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16th August 2016

Sleep Apps Bring Relief to Summertime Insomniacs

Summer, that delightful time of vacations and sunshine, can be anything but restful. Sultry nights, bug bites, unfamiliar beds, travel stress and jet lag may add up to nights of tossing and turning.

Fortunately, a host of sleep apps can help you sail away to Dreamland.

Mostly free or inexpensive, the apps draw on neuroscience technology for sleep-inducing programs, gentle alarms and software to record sleep cycles.

Some tracking apps use the phone’s microphone to detect noises in various stages of sleep. Others require placing the phone on the mattress so that the phone’s accelerometer – the device that adjusts the display’s orientation – can sense your motion. Algorithms use the data to sketch a picture of your night.

No need to worry about sleep-disrupting blue light or 3G/4G signals. The apps work on airport mode with the display off.

In the morning, the app waits until you emerge from deep sleep before sounding the alarm. If you lie there like a log, the app may let you snooze a bit, depending on your settings.

Once you do get up, a line graph shows how you slept.

Analyzing sleep cycles may seem like an absurd amount of work for what is, after all, supposed to be the ultimate time off. If you’ve had a rough night, though, viewing the evidence can be affirming – and certainly better than complaining to co-workers.

To be sure, the apps can’t see into your brain to give a precise picture of your sleep cycles. Tracking the four stages of sleep recognized by sleep scientists is possible only by placing electrodes on the head and body. At best, a phone app can distinguish between sleeping and waking.

After trying a few apps, I found that the apps were fairly accurate, though not perfect, at distinguishing sleep from waking. For example, when I awoke at 3 a.m. and gave up getting back to sleep, eventually leaving the room to read and drink hot milk, the app misinterpreted the silence as a sign that I had fallen asleep again.

The apps offer musical tones designed to encourage sleep. Musical taste, however, is a highly personal matter. What’s soothing to some will irritate others. Users may want to try a few apps before settling on one.

One popular app offers hypnotic-like suggestions along with sleep-inducing sounds. I was charmed when the speaker told me it was perfectly OK to ignore him and drift off – and I did just that.

This is part four of our Summer of e-Health series where we showcase how medtech helps you take care of yourself and be ready to enjoy your Summer holidays to the fullest. Click here to read part one, here to read part two and here to read part three.