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Changing sleep patterns reveal insights about your health

Your sleep tracker does more than just record your sleep patterns; it can provide critical insights into your overall health.

A recent study from the University of California San Diego and the University of California San Francisco suggests that variations in sleep patterns can reveal information about chronic conditions such as diabetes and sleep apnea, and even illnesses like COVID-19.

Understanding sleep patterns

Sleep patterns refer to the specific ways in which people sleep, including the duration, timing, and quality of their sleep.

These patterns can vary widely from person to person and can change over time due to factors like age, lifestyle, and health conditions.

“Sleep monitoring has become widespread with the rise of affordable wearable devices. However, converting sleep data into actionable change remains challenging as diverse factors can cause combinations of sleep parameters to differ both between people and within people over time,” noted the study authors.

Studying sleep phenotypes

The researchers analyzed data from 5 million nights of sleep across approximately 33,000 people, identifying five primary sleep phenotypes, which were further divided into 13 subtypes.

The results showed that how and how often individuals switch between these sleep phenotypes offers significantly more information for detecting health conditions than relying on a person’s average sleep pattern alone.

The role of wearable technology

The researchers used data from the Oura Ring – a smart ring that tracks sleep, skin temperature, and other metrics – focusing on individuals over several months.

The experts observed that people with chronic health conditions, such as diabetes and sleep apnea, as well as those with illnesses like COVID-19 and the flu, exhibited different sleep patterns over time.

These changes reflect variations in an individual’s health, creating a dynamic “travel log” through their sleep data.

“We found that little changes in sleep quality helped us identify health risks. Those little changes wouldn’t show up on an average night, or on a questionnaire, so it really shows how wearables help us detect risks that would otherwise be missed,” explained Benjamin Smarr, one of the study’s senior authors.

Five sleep phenotypes

The researchers identified five primary sleep phenotypes based on data from 5 million nights:

  1. Normal Sleep: Eight hours of uninterrupted sleep for at least six consecutive days.
  2. Fragmented Sleep: Continuous sleep about half the nights, with bouts of less than three hours on other nights.
  3. Interrupted Sleep: Mostly continuous sleep, with one night each week interrupted by a long sleep period of about five hours and a short period of less than three hours.
  4. Mid-Sleep Waking: Mostly continuous sleep, with occasional nights where long sleep bouts are separated by a mid-sleep waking.
  5. Severely Disrupted Sleep: Very short periods of sleep every night, representing extremely disrupted sleep.

Tracking sleep changes over time

To measure changes in sleep phenotypes, the researchers constructed a spatial model representing 5 million nights of sleep as different islands.

This model revealed patterns that allowed researchers to track individuals’ movements between these “islands,” highlighting how often people switched phenotypes. The switches provided crucial information about their health.

“We found that the little differences in how sleep disruptions occur can tell us a lot. Even if these instances are rare, their frequency is also telling. So it’s not just whether you sleep well or not – it’s the patterns of sleep over time where the key info hides,” noted study co-author Professor Edward Wang.

The evolution of sleep patterns

This new study builds on previous research that had analyzed approximately 103,000 nights of data from the UK biobank.

However, earlier studies lacked the ability to track changes over time or link sleep patterns to health outcomes.

This research is the first to quantify the changing dynamics of people’s sleep over time and use this data to offer better insights into sleep health, potentially indicating higher risks for various conditions.

The study demonstrates that understanding your sleep patterns can provide valuable insights into your health.

Wearable technology, like the Oura Ring, may empower users to detect subtle changes in sleep that can indicate health risks, offering a powerful tool for early detection and intervention.

The study is published in the journal npj Digital Medicine.


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