The Pros and Cons of Consumer Sleep Products

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It’s impossible to avoid the avalanche of products that claim to improve sleep and relieve insomnia symptoms. Choosing the right bedding can be a challenge in itself, and then you see the ads for sleep trackers, sleep apps, weighted blankets and myriad other products. How do you make the right choice — and how do you know if they even work?

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Reviewing sleep technologies

Researchers at the University of Washington conducted a review of sleep-related consumer technologies including apps, wearable devices and other technologies to determine their clinical effect. Their review was published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine in 2015.

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The pros and cons of mobile apps for improving sleep

The review identified a number of mobile apps that aimed to improve sleep using techniques such as calming visual graphics, music, nature sounds, white noise, and recordings from hypnotists. Researchers pointed out that these apps were convenient and easy to use but may cause sleep disruption from noise and light emission. They also questioned the accuracy of sleep tracking apps.

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The pros and cons of wearable sleep trackers

Researchers investigated wearable, dedicated sleep trackers such as the FitBit as well as smartwatches. They suggested that such devices may be more accurate than mobile apps when it comes to tracking body movements or biometric information since they make direct content with the wearer. Disadvantages included potential discomfort, potential device misplacement, limited battery life, and potential inaccuracy.

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The pros and cons of bedding technology

Examples of so-called "embedded platforms" include mats placed under a mattress to record breathing patterns and movements, adjustable mattresses, and mattress covers that claim to monitor sleep stages and adjust mattress temperatures. Researchers pointed out that these are less obtrusive and may be more functional than standard mobile devices, but there are potential privacy concerns due to the use of sensors and the easy concealment of such devices.

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The pros and cons of computer-based platforms

Computer-based and online platforms include sleep forums, online CBT and sleep coaching, and software that tracks CPAP machine usage. The review listed a number of advantages to these types of technologies — specifically, the availability of additional device processing power, more data storage capacity, and improved interfaces that can provide a richer exchange of information. However, these advantages come at a potentially higher cost and decreased portability.

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The pros and cons of other sleep accessories

Other sleep accessories include specialized alarm clocks such as those that increase in volume or slowly emit an ever-increasing amount of light to wake you more gently, biofeedback devices, and sound machines. The review pointed out that compared to mobile apps and bedding technology, these devices offer improved functionality but are often more expensive and can take up more space in the bedroom.

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A lack of clinical studies

Researchers pointed out that there is an overall lack of clinical studies to validate the claims of many consumer sleep products and that few have received FDA approval. Furthermore, very few were found to have been endorsed by sleep facilities or sleep specialists accredited by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

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The accuracy of sleep products

The review raised a number of concerns about the accuracy of sleep tracking software — particularly since many products do not define how they measure sleep cycles, sleep quality, and other measures of sleep. Researchers also questioned whether accelerometers in mobile devices and wearable sleep trackers are as accurate as the triaxial accelerometers found in clinically validated actigraphs.

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Ethical and privacy concerns

As pointed out by researchers, it’s important to note that devices which actively record or monitor sleep may make pooled data available for public consumption, research, or marketing without a consumer’s knowledge or consent. In addition, even though many devices appear to make medical claims, they usually claim merely to be "entertainment" devices and deny any official medical claims in fine print.

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Sleep products do not replace doctors or healthcare professionals

The University of Washington review identified a lack of robust data that could confirm (or call into question) the safety and accuracy of consumer sleep products. Also, in light of the current lack of regulation regarding these products, there is the potential for devices to offer dangerous or unsubstantiated advice that may conflict with that of a physician, or might prevent someone from seeking medical advice altogether.

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Sleep products do hold promise

It’s not all bad news — far from it, in fact. The review identified research studies that found some consumer sleep products such as smartphone technologies that record snoring and sleep monitoring systems embedded into mattresses have reported data similar to that collected from lab-based polysomnography. Such results hold promise, with researchers of the review arguing that with the involvement of sleep specialists, new consumer sleep products could have immense clinical value in the future.