Tech to the Rescue for Insomnia

Category: Gadgets

More than 70 million Americans suffer from insomnia, according to the National Institutes of Health, and over 55 million prescriptions for sleep-aid drugs are written each year. But there's an interesting technology that may do the job even better, without pills. Read on to learn about binaural sleep aids...

What are Binaural Sleep Aids?

High school student Jessica Larson was one of those who tried pills to help her sleep. “The doctor put me on some prescription drugs that made me feel strange - jittery and nauseous, and the pills were so large I had to cut them up," says Larson, now 19 and a college student. "They weren't effective for me and made me so nauseous that I couldn't eat. I lost 20 pounds and ended up in the hospital last year."

Her father, Michael Larson, wanted a safer treatment for his daughter, and he happens to have the expertise to build one. Michael is the El Pomar chair of engineering and innovation at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, and he had developed several cutting-edge medical devices. He set to work on a new one for Jessica.

The result is the Sleep Shepherd, a deceptively simple-looking knitted cap. It contains electronics that monitor brain waves and generate a pulsating “binaural” tone that is played through paper-thin speakers near the ears. As the tone’s pulsation gradually slows, the sound causes the brain’s electrical activity to slow to a nice, relaxed, sleepy level.
Binaural Sleep Aids

This technique of “brain entrainment” using binaural tones is not new. Sleep therapists have studied its efficacy in elite youth soccer players. It is proven to promote faster falling asleep, longer and more restorative sleep, and increased vitality and concentration upon awakening.

The Sleep Shepherd costs $150 and has a mix of 1-star ("Didn't work for me") and 5-star ("Best thing ever!") reviews on Amazon. The Sharper Image and Brookstone will soon be selling the Sleep Shepherd, too, so we can assume that the price is too high. Fortunately, there are similar sleep aids that don’t cost much, if anything.

There's An App For That...

Binaural recording is not rocket science. You've probably heard the term "surround sound" in the context of home theater systems. In a nutshell, it's a way to record sound using two microphones, arranged to create the illusion of a 3-D sensation for the listener. The difference is that binaural recordings are meant for headphones, not stereo speakers.

A number of “binaural tone” apps for smartphones are available. They generate tones through the phone’s audio circuitry and feed the sound to your brain via earbuds. There’s no brain activity monitoring or feedback mechanism like the Sleep Shepherd’s, so the tones’ pulsations are fixed instead of following the frequencies of the brain’s activity. But many users report improvements in their sleep anyway, and some of these smartphone apps are more versatile than Sleep Shepherd.

The Binaural Beats Therapy app for Android has seven preset “beats,” each of which is supposed to entrain your brain into a different desired state. In addition to “Sleep Induction” the app claims that you can entrain your brain to achieve peak mental performance, counteract ADHD, enhance concentration and memory for study periods, induce release of morphine-like natural painkillers, and even hypnotize yourself with suggestions such as “I no longer smoke.” (Perhaps a future version will teach you Mandarin Chinese while you sleep.)

Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? But the app is free, so you have nothing to lose by trying it out – unless, as the app’s description warns, you are subject to seizures or epilepsy; have a heart pacemaker; suffer from any heart disorders; or take stimulants, psychoactive drugs, or tranquilizers.

A Google search on “binaural beats app” returns 381,000 results. Such apps are available for iOS as well as Android. A lot of them are free. I would not pay for one without a satisfactory test drive.

Larson’s Sleep Shepherd device is pricey, but it comes with a 30-day money-back guarantee, no questions asked. If you’re serious about getting some sleep, it "sounds like" the Sleep Shepherd may be the way to go. I have no connection to the company, and I've not tried this device, or any of the related apps. But I'm interested to hear from readers who have.

If you suffer from insomnia, would you try (or have you tried) a binaural sleep gadget (or app) instead of prescription sleeping pills? Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Tech to the Rescue for Insomnia"

Posted by:

Ron Schuster
21 Jul 2015

"As the tone’s pulsation gradually slows to 2 to 5 Mhz" Megahertz? That doesn't sound right. This is supposed to be audio, right?

Posted by:

Danny G
21 Jul 2015

Not Binaural, but pzizz is a good app.

The trick to Pzizz is that it generates a slightly different — but different all the same — soundtrack every time you use it. This prevents your brain from “getting used to” the guided relaxation audio, thus keeping it effective no matter how often you use it.

Posted by:

21 Jul 2015

I have had trouble sleeping for years, family stress, running a small business, sleep apnea, working two jobs have taken their toll. I have tried pills, many different pills. They suck the life out of you just like no sleep. I would try anything to improve either the quantity or quality of my sleep. My (former) sleep doctor, when I went to him for help said my CPAP was working fine, here is a prescript for Ritalin to combat daytime sleepiness. So if this helps I'll try it and report back to you. Thanks for the helpful article. Mac

Posted by:

21 Jul 2015

I am currently downloading Binaural Beats to my Android mobile, in the hope that it MIGHT help me get to sleep and stay asleep for longer :-)

Posted by:

21 Jul 2015

I used binaural beats several years ago to induce a meditative/sleep state when suffering chronic back pain and while I cannot say for certain whether the beats themselves improved my condition or whether my improvement was due to a placebo effect or natural bodily self-healing process or a combination of the above my discomfort eased to a tolerable level and ultimately dissipated.

Posted by:

21 Jul 2015

Hi Bob,
As a retired scientist I think you meant 2 to 5 khz not Mhz for the Sleep Shepherd frequencies.

Posted by:

21 Jul 2015

I have a question on your article about binaural tone sleep aids. It says in the third paragraph "As the tone’s pulsation gradually slows to 2 to 5 Mhz, the sound causes the brain’s electrical activity to slow to a nice, relaxed, sleepy level."

Our ears can't hear sound waves higher than 10 or 15 KHz. Also brain waves are typically 4 to 15 Hz. So anyway, I looked up binaural beats in Wikipedia. It says they play tones in the left and right ear that are close in frequency, thus making a low frequency beat between them. For example: left ear 300 and right ear 310 Hz producing a 10 Hz beat.

Could the 2 to 5 MHz still work in this application? Or was this merely a misprint?

Thanks, Mike Schmaltz

Posted by:

21 Jul 2015

All these aid and app may be help to shift your attention from one to other but none can solve the issue. Surprisingly the solution is right within your reach with no cost but need lot of time, perseverance to unlearn the untamed wandering mind. As a chronic sleep deprived person for more than 15 years, the only thing that seems to work for me reasonably well is meditation.

I follow the below steps to that provides reasonable quality sleep time

Unplug from all form electronic gadgets 2 hours before sleep time including TV. Disrupt mind chatter by focusing attention on breathing to achieve mindfulness on body sensation like feeling the pulse, tingling and any body part that contacts the furniture/object. If disrupting my thought is not easy, I try contracting one body part to the max extend and relaxing starting from chin to bring the mindfulness to that body part. Just try open the mouth as wide as possible and hold it as long as you can. On returning the jaw to normal position, focus on the sensation. Now, that is mindfulness!

I do not claim to be a master in meditation but benefit of feeling “high” as and when I can mediate is unparalleled to any chemically induced “high” sensation . In my opinion there is no short cut to this process. Consider all the app/devices are stepping stone to thoughtless mediation and strive hard for it. If at least once you taste the still mind bliss for few seconds, you’ll understand what I mean. I’m afraid there is no word is capable of expressing thoughtless frozen mind.

Of course, I still have a long way to get there!

Posted by:

Mac 'n' Cheese
21 Jul 2015

Continuing scientific research indicates that sleep disorders may contribute to Alzheimer's Disease.

If that turns out to be true, a binaural sleep aid may do more that keep you from being a grouch the next day. It may help keep you from dementia.


Posted by:

22 Jul 2015

"...he had developed several cutting-edge medical devices. " Ah, you mean scalpels! Anyway, a useful article, and not in the least bit soporific.

Posted by:

22 Jul 2015

Very interesting. The story of the high school student bothers me though. Why would anyone continue to take meds that don't work, make you nauseous enough to lose 20 pounds because you can't eat and eventually wind up in a hospital. If a treatment isn't working perhaps further consultation with your doctor is in order.

Posted by:

23 Jul 2015

I actually own the Sleep Shepherd and it works great for me. Perhaps this is just placebo, but when it comes to sleep, all that matters is the results. From use I can say the binaural tones are definitely in the single Hz range (not MHz) on top of probably a 200-300 Hz carrier tone.

Posted by:

24 Jul 2015

Cancel your broadband subscription and sign-up for Juno High Speed 56K Dial-up service will cure your insomnia instantly:

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