Kip. Nap. Schluff. Snooze. However you put it, we all sleep. Or at least, we try to. In the UK alone, about a third of people say they struggle to fall asleep every single night, and insomnia - the medical name for this problem - costs the NHS an estimated £39.5 million per year.
And over the past few months, our problems with sleep have rapidly escalated. Due to the stresses of lockdown, two thirds of people have reported their sleep being worse than usual, according to a study by King’s College London.
When sleep meets mental health
Poor sleep, coupled with anxieties over jobs, families and livelihoods, can have a detrimental effect on our mental health. After all, our sleep is not only affected by our mental health, it can affect our mental health itself. Stress, anxiety and depression are just a few of the common causes of insomnia, and in a society where these issues are becoming increasingly more common, many of us are likely to experience insomnia at some point in our lives.
But then, a few years ago, sleep apps and sleep tracker tools emerged on the market, claiming to help us cure our insomnia, among a range of other issues. But do they really work?
An app for everything
As 21st century consumers, we’re constantly searching for new ways to track and control our increasingly busy lives. First it was fitness, then diet, then productivity, and now: sleep. It was unsurprising when technologies like the iPhone appeared, with its ‘app for everything’ philosophy, promising to optimise every aspect of our lives, that the public bought in. From well-known apps which use meditation techniques, like Calm and Headspace, to Fitbits, Apple watches, and the ‘Bedtime’ tool on the iPhone, there are now seemingly endless ways to monitor and track our sleep.
Pzizz is one popular sleep app on the market. With over 1 million users, Pzizz claims to help cure insomnia and soothe restless sleepers by providing users with personalised ‘dreamscapes’ - soundtracks which are a mix of music, voiceovers and sound effects. “Most people that suffer from insomnia suffer from ‘too much thinking’”, says Rockwell Shah, CEO of Pzizz. “The key is to quiet your mind. Sleep apps do this by grabbing your attention just enough that you stop thinking, but not enough to keep you awake.”
On the science behind Pzizz, Shah says: “Our sleep researchers work closely with audio engineers to create our dreamscapes, which are backed by the science of psycho-acoustics, a branch of psychology concerned with the perception of sound.” Pzizz’s dreamscapes are then paired with voice narrations and personalised by algorithms which give users a different audio sequence each night, “which is crucial to keeping Pzizz effective over time”.
Scoring points for sleep
Noah Vickers, 22, a writer from London, is just one of the millions of people using a sleep tracker. Every night, Vickers uses Bedtime, an inbuilt iPhone function that lets you set a bedtime and wake up schedule, from which it’s able to track and analyse your sleep. “I began using it for fun,” Vickers says. “But now, I almost treat it like a challenge every night to get a good night’s sleep, and so I can get a good score in the morning.”
While Vickers admits he actually “rarely has trouble sleeping”, tracking his sleep instead out of curiosity, he agrees that there is a pressure to “keep the streak going”. However, for many of us this competitive approach can be the beginning of a vicious cycle which can have adverse effects for mental health.
When 39-year-old Helen Davies was diagnosed with insomnia almost two years ago, her GP recommended she try using Headspace. “I found the voice on the app irritating,” she says. “I then used my Fitbit for a while but stopped as it became a bit of an obsession. For me, they were just another stimulant and distraction.”
For Davies, other lifestyle changes were instead the key to improving her sleep. “Since lockdown, I’ve started running and significantly reduced my alcohol intake,” she says. “I’ve not experienced any insomnia, anxiety, or depression since March. Plus, I’m sleeping seven to nine hours each night. Changing my lifestyle has been my cure.”
What the sleep experts say
The huge wealth of choice of sleep apps and sleep trackers can in itself be a distraction from sleep. And, the fact that they’re digitally-native is perhaps counterintuitive to the advice we’re given about avoiding screen time before bed. Although the staggering amount of information available can make it difficult to decipher what works from what doesn’t, the NHS now has an online apps library to guide you through a variety of digital tools. However, some medical professionals are sceptical of their scientific validity, arguing that companies have commodified sleep despite it being a basic human instinct.
And now, our obsession with sleep has reached such an apex that it’s even been given a medical name. Sleep expert Dr Sophie Bostock, who helped set up the app Sleepio, says: “If you’re using apps or trackers to try and improve your adherence to a particular schedule, it can be really useful. But if you’re using it to obsess about your sleep, you can end up with something called orthosomnia - being obsessed with the perfect night’s sleep.”
Research is key
Many of these sleep apps have large margins of inaccuracy, so it’s important to “look for apps that have done randomised control trials and are backed by other scientists”. For example, Sleepio allows you to set personal goals and, after completing an in-depth questionnaire, builds a programme based around them. It also uses elements of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), a talking therapy which is the recommended remedy for insomnia and has the strongest evidence for success, according to Dr Bostock. Sleepio claims to have helped 76% of people achieve healthy sleep, and its credibility is backed by 30 published peer-reviewed research papers.
While the huge choice of sleep apps and sleep trackers available today can be overwhelming, there’s a whole range of options which are both helpful and effective. However, it’s important to remember that everyone’s sleep patterns and schedules are entirely unique, and individual lifestyle choices also play a key role. So, make sure to do your research, and find what works for you.
If you feel like you need a little something extra to send you on your way to snoozeville, don’t forget to try The Relax Capsules, formulated to reduce stress, promote relaxation, and help you get a great night’s sleep. And to really maximise the benefits, sign up to our email course on Better Sleep, guest edited by Dr Irshaad Ebrahim of the London Sleep Centre.