Do Sleep Apps Really Work? Are They Medical Devices Or Pure Entertainment? Our Expert Reveals One Sleep Device That Is Like A Sleep Lab In A Box!

Exactly why are Americans obsessed with fitness and sleep technology? In the last few years, technology has been able to track certain human conditions with interactive devices or apps that illuminate our physiology and help advise us on how we can modify our behavior to perhaps improve certain elements of our lives. I’m Marc Anderson, and I’ve been a CEO, a mattress designer and engineer, and a sleep expert for more than 25 years.

Memory improvement, fitness tracking, diet, wellness, child monitoring, sleep hygiene, and other applications are available at the click of a button, but do they really help us, and if so, which apps or products help the most? 

Since this is primarily a bedding products review web site, and we focus a lot of our content on sleep and how to improve it, sleep apps and sleep devices, from white noise machines to wearables, are certainly worth considering, and we found one device that is actually pretty amazing. But we’ll get to that down below. The device is a wearable sleep lab in the palm of your hand.

At just about the same time of day we are supposed to be turning off our devices to avoid consuming more blue light that tells our brains that it’s still daytime, we’re busy studying sleep apps that can help us fall asleep faster and more efficiently

The world is going through a planetary pandemic of epic proportions, and humans are tossing and turning. As you would expect, sleep apps are booming: Downloads of several of them increased 20 percent in the past year, according to the mobile insights and data platform App Annie. One app, Sleep as Android, has been downloaded more than 18 million times since 2010.

The appeal is understandable: Most sleep apps are simple to use and inexpensive. And Americans clearly need the help: 80 percent of Americans in a recent nationally representative Consumer Reports survey of 1,767 U.S. adults found they had trouble sleeping at least once a week. The problem is that most sleep apps just don’t gather enough data about your sleep habits to offer any productive information (there is one, and you will see)

But how useful are sleep apps, really? 

When you speak with experts about sleep apps and devices, they offer a range of advice about several popular variations, including those that help to induce sleep by providing white noise to eliminate background and annoying sounds.  

Others that use guided imagery, video clips of serenely familiar settings like ocean waves, or a breeze rustling through the canopy above, even hypnosis to help you relax, and more sophisticated apps that track your sleep patterns, and body movements, all of which are usually run through your cell phone.

An overnight sleep study under controlled conditions by a sleep physician is vastly different than using the typical sleep app. A host of information, including an EEG, which tracks neurological phenomena in the brain during the test, and ECG which monitors heart function, even a pulse oximeter tracking blood O2 levels. 

The test also includes respiration tracking with a monitor that wraps around you chest and other devices which can contribute to an elaborate tapestry of information that can allow a practitioner to truly identify any sleep deficiencies, some of which can in fact be deadly, like sleep apnea.

While most sleep apps and devices aren’t necessarily aimed at diagnosing any underlying medical issues, they can help train your mind to calm itself, and even ASMR videos are essentially a kind of sleep app, as they use certain triggers to enable you to drift off.

Entertainment or Medical Device?

Seema Khosla, M.D., medical director of the North Dakota Center for Sleep Studies in Fargo and the lead author of a an authority based article on sleep, stated that most of the research on the apps is still in its infancy. 

She observes that of you read the details on most of the apps out there today the fine print on most apps clearly states that they are marketed as “entertainment” or “lifestyle” apps, not medical devices, clear compliance since these apps or devices have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Essentially, she regards them as a kind of vitamin supplement as compared to a legitimate pharmaceutical.

In addition to very limited research and virtually no government oversight, some experts are concerned that cell phones themselves can actually harm sleep, because people bring the devices to bed with them and are exposed to blue light which interferes with the body’s circadian rhythm. If you don’t use a sleep app, if you must be on your device, at least dim down your display or  put the device in night viewing mode which changes the lighting to a warm, reddish hue and tells your brain it’s night time, and not noon and sunny outside.

We advise strongly to check the permissions in any sleep app you use, too, since they will often collect personal information that you might be uncomfortable sharing or that no relevance to the use of the app. For example, a white-noise or guided imagery app doesn’t need a list of your contacts, your photos, or your location. And be aware that as entertainment devices, these apps are not subject to the same privacy protections as you expect with healthcare providers. 

Here’s a guide to the different types of sleep apps currently out there, and some expert advice on how to use those apps to your benefit. Down below we will discuss our favorite option for a device you can use at home that might be able to help you discover what issues you may be having either with sleep induction (falling asleep) or maintaining deep, restorative sleep.

Aside from sleep apps, there are also wearables, such as sleep masks, which can be of great benefit, by eliminating visual stimuli and creating a wholesome sleep hygiene environment as well. Creating the perfect bedroom environment also can enhance the benefits from using a sleep app or wearable as well. Check out our page on creating the perfect Z-Cave if you want to up your game on creating the perfect sleep environment.

Apps That Block Or Disguise Noise

It makes sense that you’ll sleep better if you can block out annoying noise, like a neighbor’s barking dog or your teenager playing video games until three in the morning, Khosla says. Several apps try to do that, either with “white noise”, a whooshing, fan like sound that can mask other repetitive noises. Other effects include waterfall, a distant thunderstorm,  ocean waves, or even a steadily moving train click-clacking over tracks.

Some of these kinds of apps include Relaxing Music: Sleep SoundsRelaxing Music to Sleep, and Relax MelodiesWhite Noise GeneratormyNoise and the White Noise apps.

A 2016 Consumer Reports survey of people with sleep problems found that those who tried white-noise machines said the devices did indeed help them fall sleep and remain asleep.  Other research, including a 2015 analysis in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, has demonstrated that calming music may have that same effect, though it’s the music itself that is calming and relaxing you, not the noise blocking or masking effect.

No studies have yet examined whether calming music or white noise specifically delivered via smartphone app works as well as say, a white noise machine, but there’s little downside to trying one to see if it helps.

Apps That Calm a Racing Mind

If music or white noise isn’t enough to settle your rambling or anxious mind at bedtime, apps designed for mental relaxation might help.

Some use guided imagery or other form of meditation, typically soothing voices describing peaceful scenes, sometimes with accompanying music. Examples include CalmPzizzHeadspace, and the Relax & Rest Guided Meditations App, which many users love. 

Others use hypnosis, which combines imagery with targeted suggestions, such as “you can relax completely” and “your mind is quiet and still.” Examples include Sleep Well and Hypnosis for Sleep and Dreaming.

Some good research, does suggest that guided imagery can relax the mind and assist with sleep. But it’s unclear if guided imagery apps also work, and some may promote their apps a bit heavily. The website for Pzizz, for example, says that its app, where narrated guided imagery is orchestrated  with music and sound effects, is “clinically proven to help you sleep.” Unfortunately, the research on which their proven technology is founded involved less than 30 people trying to nap during the day )instead of in bed, at night) for just two weeks, and wasn’t published in a major medical journal.

There’s also some strong evidence that hypnosis might be helpful. A 2018 review in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found the technique improved sleep in more than half of people studied. But little quality research proves this method works as well in app form rather than in the presence of hypnotist, where the surroundings and physical presence of the moderator if essential. Many people freak out about hypnosis, because you have to surrender control of your thoughts to another person, but this concept is totally false, according to The American Society of Clinical Hypnosis.

Apps That Fix Bad Sleep Habits

One of the most effective treatments for recurring sleep problems is cognitive behavioral therapy , a type of counseling that helps you remove and replace the thoughts and behaviors that contribute to your sleep problem. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine now recommends this therapy, called CBT-I , over sleep drugs like Ambien and benzodiazapenes like Valium, as the treatment of first resort for chronic insomnia.

While that CBT-I typically involves several in-person sessions with a trained professional, online programs and apps may also work. For example, more than 50% of chronic insomniacs who used one such program, SHUTi, saw improvements after just nine weeks and were sleeping without drugs or other therapies a year later, according to a 2018 study published in JAMA Psychiatry.

Other similar programs recommended by Afifa Shamim-Uzzaman, M.D., a sleep medicine physician at the University of Michigan’s Sleep Disorders Center, include CBT-i Coach, which was developed by psychologists at the Department Veterans Affairs, and Sleepio.

Experts also point out that all apps probably add some value by providing information on good sleep habits and how to adopt them. “A good app doesn’t just say you have a problem, it offers tips on what might be in your way, such as alcohol, evening exercise, or stress,” states Diana Grigsby-Toussaint, Ph.D., an associate professor of kinesiology at the University of Illinois.

But when she reviewed 35 sleep apps for a 2017 review in Preventive Medicine Reports, she found that few included that information. “The apps were disappointing, because this information is so important for improving sleep,” Grigsby-Toussaint says. Our advice, if you are looking for in-depth help with sleep habits, look for apps that include this information or find other resources, including advice from your doctor.

Apps That Track Your Sleep

Several apps aim to chart your sleep patterns—such as how long it takes you to fall asleep (sleep induction), how long you spend in deeper stages of sleep (like REM, or rapid eye movement sleep, the deepest state of sleep), and how much you move around while in bed, which could indicate restless leg syndrome—using your phone’s built-in sensors. Some of these sleep-tracking apps also have a “smart alarm” feature that supposed to wake you when the movement sensor detects you’re in a lighter stage. Examples include Runtastic Sleep Better and Sleep as Android. Others document whether and how much you snore (SnoreLabDo I Snore Or Grind).

But Dr. Khosla cautions that they shouldn’t be used to diagnose sleep disorders, or as an alternative to a sleep physician’s equipment or testing. Researchers who have compared the current app trackers to the gold standard for monitoring used by physicians, known as polysomnography (PSG), say they fall far short. That’s why the American Academy of Sleep Medicine released a position statement last May urging that all sleep apps undergo FDA approval.“If they want to be used as a diagnostic tool, they need to compare well to PSG. It’s a high bar, but patients deserve that,” says Khosla, the lead author of the statement.

The system we recommend below, SleepOn, is likely about as close as you will get to a consumer wearable device, along with an app, that provides detailed information to help you evaluate your sleep, and allow you to train your body using better sleep hygiene and lifestyle habits to help you get a better night’s sleep.

Features in some sleep-tracking apps that alert you to whether and how much you snore may have some benefits, as well. These snore-detecting devices may even be useful as an initial screening test for obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a condition where throat muscles intermittently relax and block the airway, which increases the risk of high blood pressure and other health problems. Sleep apnea can be deadly, so any app that offers productive warnings or recognizes that you may be experiencing sleep apnea definitely has some benefit. A review of sleep apps in April 2018’s Sleep and Breathing found “a promising role of apps in detection of snoring and sleep-related breathing disorders.”

But because research shows that sleep tracking devices aren’t always accurate—for example, snoring detection can be thrown off by a car driving by, and those detecting stages of sleep might misinterpret restless awake time as light sleep—it’s important to discuss any app’s finding with your doctor, says Shamim-Uzzaman of the University of Michigan.  

Go To Sleep With SleepOn, A 6 Gram Sleep Lab In The Palm Of Your Hand

One product that we really love is a hyper-advanced version of any sleep tracker, and provides a wealth of information that helps you better understand your body and improve your sleep with daily feedback.

We’ve discovered a wearable, consumer-centered sleep management tool, which it assists you to gain a holistic view of every aspect of your sleep through daily sleep report, followed by in depth sleep behavior analysis like we’ve never seen before. In addition, you can check your family members’ sleep conditions after gaining their permissions.

Sleep tracking is a great way to get to know ourselves a bit better and even improve our way of life. It’s expensive and complex trying to get to the root cause of a sleep problem and trying to get a professional sleep analysis done takes time, costs money (many insurance policies won’t cover some or even all of the costs) but with health gadgets on the rise, there are more and more options to take things in our own hands. 

SleepOn’s “Go2Sleep” system promises to help us understand our sleeping patterns better through its wearable ring-shaped sleep tracker. We were so curious that we had to test it out for a couple of days. Here’s what we found out about this extraordinary product.

The extraordinary Go2Sleep device is a 6 gram sleep lab worn on your finger.

The Big Idea Behind Such A Small Device

Spending the night in a strange bed, on a really uncomfortable mattress wired up to fourteen different machines doesn’t sound like the perfect setting for inventing for such an important and complex test. 

A gentleman named Claus, who created SleepOn, had a massive heart attack in 2015. He had terrible sleeping habits that affected his health, but he just never got around to getting it checked out.

He begrudgingly agreed to a polysomnography, the medical version of the ultimate sleep test used to diagnose a host of sleep problems. He had wires and medical devices all around him, which made it quite hard to fall asleep, a common problem with hospital based sleep studies. Changing the environment that you are accustomed to sleeping in your, your sleep sanctuary is the biggest flaw in a medical sleep study.

It’s hard enough sleep after the life altering effects  of a heart attack, not to mention this unnatural, uncomfortable hospital setting. He was determined to find a lighter, wireless device to measure important parameters and the overall quality of sleep for everyday use. A device to help him act more consciously and to be able to keep track of habits affecting his rest.

Before his heart attack, Claus and his team had invented the first heart rate monitoring watch, so the concept of creating another wearable device was not out of his wheelhouse. They started it after his recovery and during the experience, the team realized something quite astonishing the number of people with sleeping disorders and bad sleeping habits was spiraling out of control.

Why Do We Treat Sleep As A Luxury, And Not As A Basic Need?

It is alarming that according to a Gallup poll, over the past 50 years we have lost an hour of sleep on night: we’re sleeping one hour less per night than we did back in the 1950s. Moreover, many people take pride in sleeping as little as possible, even bragging about it, notably on college campuses or in the tech sector and Silicon Valley, saying things like “I’llb sleep when I’m dead”. Certainly, not getting enough sleep over a long stretch can be a direct contribution to early death. And not getting enough sleep is actually a method of torture- it has long been known that sleep deprivation has even been used for a long time as a means of interrogation by many secret services, including the CIA.

Very simply,  we have known it for a long time that sleep is a very basic human need: it’s not only necessary for maintaining basic cognitive functions, like memory and concentration, and a healthy and stable mental state, but without enough sleep we’re more susceptible to infectious diseases, circulatory problems, and even Alzheimer’s.

Designing A Sleep Lab To Fit Into The Palm Of Your Hand

It’s easy to see why we were so excited to test Go2Sleep, SleepOn’s sleep tracking ring. It’s small, it’s smart and has the potential to improve our quality of life. Opening the box, we can find the tracker itself, three different sized silicone rings, a charger, a micro USB cable, and the user manual with a warranty card.

The minimalist and smart design makes it easy to set up the ring. The magnetic charger takes around two hours to fully charge the device and the battery lasts up to 3 days. To be able to see your data and keep track of your habits, you need to download the app (available on iOS and Android as well), which requires quite a few permissions, including access to location details, camera (if you want a personalized profile picture), information on other apps, phone identity and accounts.

The Go2Sleep System includes the device, a comprehensive guide and manual, as well as access to the downloadable app. Photo courtesy of The Fitness Junkie Blog

The app is user-friendly and transparent, with short comments explaining all the technical terms. It uses Bluetooth to communicate with the tracker, which works well, but unfortunately, the app itself only works with the Bluetooth on. After waking up and taking the ring off, a report is being generated, which we can view after a short synchronization period.

It promises to measure heart rate, blood oxygen levels, and movements to calculate sleep stages (awake time, light sleep, deep sleep, REM phase) and sleep apnea times (periods of shallow or no breathing) from these parameters. SleepOn offers a comfortable way to keep an eye on your sleep apnea score – we even got to know that up to four mild episodes are considered normal.

Our Experience

You wear the ring on your ring finger, the device facing your palm. It’s light and despite the snug-fitting silicone ring, it’s comfortable, no wires needed so it doesn’t disturb your sleep. The producers even made the gadget slightly waterproof, so you don’t have to take it off for a light handwash – although they don’t recommend it if you swim in your sleep…

After a good night’s sleep, you get a sleep score based on the overall quality of your snooze and some tips on what needs improvement. There are easy to interpret diagrams for every category measured. Sleep stages are calculated from heart rate, heart rate variability, and movement, while SleepOn Go2Sleep lets you monitor your heart rate and SpO2 (oxygen level) in real-time.

Unfortunately, the sleep stage calculation glitched a few times, but that could have been our user error. We contacted customer services via their website, and they replied within a day. So, it’s easy to get in touch with them, the design of the service looks great, and they are quick to answer.

Sleep Apnea Tracking And Cues

What worked well is the sleep apnea tracking and alarm system. When your blood oxygen levels drop too much, the ring vibrates. Just enough to wake you up, causing you to turn and reposition yourself.

That’s important because mild sleep apnea can be hard to diagnose as people don’t even realize they pause breathing during sleep. This state has negative effects on many organs, including the brain. Keeping an eye on this data could help detect early symptoms and monitor them day by day.

In addition, you have the option to assign labels to your sleep, which is a great way to help yourself be more conscious about how your actions during the day influence the quality and quantity of your sleep.

Across the board, I’d say the SleepOn Go2Sleep system has a lot to offer. It keeps track of a lot of data at the same time and gives new and interesting information about our habits. It is comfortable, lightweight and waterproof. We were disappointed by two of the main functions not working properly- sleep cycle tracking and the smart alarm. One would provide important information on our health and the other would help us feel more relaxed in the mornings.

Though it did not rule all gadgets we have tried in the last few years, it has a lot more on the dashboard that can help you really understand your biology, and to be able to report these results to your health care provider. You can order here and get our special deal on the SleepOn system today!