01/19/2018

Do Sleep Apps And Gadgets Really Help You?

16:24 minutes

black and white man in bed with cap yawning
Credit: Shutterstock

Getting a good night’s sleep isn’t always easy. In the United States, more than a third of adults aren’t getting the recommended seven hours or more of sleep a day, according to a 2014 CDC report. Not being able to clock in that essential snooze time is linked to an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, and mental distress. Some might try out a ritual breathing exercise before bed or click on a white noise machine. But other restless individuals are going to much greater lengths—and forking up the cash—to get some decent shuteye.

New data tracking apps and gadgets that claim to help monitor and improve your sleep are infiltrating bedrooms. They range in diversity and in price, from no-cost sleep track apps to $500 headsets. You can even cuddle up and sync your breathing with a “sleeping” robot—the experience akin to sleeping with a furry pet animal. Over about the past five years, the consumer market for sleep technology has been steadily rising, says Angela Chen, a science reporter for The Verge who surveyed the latest sleeping gadgets at the 2018 International Consumer Electronics Show.

The wave of sleep gadgets may be at its pinnacle, but are they really doing anything for you? According to Chen, the ideas are moving faster than the research.

[Use these facts to talk to friends who don’t “believe” in climate change.]

Currently, many of the sleep devices lack the scientific evidence that they improve health or sleeping behaviors. A small 2015 study comparing the sleep phone app Sleep Time to the standard clinical sleep test showed no correlation in sleep efficiency, and even revealed that the app significantly overestimated deep sleep. In addition to their varying degrees of accuracy, the wealth of data gathered is generally not very helpful to users, says Jamie Zeitzer, an associate professor at the Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine at Stanford University.

The problem is that the data many of these devices collect don’t paint the full picture, he explains. You have to take into account the external factors (temperature in your room, traffic noise outside) as well as the internal variables (exercise or caloric intake).

That doesn’t mean these gadgets are useless—Zeitzer says many of the devices are promising and can be worthwhile for those people with subcritical sleep issues.

White noise could lull some to sleep. Here’s a 10-hour video of soothing sounds of the frozen Arctic. Credit: YouTube/Relax Sleep ASMR   

That being said, you may not need to turn to a gadget to catch those zz’s. One of the most common culprits of bad sleep is a lack of a routine, says Zeitzer. Keeping to a set bedtime can can go a long way towards healthier sleep habits. And things that make you relax, like listening to the ocean or white noise, can also help, Zeitzer says.

In this interview, Chen gives an overview of some of the latest sleep assistive devices, while Zeitzer explains why gathering data through these gadgets may not be the answer to achieving better sleep.


Interview Highlights

On whether gadgets can improve sleep.
Jamie Zeitzer: There isn’t a lot of data out there. There’s a lot of promise, there’s a lot of theory, but most of the devices that track sleep don’t actually give particularly useful feedback about your sleep and how to change it. It’s one of the major things that are lacking amongst these different kinds of apps and devices.

Angela Chen: After seeing so many different devices I still think that in the end they’re not going to give you really exciting advice. The truth is I know what I should be doing. I know I should be going to sleep at the same time every day, you know probably not stressing myself out before sleep so I don’t get all anxious. I don’t need a device to tell me that.

On finding a better way to study sleep.
Jamie Zeitzer: One of the problems is that we don’t know right now how to record what sleep quality is. How do we say that someone’s got a good night’s sleep or not? Right now we’re limited to really just how people say they slept and what that relates to, that’s a kind of a separate issue.

[Researchers got a hair closer to lab-grown (mouse) skin.]

On studying sleep in a more personal, individual way.
Jamie Zeitzer: The critical thing that’s missing is kind of combining across all of these different behaviors and environmental factors. Can you basically take this all in and determine in a single individual what’s really impacting their sleep? So someone might have a cup of coffee at night and that might not matter to them. Someone else might have a cup of coffee with lunch and it’s going to mess up their sleep. So it’s really that kind of personalization that’s going to matter.

On using devices to crowdsource more useful sleep information.
Angela Chen: I think that smartphones and apps, they are also just not good at tracking data themselves. You know there have been a lot of studies saying FitBit’s not good at telling your heart rate. When it comes to self-reported food data, we know that’s pretty inaccurate if you even bother to do it. At the same time, I think if we are able to have a sleep app that tries to integrate what we do have of this it can be helpful by creating a bigger picture. And you know, I’m fairly skeptical of sleep apps, but what I think they might be good for is—regardless of whether you’re actually in deep sleep from night to night—it can probably show you what your patterns and habits are.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.


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Segment Guests

Angela Chen

Angela Chen is a science reporter at The Verge in New York, New York.

Jamie Zeitzer

Jamie Zeitzer is an associate professor in the Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine at Stanford University, and the VA Palo Alto Health Care System in Palo Alto, California.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. What is your bedtime ritual? No I’m not trying to get really personal here. I’m just talking about do you read a little bit till you get drowsy, and the book slips from your hands? Or maybe the screen of a smartphone you’re staring at. Or do you like to fall asleep to music. Perhaps the soothing sounds of white noise.

[WHITE NOISE]

IRA FLATOW: Ah that is kinda soothing. How about the thumming engine of an ice breaker trapped in a snowstorm? Oh if you like low noise noises that would work for you. Very soothing. Sounds like those, including the iconic summer rain can be found in a growing number of apps. And Silicon Valley technologists think they have the solution to your sleep problems. Because in addition to sleep tracking apps and smart watches, there are bedside devices. Special robotic animals that share the bed with you. Self cooling pillows. Headbands that measure and adjust your brain waves.

Many of them promising to give you a better night’s rest. But do they work, and is there much science behind the sales pitch? And if you use any of these apps or gadgets yourself, we want to hear from you. Our number 844-724-8255, you can tweet us @scifri. And speaking of numbers, a quick correction earlier in the program. We gave you out a phone number for our Science Friday book club reading of Frankenstein, and I gave it out with one digit off. Hello really, your surprised?

The correct number is 567-243-2456, that’s for the Frankenstein book. 567-243-2456. Our apologies to the guy with that one digit different number. Sorry about that. Let’s continue talking about these sleep apps. Angela Chen is a science reporter at the Verge here in New York, who reported on all that snazzy sleep gadgets at the Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas last week. She joins us here in our studios in New York. Welcome.

ANGELA CHEN: Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: Jamie Zeitzer is a sleep scientist and associate professor at Stanford. And the VA Palo Alto health care system. Welcome to Science Friday.

JAMIE ZEITZER: Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Angela you were, as I say, you were just at the Consumer Electronics Show, and you saw a lot of sleep gadgets, big business huh?

ANGELA CHEN: Definitely. It’s been growing a lot, especially in the past five years.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about some of the things that you saw. One was the Sleep Score Max, something that sits on your nightstand.

ANGELA CHEN: It sits on your nightstand. And the idea is that it can track you without you having to do anything. You know, unlike an app that you have to put in a bed, or a wristwatch that you have to wear. It looks like a gray speaker. You put it on your nightstand, and essentially using radio waves it can detect motion, and then it will tell us sleep score in that way.

IRA FLATOW: Now what’s the idea. What does a sleep score mean? How well you were sleeping?

ANGELA CHEN: Yeah. How well you were sleeping. Which essentially here means how much you’re tossed and turned during the night.

IRA FLATOW: And Jamie, would using waves give you anything better than a risk tracker?

JAMIE ZEITZER: Well the data that I’ve seen indicates that yeah, it’s a little better than a wrist tracker. It’s reasonably accurate in terms of picking up, you know, when you’re asleep, when you’re awake.

IRA FLATOW: And Angela, another thing you saw is something called the dream light, a sleep mask. How does that work?

ANGELA CHEN: Right. So that’s actually something my colleague saw, and she got to try for three nights. So to be fair, she really liked it. It’s this big bulky thing and it has– it wakes you up by pulsing light into your eyes instead of setting an alarm clock with an app. So you know, there’s a gyroscope. It’s really bulky. She couldn’t even lie flat on it, but she liked it I have to say.

IRA FLATOW: And what did it do for her? What was the point?

ANGELA CHEN: She said that it– so she actually does track her sleep. And then she told me that for what it’s worth, it told her that she slept really well that night. And I think the main draw was that it woke her up in this so-called natural way with light instead of some kind of alarm.

IRA FLATOW: Dr. Zeitzer, is there any such thing as genetic data that helps you sleep better?

JAMIE ZEITZER: Well I wish it were. It would make my life a lot easier. But there’s reasonable genetic data to indicate that there’s variation in how people sleep. But the contribution is really quite small, and really outweighed by people’s behaviors and by their environment.

IRA FLATOW: And what does it actually mean to give you biofeedback? Is it altering your brain waves? What does that mean?

JAMIE ZEITZER: Yeah, ugh–

IRA FLATOW: Let me start with another question. Let me go to Angela first. You tried the Dreem with to Es. The Dreem headset. It’s a pretty pricey device that gives you brain waves measuring back.

ANGELA CHEN: So the idea– so let me say what it’s trying to improve on. So the problem with all these sensors is that they’re basically just– they’re monitoring our movement, and that’s not really a perfect proxy. Like you cannot move much, but still, you know, sleep terribly. And what the Dreem is trying to do is actually record your brain waves. So the idea is it’s headset, you put it on while you’re sleeping, and then the electrode will record brain activity. And then it’ll actually, kind of, tell you, you know, what’s happening so you, kind of, train yourself to sleep more.

IRA FLATOW: You mean, tell you what’s happening as you’re sleeping?

JAMIE ZEITZER: I think more as you’re drifting off to sleep. I imagine they’re not going to bother you if you’re actually in the midst of deep sleep.

IRA FLATOW: And Dr. Zeitzer, what does that mean? What are they trying to do there?

JAMIE ZEITZER: Well so it’ basically– it’s recording your brain wave activity. And then using sound to amplify a certain wave form, which is called delta activity. It’s basically an oscillation. Kind of, a variation in the brain that’s anywhere between four times per second, and once every two seconds. And this is something that tracks the amount of prior wakefulness pretty well. And so the idea basically is that you’ve got a lot of this delta activity in the beginning of the night. And as you sleep, you dissipate this delta activity. And so, you know, the theory out there is that if you can increase the amount of delta activity using, in this case, sound waves. That you can actually dissipate the delta faster, and therefore need less sleep.

IRA FLATOW: Now I mentioned before about all the other gadgets you saw, or your team saw at the show. There are also temperature regulating pillows, plush sleeping robots, and stuff you actually sleep with in your bed, sleeping with you.

ANGELA CHEN: So the plush robot, it’s made by a company called Somknocks, and yeah, it looks kind of like– I’d say it’s shaped like a peanut. It’s kind of hard. And the idea is that you would spoon it, kind of the way you would with your partner. And then you can program it to breathe in and out. And then as it breaths in and out, you will also breath in and out and it will, you know, soothe you into relaxation. I saw it. My colleague tried it for a few nights, and then she said it reminded her of her boyfriend’s cat. And then she said that, you know, it wasn’t bad. It seemed to help her sleep. But then it seems like, I think, breathing exercises might also do the same thing.

IRA FLATOW: And the temperature regulating pillows. They actually change temperature, or you can set them yourself?

ANGELA CHEN: That’s something that I wrote about and I tried. And it has– essentially there are a lot of tubes inside it, and it’s connected to what is basically a water tank. And then you can change it so, you know, it’s hot and cold. You an change it yourself. And then it also has sensors that will tell you, again using motion, how well you slept. And so over time, it’ll kind of adjust. Maybe last night you tossed more at this temperature, you know. This now, I’m going to try a different temperature.

IRA FLATOW: And now, someone who has trouble going to sleep, there. I know there are a lot of different sleep apps. Anything new that you saw out there? Can you give us a quick overview?

ANGELA CHEN: I don’t think there’s really anything new. I think they all usually work the same way, you know, tracking sound and motion. And they all sound the same, so their blurred together my mind. They’re all like sleep cycle, sleep timer, sleep genius. I think you get the pattern.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah I know. I just go for the water, the rain, the summer rain. Now there are a lot of gadgets and apps that are monitoring sleep. And Dr. Zeitzer, from your perspective as a sleep scientist. Is there any real data that they actually improve sleep, these things?

JAMIE ZEITZER: I’d like to say yes, but there isn’t a lot of data out there. There’s a lot of promise. There’s a lot of theory. But most of the devices that track sleep don’t actually give particularly useful feedback about your sleep and how to change it. It’s one of the major things that are lacking amongst these different kinds of apps and devices. And in terms of the apps that, kind of, adjust sleep using sound. Or you like the rain falling again, different people are going to respond different things. And right now, it’s kind of a crapshoot in terms of what works.

IRA FLATOW: Let me go to the phones, because people, of course, are interested in this. Emily in Ogden, Utah. Hi Emily.

EMILY: Hi.

IRA FLATOW: Hi. Go ahead.

EMILY: Well this got me thinking about the noise machine that I was using for my child, you know, after she was born. We use it for the first maybe year, and then my husband started reading about studies that maybe link a later occurrence with autism. And, you know, we stopped using it just for other reasons too, to get her to be able to put herself to sleep and not need it. But I just wondered if anybody had heard of any negative effect for children developing brain?

IRA FLATOW: Dr. Zeitzer, any?

JAMIE ZEITZER: Well I mean, you hit on the main negative thing, which is that in general, you want to have people fall asleep without any crutch. And if you’re creating an artificial environment that’s not going to be always present, that’s going to make it potentially more difficult, depending on who the child is and how they naturally sleep, and if they’re a good sleep or not. And you definitely don’t want to get someone used to doing something like that, that might not always be available.

IRA FLATOW: How would you create an experiment? Scientists to test out whether these gadgets are working. I mean, there are so many different factors Dr Zeitzer. What do you need. How do you limit that?

JAMIE ZEITZER: Well I don’t know if you limit it, or you, kind of, regale in the variability. Which is that you can basically have what’s going on right now, which is just a huge number of people trying out different things. And the question becomes, can you combine this. Can you basically look across these various devices, and various people and see if there are commonalities. And, you know, one of the problems is that we don’t know right now how to record what sleep quality is. How do we say that someone’s got a good night’s sleep or not? Right now we’re limited to really just how people say they slept. And what that relates to, that’s a kind of a separate issue.

IRA FLATOW: But there are also things about when they last ate, when they last drank. All kinds of issues like that.

JAMIE ZEITZER: Sure. And this is what I think is, kind of, the critical thing that’s missing is combining across all of these different behaviors and environmental factors. You know, can you basically take this all in and determine in a single individual what’s really impacting their sleep. You know, someone might have a cup of coffee at night and that might not matter to them. Someone else might have a cup of coffee with lunch and it’s going to mess up their sleep. So it’s really that kind of personalization that’s going to matter.

IRA FLATOW: But Angela, wouldn’t this be a great opportunity to crowdsource my devices. In other words, companies are always asking you, do you mind if I send the data back to the iPhone, or whatever Apple or whoever it is. Wouldn’t this not be an opportunity to collect hundreds of thousands of people’s experiences, and then maybe monitor crowdsourcing and find out some useful information.

ANGELA CHEN: I think it could. I think as Dr Sightser said, it’s also really individual. I personally cannot drink any coffee whatsoever. I’ll never sleep again. And another thing is, I think that smartphones and apps are also just not good at tracking data themselves. You know, there’s a lot of studies saying Fitbit is not good at, you know, telling your heart rate. When it comes to self-reported food data, we know that’s pretty inaccurate if you even bother to do it. At the same time, I think if we are able to have a sleep app that tries to integrate what we do have of this, it can be helpful by creating, you know, a bigger picture. And, you know, I’m fairly skeptical of sleep, but what I think they might be good for is regardless of whether you’re actually in deep sleep. From night to night, it can probably show you what your patterns and habits are.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International, talking about sleep and apps. Now Dr. Zeitzer, I know that you’ve studied how brief flashes of light could help people pre-adjust to jetlag. Tell us about that.

JAMIE ZEITZER: Yeah. So this was kind of an accidental finding that came from animals. But we find that brief flash of light, so basically think of like a camera flash. And if you give this kind of flash while people are sleeping, it goes through the eyelids. And if you give this flash around once every 10 seconds or so, it is about three times more powerful than continuous light. And, you know, light is the thing that’s adjusting your internal circadian clock. Your internal timer to your time zone. And so you can think of when you’re jetlagged, basically this is the time when light exposure is, kind of, adjusting this internal clock to fit with your new schedule. And so basically, using these brief flashes of light, we can do this while people are sleeping and in advance of their travel.

IRA FLATOW: Even whether it goes through their eyelids, the light, others.

JAMIE ZEITZER: Yeah. Goes through the eyelids, and doesn’t impact the sleep. Some people are very sensitive to light, and this doesn’t work in them because it’ll wake them up. But for most people it goes through the eyelids, doesn’t wake them up. And changes the time of the brain, or the time the brain thinks it is without them, kind of, being aware of it.

IRA FLATOW: Do you think that Silicon Valley, Jamie, can beat evolution at sleep?

JAMIE ZEITZER: No, not at all. A few hundred million years of evolution, I think, trump’s Silicon Valley. But we’re basically taking advantage of something, which I think is, kind of, an accidental piece of biology. This is not something which naturally occurs. This kind of regularity in flashes doesn’t occur. So there wouldn’t have been any, sort of, natural selection for this particular process. And in essence, what we’re doing is we’re taking kind of advantage of the existing biology, and creating this illusion to the brain to get a much more powerful stimulus into the brain and get a much bigger change.

IRA FLATOW: Angela, was there any device that you really, really impressed you, sleep devices.

ANGELA CHEN: Sleep devices? No I don’t think there is. After seeing so many different devices, I still think that in the end they’re not going to give you really exciting advice. The truth is, I know what I should be doing. I know I should be going to sleep at the same time every day. You know, probably not stressing myself out before sleep, so i don’t get all anxious. I don’t need a device to tell me that.

IRA FLATOW: Dr. Zeitzer is a sleep scientist. You must have excellent sleep habits, right.

JAMIE ZEITZER: This is why we get into the field, because we all have bad sleep. Now, you know, people have varying degrees of bad sleep. And, you know, one of the problems is that, we in the sleep field, we can say it’s great to get eight hours of sleep per night. But for a lot of people, that’s just not feasible. And so the thing that we’re struggling with is to try to understand well, is there a secondary suggestion. You know, can we say that you can get– if you get one out of three nights, you know, what does that do for you. And this is something that I think we all struggle with in trying to understand how to improve sleep kind of at a societal level.

IRA FLATOW: Well I hope we haven’t put our audience to sleep in this discussion. Soporific, one of my favorite words in the vocabulary. Thank you both for taking time to be with us today.

ANGELA CHEN: Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: Angela Chen, science reporter at the Verge. And Jamie Zeitzer, sleep scientist associate professor at Stanford University, and the V.A. Palo Alto health care system.

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