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Published on March 28, 2014

Can An App Help You Sleep Better?

There may be an app for everything these days, and we can’t deny the fact that some provide significant value to our lives. And no, we’re not talking about Flappy Bird or Candy Crush—we’re talking about the apps that encourage us to lead healthier lifestyles.

Sleep Apps

Sleep apps in particular have gained a significant following over the last couple of years, with users praising their ability to help them sleep better during the night.

But do they really work?

If you’re not familiar with the concept, these apps are designed to monitor how well you sleep at night and wake you up a time when you’re less likely to feel groggy.

To do so, the apps use sensors in your phone to monitor your movement during sleep, as well as data based on the average human’s sleep patterns to determine when you should wake up. The idea is that waking up during the wrong sleep cycle stage, such as deep sleep or REM, can cause drowsiness—a phenomenon known as sleep inertia.

While sleep inertia is a very real concern (sleep researchers don’t dare to wake up sleep study participants if they’re in REM, even if the experiment is over), the only way to determine when and how long a person experiences one of the four stages of sleep is by measuring brain activity during a polysomnography, a sleep study that uses electrodes to measure brain waves.

But of course these apps don’t come with their own set of electrodes, which means it’s impossible to obtain this specific data. And here’s why that’s important:

  • You’re not an “average” sleeper. During the night, people often wake up for a number of different reasons, especially if they have a sleep disorder. While most can quickly fall back asleep after this happens, the app can’t pick up on this subtle data. And since the app considers you to be an average sleeper, your results might not accurately represent how well you slept during the night.
  • The length of every sleep cycle can vary among individuals; it’s not always a 90-minute period, which is the average benchmark used by sleep apps.
  • How well you sleep depends on how you slept the night before. A number of different studies have shown that if you miss a significant amount of slow-wave sleep one night, your body will make up for it the next evening.
  • The amount of time it takes for you to fall asleep after your head hits the pillow changes every night. Apps allow for a 15-minute window between the moment you enter your wake time and when it begins taking data. However, there may be some nights when it takes longer to fall asleep and others when you pass out immediately.  

But don’t let these reasons force your hand to delete the app altogether. Although sleep specialists say your results might not be accurate, there is a benefit to monitoring your sleep performance. Just don’t accept the app as gospel.

“When people are aware of their sleep patterns, they’re more likely to break bad sleep habits,” says Michael Weinstein, M.D., medical director of the Crozer-Keystone Sleep Center at Delaware Count Memorial Hospital. “For example, if you’re noticing that you’re only getting five or six hours of sleep a night, you’ll probably try to get to bed earlier in the future.

“And at the end of the day, embracing healthy sleep habits is the best way to ensure you sleep soundly during the night.”

For more information, visit Crozer-Keystone’s Sleep Centers Services.  Crozer-Keystone offers a multidisciplinary approach to the identification and treatment of all types of adult and pediatric sleep disorders. To make an appointment, visit our website or call 1-888-SLEEP-03 (1-888-753-3703).

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