Can Sleep Apps Really Help? A Mattress Industry Expert Weighs In
Fitness and wellness apps are huge right now, and it seems Americans enjoy tracking, monitoring, and sharing their data with friends and family. Sleep apps are wearables like FitBit also allow us to track and monitor our sleep activity, to help us create better sleep hygiene, better bedtime and wakeup habits, storing the information to track and improve that most cherished eight or so hours of sleep we know we are supposed to be enjoying.
The data these apps and devices collect is mind boggling, and include everything from your heart rate and oxygen levels to the number of steps you take per day, the route and mileage, even the number of unhealthy events you have while sleeping.
Perhaps the most important of all of these apps and devices, is their ability shine a light on our biggest source of inactivity: sleep. We’re all keenly aware that lack of sleep is just as unhealthy as starving yourself by not eating can be. It is destructive, has long term effects on health and brain power, and can shorten our lifespan, probably more than any other activity, good or bad, that we engage in. But do they really work?
What Do Sleep Tracking Apps Actually Monitor?
A huge number of sleep trackers have suddenly hit the market, with dozens showing up on the App store every couple of months Many are wearable trackers attach to your wrist your wrist. Others are meant to lie next to you to detect movements, or simply sit on your night stand.
Features of these devices differ, but many notable features include tracking ability for:
Sleep Duration: By monitoring the amount of time you are relatively still, the devices can record when you fall asleep at night and when you first begin to awaken in the morning.
Sleep Quality: Some devices can detect subtle movements, tracking sleep interruptions, keeping track of when you’re tossing and turning or suddenly waking during the night.
Sleep Phases: Some apps or devices track the phases of your sleep which can indicate when you are in deep REM sleep, the most restorative kind of sleep, or when you are sleeping lightly, even evaluating when you might be engaged in lucid dreaming.
Environmental Factors: Some devices record environmental markers such as the amount of light in your bedroom, the surrounding air temperature, and other ambient noises which may cause sleep disruption.
Lifestyle Factors: Some trackers ask you to provide detailed information about activities that might affect sleep, such as how much caffeine you have consumed, when the last time you have eaten, determining whether to not you have been under stress or exercising, and more.
What Is Meant By “Sleep Cycle” That Apps Often Refer To?
During a typical night, we all cycle through various stages of sleep, which is fairly consistent for most people, but can vary based on a host of the most subtle of factors. The quality of sleep we experience follows some fairly precise patterns and events.
Stage 1: Typically lasts only a few minutes, it is when we are experiencing sleep induction, and we can easily be disturbed or awakened from this initial phase.
Stage 2: As your brain waves begin to power down, they begin to slow in wavelength and amplitude. This is when you body and your brain start switching off certain areas, and flipping on other switches to heal, rejuvenate, and replenish.
Stage 3: You are slipping into much deeper sleep that is difficult to wake from. Someone has to give you a pretty good shake to awaken you in this stage. Your body is in full repair mode, and is boosting immune function and building hormones and repairing neurons. Rapid eye movement or REM sleep becomes more active and you begin to dream. Your brain is also processing memories and storing information it receives during the day.
This cycle repeats about every 90 minutes, and as sleep progresses though the night, and your REM sleep gets longer. This is your deepest state of sleep, too.
Limitations Of Sleep Apps And Wearables
While sleep tracking devices and apps can collect a lot of data about your particular sleep patterns and habits, there are limitations. They cannot precisely measure sleep directly.
Rather, they rely on inactivity as the typical metric for estimating sleep, and the data has to be processed and interpreted much differently than if you were hooked up to an ECG and an EEG, with a breathing strap tied around your chest. But for the lay person, a FitBit or other wearable device, which can track a few more metrics than a phone app like heart rate and actual body temperature, the data can be pretty interesting and at least put you on the road to refining your sleep hygiene and controlling other factors in your life that influences sleep.
For detailed and “medical grade” data about your sleep habits, you’d have to do a medical sleep study , which monitors brain waves to evaluate the stages of sleep you cycle through during the night. A medical sleep study is helpful for diagnosing conditions such as sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, seizures, and other neurological and physical phenomena.
Apps and wearables are certainly useful for helping you recognize patterns in your sleep habits. You may being to examine your sleep hygiene by answering questions such as whether or not you feel sluggish when you sleep from 10PM to 6AM, but more energized when you sleep from 11PM to 7AM, for example. You begin to discover that even subtle changes in sleep habits can greatly improve your daytime experience. You can answer questions such as whether or not you sleep better when your bedroom is cooler, or after vigorous exercise, or if your sleep disrupted if you consume caffeine or alcohol after a certain time.
A sleep app or wearable device will at least give you pause to focus on your sleep habits, often providing user-friendly graphs or reports that make it easy to see trends.
If you have any concerns about the quality of your sleep, you may want to contact and visit a physician who specializes in sleep, but if you’re an otherwise healthy person who just wants to gain some practical information about your sleep habits, tracking devices are a healthy option.
For years, Rona Reynolds woke up in the middle of the night, her mind unable to shut down and go to sleep. A friend recommended a cell-phone app called Relax & Rest Guided Meditations. Reynolds downloaded it for $1.99 and quickly embraced the soothing voice reassuring her with a steady mantra that guided her through a relaxation process.
Now when she wakes too early, Rona reaches for her phone (volume set low, so as not to wake up her husband) and soon drifts off. She lends her cell phone cell phone to her 12-year-old son, who having difficulty unwinding. “He came down in the morning and said, ‘That was great. I fell asleep right away,’ ” she says. These kinds of apps, including Calm and others, function much the same way that watching ASMR videos work.
ASMR, or Autonomic Sensory Meridian Response, is a phenomenon experienced by about 50% of the population, where the listener, during a video presentation of certain calming and relaxing behaviors and trigger sounds, is lulled to sleep and very easily induces sleep, sometimes in literally minutes. If you don’t feel like downloading an app, you can get on YouTube with some ear buds and join in on the feast.
Sleep apps are booming, with downloads doubling year to year. One downloadable app, called Sleep as Android, has been downloaded more than 18 million times. The appeal is obvious, and more and more people are dialed into techniques to increase the powerful benefits of sleep.
Much of this interest has also been driven by the mattress industry, and some mattress models actually include apps or software that are hardwired to the mattress product to deliver results and guidelines, including Sleep Number with its SmartBed, Casper’s Glow device, which sits on your night stand.
Most of the available apps out there are simple to use and inexpensive. And Americans clearly need the help: 80% of respondents to a Consumer Reports survey of 1,767 U.S. adults said they had difficulty sleeping at least once a week.
Just How Helpful Are Sleep Apps, Really?
To find out, we spoke with experts about several popular Apps, including those designed to blocking annoying noise, white noise generating apps, and others that use guided imagery or hypnosis to help you relax, and those that track your sleep patterns.
Seema Khosla, M.D., medical director of the North Dakota Center for Sleep in Fargo and the principal author of a 2018 piece on sleep apps from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, says that most of the due diligence and research on sleep apps is preliminary at best. And she points out that the fine print on most apps say that they are marketed as “entertainment” or “lifestyle” apps, not medical devices, meaning that their effectiveness hasn’t been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.
One app developer patterned a measure of sleep duration, irregularity, time in deep sleep, and more and modeled the app after the famous Pittsburgh Sleep Score.
In addition to limited research and lack of medical oversight, some experts are concerned that cell phones themselves can harm sleep, because people bring the devices to bed, exposing themselves to blue light, and keep us up late with social activities and excessive surfing. Keep your phone face down so the light doesn’t bother you, and keep it in airplane mode so you won’t get calls or texts, says Brynn Dredla, M.D., a sleep medicine physician at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla.
Apps That Block Noise
It’s fairly obvious that you’ll sleep better if you can block out annoying noise, such as a neighbor’s barking dog or your teenager’s video games. Several apps attempt to do that, either with music or “white noise,” such as the sounds of a fan, ocean waves, a whooshing sound, or even a steadily moving train.
A 2016 Consumer Reports survey of people with sleep problems found that those who tried white-noise machines said the devices helped them to fall asleep pretty quickly. Other research, including a 2015 analysis in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, demonstrated that soothing music may yield the same results, though the benefit could also come from the ability of the music to help you calm down, not just by blocking out noise.
No studies have yet examined whether soothing music or white noise specifically delivered via smartphone app works. 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 calm racing thoughts or anxiety at bedtime, apps designed for mental relaxation might help.
Some use guided imagery such as nature videos, or other forms of meditation, typically soothing voices describing peaceful scenes, sometimes with accompanying music. Examples include Calm, Pzizz, Headspace, and the Relax & Rest Guided Meditations App.
Others use hypnosis, which combines imagery with techniques. Examples include Sleep Well and Hypnosis for Sleep and Dreaming. Some research, such as a 2002 Behavior Research Therapy report, 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 overpromise.
A app called Pzizz, for example, claims that its method, where guided imagery or other narration is combined with music and sound effects, is “clinically proven to help you sleep.” But the study it bases this on involved just a small group of people trying to nap during the day rather than sleeping at night, for just two weeks, and wasn’t published in a major medical journal.
There’s also some strong evidence for hypnosis—a 2018 review in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found the technique improved sleep in more than half of people studied. But very little research proves that this method works when delivered via App format. If you decide to give sleep hypnosis apps a try, don’t worry. The idea that you surrender control of your mind while in a trance is false, says 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 for insomnia (CBT-I), a form of counseling that helps you identify and replace the thoughts and behaviors that contribute to your sleep problem. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine now recommends CBT-I over sleep drugs as the treatment of first resort for chronic insomnia.
While that approach typically involves several in-person sessions with a trained professional, online programs and apps may also work. For example, more than half of chronic insomniacs who used one such program, SHUTi, saw improvements after nine weeks and were sleeping normally a year later, according to a 2018 study published in JAMA Psychiatry.
These programs may work best after several sessions with a professional. And some are available only as part of a clinical trial (SHUTi) or from your insurance company (Sleepio).
Experts also point out that all apps could add value by providing information on good sleep habits and how to integrate them into your life. “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,” says Diana Grigsby-Toussaint, Ph.D., an associate professor of kinesiology at the University of Illinois.
But when she examined 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. So if you need 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, how long you spend in deeper stages 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 (SnoreLab, Do I Snore Or Grind).
Tips: Experts say apps that track your sleep may be worth trying to make you more aware of your sleep and prompt you to take steps to improve it.
But Khosla cautions that they shouldn’t be used to diagnose sleep disorders. Researchers who have compared these trackers to the gold standard for monitoring used by physicians, known as polysomnography (PSG), find 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.
Features in some sleep-tracking apps that alert you to whether and how much you snore may have some benefits. 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. 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.
7 Best Sleep Apps to Download in 2020, According to Experts
NOISLI / SLUMBER
Struggling to catch enough zzz’s? There’s an app for that (no surprise there!). In fact, there are so many sleep apps that promise to help you fall (and stay) asleep that it can be hard to figure out which ones are worth a try. That’s where the experts at the Good Housekeeping Institute come in. We got feedback from real consumers to determine the best sleep apps out there. Whether you want to drift off to a meditation or a bedtime story, download one of these apps today to get the sleep you (so desperately) need. Sweet dreams!
Headspace has made a name for itself as a meditation app, but it’s also great for sleep. The free version has “sleepcasts,” which are 45-55 minute-long audio experiences (kind of like adult bedtime stories) that help you visualize calming experiences, like a slow moving train or a walk through a garden. There are new stories every night, so you you’ll never get bored. If you upgrade to the paid version, you’ll get access to more than 40 themed meditation courses (like for sleep and stress), plus many more sleepcast and music options to help you wind down.
This super simple app lets you choose from a bunch of different sounds (like thunder, wind, white noise, and even the buzz of a coffee shop) to create your ideal sleep soundtrack. You can create a combo of sounds you love that you can save in the app for future use. Pro tip: If you’re using it overnight, keep your phone plugged in—otherwise, you may wake up to a dead battery.
With Pzizz, you can set a timer for the length of sleep session so it plays a soothing dreamscape (read: combo of music, voiceovers, and sound effects) while you snooze; then, you can wake up to the built-in alarm. You’ll need to upgrade for more advanced features, like the ability to choose different sounds, but the app offers a seven-day free trial.
Slumber offers a combination of experiences to help you fall asleep, whether it’s meditation focused, a six-part bedtime story series, or the sound of a warm jacuzzi. You can also choose a background noise (like rain or the ocean) to play for up to 10 hours after the main track ends. New sleep-inducing stories and meditations are added each week, and you can listen to them all if you upgrade to the premium version (otherwise, you can get many episodes for free).
Calm’s app is super easy to use, and the Sleep Stories section has bedtime stories (for kids and adults!) read aloud by people with soothing voices, including celebrities like Matthew McConaughey. Only a few stories are included for free, but getting a subscription unlocks a huge library of meditations made specifically for sleep — plus categories like stress and ASMR!
If you want to learn how you slept, the Sleep Cycle app is for you. It tracks your sleep patterns and provides tips to optimize your snooze time. Plus, it has a an alarm clock that gently wakes you up when you’re in your lightest sleep phase so you’ll wake up feeling refreshed. Just keep in mind that no sleep tracker is 100 percent accurate so if you’re really struggling with your sleep, you may need to see a dedicated sleep specialist.
TEN PERCENT HAPPIER
If you still haven’t found a sleep app that works for you, 10% Happier is worth a shot. It offers a wide range of meditations — including ones for sleep — that range from three minutes to 45 minutes to help you relax and fall asleep. There are also meditation courses spanning a variety of genres and the option to message a coach for extra support.