The Hows and Whys of Tracking Your Sleep

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How are you sleeping at the moment – good, poorly, so-so? Sleep science assures us it's normal for the quantity and the quality of our sleep to dip occasionally, but it can still be hard not to worry or get frustrated when this happens. You might even feel compelled to do some digging to figure out why your sleep is in a funk.

Whilst you might not know how to go about fixing your sleep troubles, having a record of these ups and downs can be useful in many ways, for example, if you go on to consult your doctor. Showing them a record of your recent sleep schedule and how it has affected you will give them a better idea of how to help you – whether you might benefit from quitting smoking, or if you should be referred on for a course of treatment, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

But how do you go about creating a record of your sleep? It's easy – you can just choose the parameters you wish to track and the tool you will use to keep note of them. Of course, you could always keep these notes in your head, but a written record may prove to be more effective at propelling you to act on your findings [6].

What to track and why

We know sleep is easily influenced by what we do (and don't do) during the daylight hours. The media regularly feature the newest study revealing yet another link between sleep and our overall health – reading about it on lunch break or public transport we might nod along, but how often do we act on this knowledge?

The wide array of factors that affect our health are highly interconnected, so tipping the scales in one area, such as your food intake, can quickly impact on many other areas. Eating a big dinner can affect the quality of our sleep. In a similar vein, it can be especially difficult to drift off to sleep when we're under stress.

These links between sleep health and other areas of our health and well-being have often been observed by researchers with one study being of particular interest. Analysing the lifestyles and health of a village known for its longest average lifespan, Japanese researchers found that the state of their physical health as well as mental health factored into how they slept [5]. For example, those who walked often and exercised three or more times per week fell into the group of good sleepers. With regards to mental health, good sleepers were often active socially and taking part in dedicated clubs and activities.

Similar findings might apply to the general population as well. To mention just a few factors which have been shown to influence our sleep:

· Food and diet – spicy foods for example can disturb sleep, especially when they are eaten close to bedtime. [1]

· Exercise – in particular, aerobic exercise (walking, running, etc.) has been shown to improve sleep in certain populations, [2] but there's debate in the scientific community as to whether exercising too late in the day may have the opposite effect on sleep.

· Weight – recent research has linked excess weight to poorer sleep quality in older adults [3]

· Alcohol – some research suggests that it can cause us to wake throughout the night when consumed after 4pm [4]

So when it comes to getting a full record of your sleep, you might want to keep note of as many relevant factors as you can reasonably track. No need to overextend yourself however – you should aim for awareness rather than finding a sleep cure.

The difference is in seeing that drinking caffeine after 4pm coincides with a much later bedtime when compared to nights that you didn't have caffeine in the afternoon. Then, the next time you have a cup of coffee in hand you might be more likely remember to check the clock, as you'll know that getting less sleep and feeling unrefreshed in the morning is the alternative. In this way, increased awareness of poor diet, exercise or another health factor can help us change these habits to boost our health.

Thus the emphasis of self-tracking shouldn't be to try to 'cure yourself', but to be more aware of your state of health. To prevent rather than to treat, as they would say.

Before I started tracking my sleep, I'd long kept a log in my head but I was still perpetuating the same habits, such as excersising late in the day and then also going to bed late. It wasn't until I was confronted with these habits in writing that I found the motivation to kick them.

How to track

Once you've decided what to track, deciding on your tracking tool is the easy part as there's plenty to choose from:

· Keeping notes on paper

· Keeping a spreadsheet

· Using a sleep app

· Using a self-tracking device and its app

Each of these methods has its pros and cons so further research may be necessary to find one that suits your style best. Don't get too stuck on choosing your tool, though – as before it's more important to be consistant than to be 100% accurate. So, we should aim to be as consistent with our tracking as we are with our (bad) habits.

"We create our fate every day . . . most of the ills we suffer from are directly traceable to our own behavior." ~ Henry Miller


[1] Edwards, S.J., Montgomery, I.M., Colquhoun, E.Q., Jordan, J.E., Clark, M.G. (1992). Spicy meals disturb sleep: an effect of thermoregulation? International Journal of Psychophysiology, 13(2), 97-100.

[2] Reid, K., Baron, K.G., Lu, Brandon, Naylor, E., Wolfe, L., Zee, P.C. (2010). Aerobic exercise improves self-reported sleep and quality of life in older adults with insomnia. Sleep Medicine 11(9), 934-940.

[3] Hung, H.C., Yang, Y.C., Ou, H.Y., Wu, J.S., Lu, F.H., Chang, C.J. (2013). The association between self-reported sleep quality and overweight in a Chinese population. Obesity, 21(3), 486-92.

[4] Van Reen, E., Tarokh, L., Rupp, T.L., Seifer, R., Carskadon, M.A. (2011). Does timing of alcohol administration affect sleep? SLEEP, 34(2), 195-205.

[5] Taira, K., Tanaka, H., et al. (2002). Sleep health and lifestyle of elderly people in Ogimi, a village of longevity. Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, 56(3), 243-244.

[6] Fox, S. & Duggan, M. (2012). Report: tracking for health. Pew Research Center.


Bio: A night owl turned sleep enthusiast, Helena contributes to website dedicated to sleep improvement:

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