The ever elusive understanding of why we sleep has plagued scientists with endless questions for decades. While it is very clear that sleep is essential for adequate health, some of the mechanics behind what exactly occurs while we sleep is still a mystery. Part of the reason for this lack of information has been a deficit in technological devices to effectively decipher what is happening in a person’s body while they are asleep. For this reason, the explosion of wearable devices that continually track biological activity may not only give us answers, but can also give us invaluable insight into how to treat the tens of millions of people that suffer from sleep disorders.(1)
As devices such as Fitbit and the apple watch increasingly gain popularity, the data that these wearable technologies are gathering is becoming insurmountable. These devices continuously track heart rate, movement, sleep disturbances, Vo2 max (maximal oxygen consumption), and more. The ability of these devices to track vital information in real-time in a home setting, as opposed to a laboratory, is revolutionary.(2) Now the question is: how do we use all this data?
Some wearables such as Whoop (3) and the Oura ring (4) focus on how sleep is affecting overall health. These devices have extended battery lives which allows the user to wear the device throughout the night and further track sleep disturbances and quality. These devices are very useful for understanding individual nuances during a sleep cycle. This gives individuals an opportunity to proactively monitor sleep conditions even before they begin to experience symptoms. For example, a person could learn that they are at risk for sleep apnea, and will be able to consult with a doctor about the best course of action based on his or her specific needs. As a result, other digital health devices have evolved, such as Phillips Night Balance (4), which can offer an alternative to a CPAP machine. This device delivers more targeted care to patients by actively monitoring sleep apnea symptoms and delivering vibrations to prompt the patient to change his or her sleep position.
While sleep apnea has physical treatment options, the most common intervention for insomnia is sleeping pills and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) treatment. Sleeping pills often have numerous side effects, stop working over time and do not address the root of the issue. CBT may be more effective; however, it can be costly and time consuming, so patients have difficulty adhering to treatment. In response, digital health companies, such as Sleepio (7) and Pear Therapeutics, makers of Somryst (6) are now able to offer digitized CBT treatment with more finely tailored treatment plans due to real-time insights into patient’s sleep habits from wearable devices. Somryst recently gained FDA approval and is the first prescription insomnia treatment available. This type of digital aid is meant to be curative and ideally patients will be able to stop using the application once they are symptom-free.
To add yet another layer of potential for wearable devices, some scientists believe that the next generation will consist of pen and paper tools, which will greatly reduce costs and limit material waste. (7) These scientists are working to develop disposable on-skin electronic devices that target the body’s natural ability to respond to heat, sugar, pH, and humidity. Although this technology is still in its infancy, the potential is boundless and could impact much more than just sleep treatments.
As digital health becomes more and more mainstream, sleep disorders are an area that can greatly benefit. Fundamentally enhancing our understanding of how sleep works and what exactly is happening during sleep will help doctors target the root cause of many of these issues. A good night sleep has innumerable benefits for overall wellbeing; moreover, information from wearable devices can further enlighten the relationship between the mind and body. Although the future of digital therapeutics for sleep remains largely undiscovered, simply gaining more information about sleep in general is extremely exciting.
1. Farr, C. (2019, June 16). Big Health wants you to cure your insomnia with its app, then delete it - and some investors hate that idea. Retrieved November 20, 2020, from cnbc.com.
2. Muoio, D. (2020, July 14). Pear Therapeutics kicks off decentralized digital therapeutic study, researchers envision drawn-on electronic sensors and more digital health news briefs. Retrieved November 20, 2020, from mobihealthnews.com
3. The World's Most Powerful Fitness Membership. (2020, October 27). Retrieved November 20, 2020, from Whoop.
4. Accurate Health Information Accessible to Everyone. (n.d.). Retrieved November 20, 2020, from ouraring.com.
5. Timoshin, N. (2020, March 27). FDA Authorizes a Prescription Digital Therapeutic for Insomnia. Retrieved November 20, 2020, from Psychiatric Times.
6. Pear Therapeutics Obtains FDA Authorization for SOMRYST™, a Prescription Digital Therapeutic for the Treatment of Adults with Chronic Insomnia. (2020, March 26). Retrieved November 20, 2020, from Pear Therapeutics.
7. Xu, Y., Zhao, G., Zhu, L., Fei, Q., Zhang, Z., Chen, Z., . . . Yan, Z. (2020, August 04). Pencil–paper on-skin electronics. Retrieved November 20, 2020, from pnas.org.
8. The Oura App, Retrieved November 20, 2020, from Medherd Database.