Consumer Reports: Can your phone help you sleep?

A remarkable number of people have difficulty sleeping. Some 80 percent in a recent nationally representative Consumer Reports survey say they have problems with sleeping at least once a week.

While many take sleep meds and some may even consult a therapist, a growing number are turning to soothing apps on their phones. Consumer Reports takes a look at whether sleep apps can really help you get a good night's sleep.

Nanci Luis Hernandez has a lively family and a busy full-time job. And she struggles every night to get enough sleep, often logging four hours or fewer before the alarm rings.

"I'll be lying in bed and my mind is just going a mile a minute," she said.

Over the counter meds have provided some relief, but they're not recommended for long-term use. Could Nanci get some help on her phone? Sleep apps are booming. Downloads of several of them have increased 20-percent in the past year.

"While there has been some research on the effectiveness of sleep apps, it's preliminary at best," said Consumer Reports Health Editor Diane Umansky.

There are several different types of sleep apps available.

White noise apps might help by blocking out that barking dog or those rowdy neighbors.

Other apps lead you through guided imagery, meditation and even hypnosis to calm your racing mind.

A third type of app tracks your sleep patterns, like how long it takes you to fall asleep and how long you spend in deeper stages of sleep.

And then there are apps that use cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT,similar to the techniques a trained therapist would use to help you fix bad sleep habits.

"The American Academy of Sleep Medicine says that cognitive behavioral therapy is the best first step in treating chronic insomnia," Umansky said. "That's because it can help you change the thoughts and behaviors that can lead to sleep problems."

The cognitive behavioral apps may work best in conjunction with in person CBT therapy.

Nanci says worrying is what keeps her awake and she'd love to find a way to put her concerns aside so she can sleep.

Consumer Reports also notes that the fine print on most apps say that they are marketed as "entertainment" or "lifestyle" apps, not medical devices, meaning that their effectiveness hasn't been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.

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