Orthosomnia: Is your quest for perfect sleep keeping you awake?

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Orthosomnia: Is your quest for perfect sleep keeping you awake?

As with any area of health, there is always the risk that some people may take things a little too far.  Balance is the key to maintaining long lasting behaviours that influence our overall wellbeing.

Some people eat better and train harder than others and this may put them in to top 10% but when diet and exercise become a preoccupation it can have a negative impact on their health.

The same appears to have become true of sleep.

How much sleep do we get?

The topic of sleep has become big news in the world of wellness.

It is recommended that the optimum number of hours sleep is around eight per night.  However, research has shown that most of us do not get enough sleep with most getting seven hours a night while some endure less than five (1).

How does sleep deprivation affect your health?

In the short term a lack of sleep can affect concentration, mood and memory but a chronic lack of sleep over time can have more serious consequences on your health.

Research is ever evolving around sleep and it has been suggested that a lack of sleep is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, obesity, type 2 diabetes, depression and anxiety (2).

A recent study published in the journal Neurology found that amongst the 487K people involved, sleep deprivation increased the risk of heart attack and stroke by almost a fifth (3).

The rise of sleep trackers

Sleep has now become a huge point of interest for many people, especially as it is now widely viewed as one of the key pillars to maintaining optimal health and wellbeing.

The wellness industry has reacted to this interest by offering us a wide range of wearable devices that help us to monitor and personalise our health.  Many of these devices allow wearers to track their sleep by offering biometric data that relates to the key stages in the sleep cycle which includes brands such as Fitbit.

These devices are hugely insightful and a useful way of mapping our sleep landscape.  However, they have also become a source of obsession for some people who go out of their way to try and achieve the perfect night’s sleep as dictated by their wearable device.

Ironically it appears that this obsession with sleep may in fact be a causal factor in someones ability to sleep well.  This new phenomenon has been identified by researchers who have named it as orthosomnia (4).

What is orthosomnia?

Orthosomnia stems from the  Latin terms ‘ortho’ meaning correct and ‘somnia’ meaning sleep.

This term was coined by researchers to describe the potential risks associated with people who develop an unhealthy preoccupation with improving the data from their sleep tracker (4).

How does it develop?

Sleep trackers can offer useful insight into your pattern of sleep, but the data is not always that precise.  For example, many of them are not hugely accurate at distinguishing between the time spent asleep versus the time spent in bed.

Orthosomnia develops when too much focus is put on this sleep data in an attempt to  achieve the perfect sleep score.  Over time this can lead to unhealthy sleep behaviours.

What are the symptoms?

The obsessive focus on improving sleep in this way may actually cause your sleep to suffer.

Orthosomnia may be recognised in someone who has been using a tracker but finds their sleep has worsened as they attempt to make changes to optimize the data (sleep score) to get the ‘perfect’ sleep.

Some of the symptoms associated with orthosomnia include:

  • Difficulty nodding off and staying asleep
  • Early morning awakenings
  • Unrefreshed sleep
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Poor concentration  

Why is it a problem?

The more you think about sleeping the less easy it can be to actually fall asleep. In the quest for sleep perfection people can develop increased anxiety and stress.  These emotions activate the sympathetic nervous system and can prolong wakefulness.

Research has shown how people become reliant on their tracker to tell them whether they got a restful sleep rather than judging to on how they actually felt (4).

It has also been shown how people self-diagnose and convince themselves they have a sleep disorder based on their sleep data even though they may not (4).

Research has also shown how people may spend excessive amounts of time in bed in an attempt to improve their sleep score.  This behaviour only reinforces poor sleeping habits and can condition the body for sleeplessness which may lead to future issues with insomnia further down the line (4).

How can you manage it?

You could get rid of your sleep tracker, but you could also try and use the tracker in a more useful way to help you adopt better sleep hygiene habits.

Establishing general sleep hygiene habits is a good way to try and get you sleep back on track such as:

  • Keeping a constant bedtime and wake time that also allows you to try and get the number of hours sleep to meet your needs.
  • Trying relaxation techniques before bedtime to help ease and calm a busy mind.
  • Create a calming sleep environment that is dark, cool and clutter-free.
  • Wake time is especially important and try to expose yourself to as much light in the morning to optimise your circadian rhythm.

When may more action be requried?

In some cases, someone may need to participate in treatment such as cognitive behaviour therapy for insomnia.

References 

  1. https://www.sleepcouncil.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/The-Great-British-Bedtime-Report.pdf
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2845795/
  3. https://n.neurology.org/content/early/2019/11/06/WNL.0000000000008581
  4. http://jcsm.aasm.org/ViewAbstract.aspx?pid=30955

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