View all posts

Data Selfies that Matter – Cortisol, the Missing Ingredient with Sleep Trackers

The current market interest for sleep tracking devices is exploding, and that bodes well for the wearable manufacturers. Sleep tracking is nothing new, but it is growing because consumers are better educated on the value of sleep to the brain and body. But probably also because we are an affluent, self-centered society. We all want data selfies, not just selfies. And we want to know what we look like when we sleep, even if all we see is a bunch of numbers.


Stepping back and talking to our users, mining our treasured data, and of course listening to our science team, the silent problem we uncovered can be summarized as such: chronically elevated cortisol levels. Most Americans can recognize the importance of sleep in improving their health and performance, but the approach toward improving it is underwhelming. Most action plans to improve sleep deal with tips or quick fixes to salvage sleep instead of getting to the root of the problem, which is very often chronic stress. It’s time to move away from the sleep hygiene lists and other shortsighted ideas and manage what is a “sleeping giant” in modern society, chronic stress, and its highly identifiable twin, chronically high cortisol.

Poor sleep is not just a problem; it may be a symptom of what is affecting a large part of our country’s population. We know too well the health risks associated with chronic stress. At a glance, the well known list includes anxiety, depression, digestive problems, heart disease, weight gain, memory and concentration impairment, and of course sleep problems. Specifically, sleep problems stemming from the body having elevated stress hormones chronically. A few months ago, I greatly enjoyed listening to Simon Sinek at the Inbound Conference describe hostile work environments and how pressure-driven leadership could increase Cortisol levels in the workforce across the land. InsideTracker evaluates cortisol very carefully, and is now monitoring the exact minute of the testing to refine the analysis even deeper. The reason we made a real effort to get higher precision with our testing is that the human body is affected by chronobiology, or specifically the circadian rhythm of sleep and wake. Testing cortisol is the first step in getting back in control with our lifestyle to summarize what our body is trying to tell us from the inside. Many InsideTracker users are getting an alarming wake-up call beyond a sleep metric when they do our testing; they are getting a cry for help with stress from their body and we are there to help them.

If one was to search online for the best advice on getting a good night’s sleep, the results would be consistent, lists of quick adjustments like reducing caffeine, lowering the temperature of the room, or reducing blue light. All these tips are great and we support taking those steps;  we even suggest some of them with our recommendations. But all of those suggestions end up being small components of a solution and only mask the real problem. Constant life stress can raise cortisol chronically to levels that can derail sleeping and leave the average person exhausted and metabolically damaged. Our bodies need cortisol, but need it at the right time and not at night when we need deep restorative sleep.

My view on the value of sleep tracking devices and apps is that the data can help give an objective summary of the problem and break down the details of sleep stages; but the cause may be beyond the numbers on the smartphone or device. Poor Sleep and elevated cortisol may be a neverending problem, as noted by researcher and author Robert Sapolsky. In his classic text, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Sapolsky illustrates what he suggests is a vicious cycle of stress and poor sleep. The first edition to Sapolsky’s excellent work was printed 20 years ago, and the problem with stress is likely worse today. Our solution is beyond a convenient tip or trick to getting better sleep, it’s about taking control of all the hours of the day that set up the perfect environment for our body to sleep soundly. Be it nutrition, balanced training and rest, sleep quality is the result of all factors of one’s daily life, not just the room you sleep in, or the hour preceding your meeting with your favorite pillow.

We want the sleep tracking device market to grow, and we are cheering from the sidelines, because the data is instrumental to consumers being empowered to see improvements from their decisions. Every day, consumers have the opportunity to take control and achieve their goals with the right direction and advice. It is our priority to now do more with our product to manage stress, and we will research more powerful ways to face stress head on with smarter lifestyle guidance and even more options with nutrition and exercise. Taking control is about informed decisions, and blood testing is the first and important step in taking control of your performance in the bedroom. Not to be tongue in cheek in closing, but after you test we promise to take care of the rest. Take that Selfie from the Inside, this time.

 Take a Selfie from the Inside