Sleep apps are supposed to help us understand more about our sleep habits and our body’s rest patterns. But what is the best way to use the information to maximize your overall health?

We all know that a good night’s sleep can make us feel better.

Along with a good diet and regular exercise, getting seven to nine hours of sleep each day is a key ingredient of a healthy lifestyle and can do wonders for your weight, mind and more. That’s why it’s not surprising that new sophisticated ways to track or influence sleep duration and quality have quickly found a loyal following among health fanatics.

Some of these sleep-tracking apps use the sensors of a smartphone to collect sleep-related data. Others measure the amount of movement in bed to determine whether the user is awake or in a state of light or deep sleep.

Wearable apps also analyze sleep by recording the activity levels of the wearer, and some promise improved sleep by offering relaxation, meditation aids and even hypnosis. Although some studies have shown that all the sleep data may not be all that useful, there are several ways to take advantage of these sleep apps for optimum health benefits.

1. It’s OK to move in your sleep

Many of the wearable devices and apps such as Sleep Cycle and Sleep as Android track sleep by your body’s movements in bed or listening for sounds. The numbers these tools give you as “sleep efficiency” or light sleep versus deep sleep are estimates at best.

These trackers can’t really provide a complete picture of when you were actually asleep or which stage of sleep you were in. It’s considered perfectly normal to move during sleep and to wake up a few times during the night.

Don’t fret if your tracker shows nocturnal movements. Listen to your body: If you feel rested, that’s all that matters!

2. Track your snoring

One thing sleep apps are good for is to judge if and how much you’re snoring (if a partner nudging you during the night isn’t doing the same thing already). If you’re trying to do something about snoring, they’ll tell you if it’s working.

“There are good smartphone apps that record snoring during the night,” said Eric Kezirian, MD, MPH, professor of clinical otolaryngology-head & neck surgery at the USC Caruso Department of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery of the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “They are not replacements for sleep studies because they cannot diagnose sleep apnea, but they can be very helpful for monitoring the benefits of treatments for snoring.”

3. The big picture matters

One of the things sleep trackers do very well is collect data over a long period of time. So if you’re worried that you are not getting enough sleep at night, your app can quantify your problem, although many people get more sleep that they think they do.

You can use sleep trackers to help you determine if some outside factor is disrupting your sleep by keeping track of your sleep while you monitor your bedtime activities. For instance, medications you’re taking or some stressful new situation might make you lose sleep at night. Drinking alcohol or keeping an electronic screen in your bedroom also could be affecting your sleep.

4. Relax and take a deep breath

Some experts suggest that you shouldn’t let all this new info about your sleep patterns create more anxiety. Sometimes when you think too much about how badly you need to fall sleep, your body does the exact opposite.

It’s always good to be mindful of how many hours you sleep at night. But just remember that there are plenty of people in this world who are able to get more than eight hours of restful shut-eye without any help from FitBit One, Sleep As Android, Jawbone UP or Sleep Cycle. If you find your sleep app is giving you more anxiety than it’s worth, ditch it.

“Current wearables are mainly consumer-based products that collect a lot of data but offer little individualized analysis, do not give personalized feedback and are not sufficiently validated for diagnosis and treatment,” said Terese Hammond, MD, assistant professor of clinical medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

But, she adds, the future may be in wearables. “The future success of sleep medicine definitely hinges on our enhanced ability to diagnose sleep disorders outside of the traditional sleep lab or clinic. An estimated 25-30 million Americans have obstructive  sleep apnea, and more than 80 percent of these patients are undiagnosed. Yet there are only about 2,800 sleep labs nationwide.

“Consequently, it is not feasible for us to address this major public health problem without better out-of-center technologic solutions. Wearable technology has already allowed us to collect massive amounts of data about sleep, but the giant leap forward for sleep medicine will only come when we devise cost-effective, efficient ways of identifying patterns in the data that lead to timely and effective clinical intervention.”

So if you’re concerned your sleep issues could be the sign of a serious problem, it’s best not to just rely on current wearable-app data. Instead, you can have a sleep study done and know for sure.

By Ramin Zahed

If you suspect you might have sleep apnea or another sleep disorder, contact the experts at the USC Sleep Medicine Program of the USC Caruso Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery. You can request an appointment online, or call (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273).