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There’s a New Disorder Called ‘Orthosomnia’ Affecting People Who Obsess About Their Sleep — and It Can Be Caused by Tracking Apps

Worrying about getting enough consistent sleep can cause problems.

 Marco Poggioli / EyeEm/ Getty Images 

By Lindsay Dodgson 

  • We’re constantly told how sleep is incredibly important.
  • But worrying about getting enough consistent sleep can cause problems too.
  • “Orthosomnia” is when people obsess over what their sleep tracking apps tell them, and it can lead to even worse sleep as a result.

Wearable technology is great in some ways. It’s fun to see how many steps you’ve taken in a single day, and it can be useful to track your sleeping pattern.

But apps that do the latter may be causing more harm than good.

According to a new study, published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, people are obsessing over whether they’re getting a good night’s sleep, and it’s causing the development of a new disorder.

The sleep disorder has been called “Orthosomnia,” derived from “ortho” meaning to correct, and “somnia” meaning sleep. It has particularly affected people who use Fitbits or apps to track their sleep, like Sleep Cycle.

The researchers say in the paper that people are becoming concerned about getting the perfect night’s sleep — and it’s stopping them from actually getting it.

“There are an increasing number of patients who are seeking treatment as a result of their sleep tracker data because of concerns over both sleep duration and quality,” the study says. “Patients are preoccupied or concerned with improving or perfecting their wearable sleep data.”

They likened it to orthorexia, which is the unhealthy preoccupation with eating healthily, to the point that it’s actually unhealthy.

Sleep trackers become an obsession that’s hard to ignore

The issue with sleep trackers arises when people rely on them completely. When their sleep data isn’t perfect, they end up diagnosing themselves with problems.

For example, the paper looked at three case studies where adults sought out help for their sleep issues. In one, a 40-year-old man complained of “light and fragmented sleep” as well as “irritability, cognitive difficulties (poor attention, memory, and concentration), and fatigue during the day.”

He said he only had these symptoms when his tracker told him he got less than eight hours of sleep the night before.

Although his goal was to have eight hours consistently every night, the man would occasionally look at his phone throughout the night to answer texts and emails, and he would work right up until trying to sleep.

Sleep scientists are all agreed that screens are terrible for our sleep. The bright lights stop our bodies from producing enough of the hormone melatonin, which makes us feel sleepy. Essentially, the light tricks our body into thinking it’s still day time.

That’s why binge watching shows late at night is bad for you, and people struggle to sleep if they turn their laptops and phones off only just before they lie down.

In the second case study, a 27-year-old woman complained of Restless Leg Syndrome, and found her sleep efficiency was only 60%, according to a tracker.

After some ongoing tests and adjustments to her lifestyle, she went into the lab for a polysomnogram — a type of test that measures the depth of sleep. The results showed she managed to sleep deeply, but she couldn’t shake the tracker results from her mind, and asked “then why does my Fitbit say I am sleeping poorly?”

Rather than relying on how they felt, people in the study seemed to be unable to ignore their trackers. It was unclear whether the patients had real sleep problems before they started using apps, but it is certainly possible that they didn’t help.

Ultimately, the best way to achieve a good night’s sleep is routine. Sleep scientists agree that having a set bed time and waking up at the same time every day gives you the best chance of achieving good “sleep hygiene.” (But the occasional lie-in is fine.)

Life gets in the way of this sometimes, but the advice is to try and wake up at the same time even if you’ve had a late night. It will probably be painful to drag yourself up every day, but you’ll feel the benefits in the long run.

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