Can a digital doctor help you sleep?

Could the remedy for insomnia be available on your smartphone? Researchers say yes.
Could the remedy for insomnia be available on your smartphone? Researchers say yes.

We are told not to scroll through social media or browse the internet before bedtime, as screen time can inhibit quality sleep.

But now it seems digital is actually the solution.

If you've been having trouble sleeping, a new online therapy programme may help ease your insomnia, a recent study says.

A digital interactive programme

The online programme also reduced patients' rates of mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, paranoia and hallucinations, the study found.

This study on digital therapy is not the only one. In a previous Health24 article, researchers confirmed that online therapy programmes could help some people with mild to moderate depression.

"Getting our shut-eye can help improve psychological health. Sleeping well can help shift our blues, reduce our fears, and make us happier," said lead author Daniel Freeman, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom.

The online programme, called Sleepio, is an interactive digital cognitive behavioural therapy programme that participants can access online.

Improved sleep

The study, which was published in The Lancet Psychiatry, included more than 3 700 insomnia patients in the United Kingdom. About half were assigned to Sleepio. The others received no treatment and acted as a control group.

The 10-week treatment programme involved six sessions of 20 minutes each that featured an animated therapist. The participants also completed daily sleep diaries, which were used by the programme to provide personalised advice.

By the end of the programme, patients had an average 5-point reduction in insomnia on a 0–32 point scale. They also had a 2-point reduction in paranoia and a 1.5-point reduction in hallucinations, according to the study.

The patients also had improvements in depression, anxiety, psychological well-being, nightmares and perceived functioning, Prof Freeman's team said.

The improvements in mental health symptoms were largely due to improved sleep, suggesting a possible causal role, the researchers said. They said their findings highlight the importance of treating sleep problems in the general population.

Sleep plays a role in mental health

"When it comes to psychological disorders, sleep problems are very much the poor relation. For too long insomnia has been trivialised as merely a symptom, languishing way down in the league table of problems to be tackled," Prof Freeman said in a journal news release.

"However, how well we sleep might actually play a role in our mental health. For many people, insomnia can be part of the complex package of causes of mental health difficulties. If you can sort out your sleep, you could also be taking a significant step forward in tackling a wide range of psychological and emotional problems," Prof Freeman said.

Tea Lallukka, from the University of Helsinki in Finland, and Borge Sivertsen, of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, authored an accompanying editorial. "The findings highlight the potential benefits of the implementation of easily available and low-cost internet therapies for insomnia," they wrote.

Treat insomnia to treat mental illness

"Treatment of insomnia might help reduce the burden of mental ill health and prevent onset of symptoms such as hallucinations and paranoia. The findings add to understanding of the significance of insomnia as a causal factor in mental ill health, and corroborate findings from observational studies or smaller trials," Lallukka and Sivertsen said.

Image credit: iStock

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