How many hours have you spent tossing and turning at night, unable to fall asleep? Or you’ve woken up, only to check your alarm and realize it’s still the middle of the night?

If this sounds like you, you’re not alone. Statistics show that one in two Canadian adults has trouble falling asleep or staying asleep.

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, adults aged 18 to 64 should get between seven and nine hours of sleep per night. But in reality, one in four adults aged 18 to 34 and one in three adults aged 35 to 64 say they are not getting enough sleep each night.

Nanci Luis Hernandez’ story sounds like many of ours. 

Hernandez has a lively family life and a busy full-time job. But she struggles every night to get enough sleep - often sleeping only four hours or less before the alarm rings.

“I’ll be lying in bed and my mind is just going a mile a minute,” she says. 

Over-the-counter meds have provided some relief -- but they’re not recommended for long-term use. 

Could a good night’s sleep be just an app away?

While the jury is still out regarding their effectiveness, the popularity of sleep apps has grown considerably in recent years. For example, downloads of several of these apps has increased 20 per cent in just the past year alone. Since 2010, one sleep app called Sleep as Android has been downloaded more than 18 million times. 

“While there has been some research on the effectiveness of sleep apps, it‘s preliminary at best,” says Diane Umansky, Consumer Reports health editor. 

There are several types of sleep apps currently on the market.

White noise apps can help by block out distracting noises such as a barking dog or rowdy neighbors. Other apps lead you through guided imagery - meditation and even hypnosis to calm a racing mind.

A third type of app tracks your sleep patterns – including how long it takes to fall asleep and how long you stay in the deeper stages of sleep.

There is also a category of apps that use cognitive behavioural therapy - or CBT - which is similar to techniques a trained therapist would use to help fix bad sleep habits.

“The American Academy of Sleep Medicine says that cognitive behavioural therapy is the best first step in treating chronic insomnia. That’s because it can help you change the thoughts and behaviours that can lead to sleep problems,” says Umansky. 

It’s worth noting that the cognitive behavioural apps may work best in conjunction with in-person CBT therapy.

Some experts worry that cell phones can actually harm one’s sleep, so Consumer Reports says that if you do use a sleep app, keep it face-down and on silent so it can’t disturb you during the night. They also caution that most sleep apps have written in the fine print that they are marketed as “entertainment” or “lifestyle” apps, not actual medical devices - meaning their effectiveness hasn’t been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.

A statement from Health Canada said that existing sleep apps are not considered medical devices. But if future apps were designed to treat or diagnose sleep disorders they would then qualify as a class II – or “low-risk” -- medical devices. But licensing of these devices is based on manufacturer evidence that they meet safety regulations. 

Health Canada adds that it would generally not review the effectiveness of mobile sleep apps because licensing would be based on manufacturer evidence and “to date – Health Canada has not received a medical device application for a sleep app.” 

Like many of us, Hernandez says worrying is what keeps her awake at night and she’d love to find a way to put her concerns aside so she can get a good night’s sleep. 

The common reasons for Canadians’ sleeplessness are caused by a variety of factors, namely due to chronic stress, more sedentary time and poor mental health. 

Recommendations for a better night’s sleep include avoiding alcohol, nicotine and caffeine right before bed, maintaining a regular bedtime and wake time, practicing relaxation and mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques, and exercising regularly. 

Sweet dreams!