Apps Really Can Help You Get Better Sleep (Sometimes)

Credit: Tuomas Lehtinen / Getty Images

Between the dark circles and the four cups of coffee to face your inbox, you don’t need an app to tell you that you’re skimping on sleep. But according to a 2015 survey, 10 percent of Americans wear fitness trackers and another 45 percent are interested in purchasing one. And these numbers don’t count the millions of downloads of apps like Sleep as Android and Sleep Cycle alarm clock.

However, whether these apps actually work is up for debate. Last year, a paper trying to examine the efficacy of sleep trackers found that, not only were metrics on accuracy lacking, but actual definitions of what trackers defined as “good” or “poor” sleep quality were non-existent, too. The review closed by saying there’s “a critical lack of basic information about the devices.”

Don’t throw out your FitBit yet, though. Sleep experts aren’t convinced the popularity of these devices is all bad. “It’s a really good healthcare message for society in general that sleep is an important part of health. We are all aware of how important physical exercise and diet are, but now people are really starting to think about sleep too,” says Adam Benjafield, vice president of medical affairs for ResMed, which makes devices for sleep apnea and other respiratory-related sleep conditions.

But there’s one key difference between using a FitBit for logging activity and using it to track sleep. If you’re behind on steps for the day, you can remedy it by hitting the gym. But if you’re sleeping poorly? You can’t just sleep “harder.” In fact, anyone with insomnia will tell you that the harder you try to sleep, the less it’s going to happen.

This is one reason some doctors are hesitant to suggest using trackers. “In some cases, [seeing the numbers] just accentuates the problem; it makes people more anxious,” says Dr. Richard Shane, a psychotherapist who developed the Sleep Easily Sleep Method, a research-based system for helping people with insomnia fall asleep. Dr. Raj Dasgupta, who practices sleep medicine at the University of Southern California, adds that people who suffer from chronic insomnia are also at risk of anxiety and depression, two conditions where seeing quantitative proof of your shortcomings is not always helpful.

You may even fall into this category without realizing it. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, as many as 30 percent of Americans suffer from occasional insomnia, while 10 percent of us have chronic issues falling or staying asleep. It’s a problem that is estimated to cost more than $100 billion per year, mostly due to lost workplace productivity.

And our obsession with apps could actually be making things worse. Besides the stress factor, fiddling with your phone before bed can screw up your sleep. “Using the app in bed is the worst thing you can do,” Dasgupta says. Why? The blue light emitted by electronic screens suppresses production of melatonin, a hormone that tells your brain it’s time to snooze.

“It’s not just the blue light, though, it’s the pace you’re moving at,” Shane says. Slowing your brain down enough to achieve sleep can be hard after bouncing around your email, Facebook, and Snapchat. His suggestion is to find a device or app that kicks in automatically at a certain time and doesn’t need to be checked before bed.

Meanwhile, there are ways tracking sleep might be beneficial. For one thing, it can help you get into a more regular sleep routine. “A long time ago we became wired to go to bed when the sun went down and get up when the sun came up,” Shane says, adding that circadian rhythms perform best when they’re, well, in a rhythm. Picking an app that sounds an alarm at bedtime (or even better, 30 minutes before, so you can log off all electronics), or reviewing your sleep and comparing when you tuck in for the night, can help you get into a steady routine.

The bottom line: The most important thing to remember about sleep trackers and apps is that they won’t automatically fix anything. “Sleep apps just measure the problem,” Shane says. And that — in some cases — can honestly do more harm than good.