesson I can act on now that I'm back in the city—but it is a reminder that keeping a chilly, dark, quiet bedroom environment is key.
Overall, these metrics have helped me prioritize sleep more than ever before, and I have a whole new appreciation for what goes into a good night's rest.
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.
Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.