7 smart apps to improve your sleep quality

Different apps use different tactics to lull you to sleep. But which one is best?

by Kate S. Petersen
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Everyone feels better after a good night's sleep. Sleep is indisputably critical for humans to stay healthy, both mentally and physically.

But whether you decided to binge on Netflix into the wee hours or feel too stressed out to get some shut eye, many people end up not getting the right amount of sleep. In fact, more than a third of American adults aren’t getting enough. And while some blame our smartphones for disrupting our sleep habits, they could also prove our saving grace.

More and more people are turning to sleep apps for help — so much so that the sleep market is estimated to be worth $80 billion, according to one report. As many as one in every five people may have a form of insomnia, according to a recent study. And as with many health and wellness issues, many of us are turning to the technology we have at hand for help — our smartphones.

But despite their popularity, sleep apps' purported benefits are a matter of debate. How well any one app works for you may depend on both the app and how you use it.

Turning to an app for help isn't just an act of self-care — it is self-preservation. Failure to get enough sleep over the long term can lead to serious health problems, including:

  • Cancer
  • Heart disease
  • Increased chance of accidents
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Stroke

In the interests of a good night's sleep, Inverse has ranked seven of the most-popular apps which claim to help you get better sleep. All of them offer different strategies to make the most of your nighttime, but there are some common themes, too.

7. Apple sleep app

Using the in-built sleep app on your iPhone, you can set your own sleep goals. To that end, the app allows you to specify sleep and wakeup times, turn your iPhone to Do Not Disturb mode during sleep. It also syncs with your Apple Watch, if you have one, to track your sleep quality based on how much movement you make during sleep.

Tracking how much you move during sleep may reveal why you aren't getting enough shut-eye. The app will measure exactly how long it takes your body to enter into the period of sleep that is accompanied by 'paralysis' — a quieting of movement which comes with deep sleep. If you have insomnia, the imbalance between periods of wakefulness and deep sleep will become obvious. If you have a condition like sleep apnea, which is essentially interrupted breathing while asleep, then you are more likely to toss and turn as your body wakes you in order to reestablish a breath pattern.

  • Where it can be downloaded: Part of the appeal with this app is that it comes preloaded on your Apple Watch and iPhone.
  • How much it costs: If you don't count the price tag of the device, then this is free.
  • How it works: The app uses a technology called actigraphy to track movement. When you sleep your body inhibits you muscles — this technology records periods of stillness and periods of activity, using these as a proxy for estimating sleep quality.
  • What sets it apart: If you have the iPhone and the Apple Watch already, then you have a free, sleep-tracking system at your fingertips. A 2017 review found actigraphy may be useful for people with insomnia who are receiving treatment for their sleep troubles or who otherwise want to track how their sleep varies from night to night. This kind of information can help insomniacs and medical professionals see if their treatments are working, or identify factors in a person's daily life which contribute to their sleep troubles.

6. 'Sleep' by Headspace

Headspace is well known as a meditation app, but it also has sleep-focused content, including guided meditations and nature sound tracks to help you nod off soundly.

  • Where it can be downloaded: You can download the app direct from the Headspace website, here.
  • How much it costs: Headspace Plus costs $69.99 per year, or $12.99 per month. You can also test the app as part of a free trial promotion for new users.
  • How it works: Like other background-sound apps, Headspace's sleep program features relaxing music that drowns out background noise and, ostensibly, lulls you to sleep. The catalogue includes nature sounds, meditations, and 'Sleepcasts,' which the Headspace website describes as “ever changing story telling in [a] range of soothing voices.”
  • What sets it apart: This app may be helpful is you have trouble falling asleep in the first place. One 2020 study involving more than 70,000 participants found single men between the ages of 15 and 35 were particularly likely to meet the criteria for this kind of insomnia. Another neat feature on this app is that it has specific exercises designed to help you get back to sleep if you wake up in the middle of the night. Waking up at night and finding it hard to go back to sleep is known as sleep-maintenance insomnia.

Many sleep apps use soothing sounds and music to help send you to sleep.

zoranm/E+/Getty Images

5. Sleep Cycle

Sleep Cycle monitors your sleep cycle using your phone in one of two ways. Either you place your phone on a nightstand by your bed, or you take it to bed with you. The app tracks your sleep quality over time and provides informative feedback in the morning and on periodic basis. Sleep cycle also has a sound library that includes meditations, music, and stories designed to help you fall asleep.

Where it can be downloaded: You can download Sleep Cycle via their website, here.

How much it costs: Sleep Cycle is free to download and offers basic features for free indefinitely. You can access more features with a Premium subscription which costs $29.99. You can also try out Premium with a 7-day trial period.

How it works: Sleep Cycle rep Malin Abrahamsson tells Inverse some people use Sleep Cycle to track how their sleep changes over time, looking for signs of progress towards better sleep, while others use it to make sure that their sleep habits are staying on track. She says two of the apps' functions — the stories designed to put you to sleep, and a tool that helps you correlate lifestyle factors with sleep patterns —are particularly popular.

There is also an alarm feature that strategically wakes you up when the app detects you are in a "light sleep phase."Abrahamsson tells Inverse this feature mimics the experience of waking up naturally.

What sets it apart: Because Sleep Cycle can “listen” in on your sleep from a distance, you don’t have to bring your phone or other smart device into bed with you.

One of the other advantages of Sleep Cycle is more long term. Some 40 percent of users choose to share their data with Sleep Cycle, and the company then analyzes these data to identify sleep trends worldwide — useful data for sleep researchers.

Unusually, Sleep Cycle does not report on specific sleep stages such as REM sleep, Abrahamsson says, because the information is “ tricky…to communicate to users without the use of a full sleep lab for monitoring of sleep.”

“We only provide information we can ensure is accurate,” she says.

4. Pzizz

Pzizz is a sound based app that plays throughout the night.

Where is can be downloaded: The Pzizz website has a download link.

How much is costs: The download is free and the “Classic Pzizz” features are available at no cost.

Pzizz Pro, which gives you full access to all Pzizz features, is $69.00 per year or $9.99 a month. When you download Pzizz, you automatically get a free 7-day trial of Pzizz Pro, so you can try out the features before making a decision. They also offer a financial assistance program.

How it works: Pzizz plays a mixture of music, sound effects, and voiceover which the creators say help put you to sleep, keep you asleep, and wake you up in the morning.

What sets it apart: Pzizz claims their "dreamscapes," crafted using sound, are backed by clinical research and the tracks they use are developed by sleep researchers working in conjunction with audio engineers. The app employs an algorithm to ensure you have a different audio experience every night.

There is independent evidence to suggest music and other sounds can promote better sleep. But one 2018 review published in the journal PLOS One suggests what music works may be more idiosyncratic, dictated by personal taste rather than by any common theme.

3. Noisli

Noisli offers the user an extensive library of “sound environments,” which may help you sleep. The library is available on the web as a Chrome Extension, and as an iOS or Android app.

Where it can be downloaded: The web app can be downloaded via their website.

How much it costs: The Noisli iOS app has a one-time fee of $1.99.

The web app has a Free, Pro ($12/month or $10/month for an annual subscription), and a Business plan ($14/month per user or $12/month per user for an annual subscription).

How it works: Noisli claims loud or sudden noises can make it difficult to relax and sleep at night. Their constant background sound masks intermittent noises in your immediate environment.

What sets it apart: Noisli is different to other apps in that it is available on a wide range of platforms, so you have flexibility. It also includes tracks meant to help you concentrate or drown out the sounds of co-workers, so it has uses beyond helping you sleep soundly, too.

2. Sleepstation

According to Sleepstation rep Simon Rushworth, Sleepstation is approved by the United Kingdom's National Health Service as an “online provider of digital Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for insomnia (CBTi).” CBT can help challenge or change harmful behaviors and help people develop coping strategies.

Where it can be downloaded: Sleepstation can be downloaded online here.

How much it costs: The app is free though the NHS in England. For private individuals, it costs roughly $130 for a week-long sleep review, and $400 for the full program.

How it works: Sleepstation uses CBTi to help you make changes in your behavior, expectations, and thoughts to achieve better sleep. CBTi has been shown in clinical research to have a long-term, positive affect on insomnia.

What sets it apart: Unlike other wellness apps which make claims without good evidence, CBTi has serious medical and scientific backing. This therapy is recommended by the American College of Physicians as a “first-line approach” to addressing insomnia. Through Sleepstation, users get access to real sleep coaches who can answer user questions and monitor progress, Rushworth says.

1. White noise Lite

White Noise Lite is the free version of the White Noise app suite, offered by TMSOFT, LLC.

Where can it be downloaded: White Noise Lite is available on the Apple App Store and Google Play Store.

How much it costs: It is free to download and there are no subscription fees. Advertising can be eliminated through a one-time $0.99 upgrade to White Noise Full.

How it works: According to Todd Moore, founder and CEO of TMSOFT LLC, your brain continues to scan for sounds even while you’re asleep. As a result, random environmental sounds like a police siren or a faucet dripping can disrupt sleep. The White Noise Lite app creates background sound on a range of frequencies to help mask intermittent noises.

What sets it apart: In addition to an extensive library, the White Noise apps allows you to record your own sounds, such as backyard crickets or waves crashing on a trip to the ocean. This feature may address the issue pointed out in the 2018 research mentioned above — that music to help you sleep may be more personal than app designers can account for. The app will loop and modify your recordings so they can play continuously without noticeable gaps. Your tracks can be shared with other app users, too.

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