Some apps may help curb insomnia, others just put you to sleep

Oct. 9, 2018

Chronic insomnia affects an estimated 10-15% of adults, and another 25-35% struggle with sleep issues occasionally. A growing number of insomniacs are turning to mobile phone apps to lull them to sleep.

On Twitter and Facebook, NPR asked its audience if they have used a mobile phone app to help manage insomnia. Nearly 100 people wrote back suggesting a range of apps, including podcasts created to put a listener to sleep.

“These are usually relaxation strategies, white noise, meditation,” Jason Ong, an associate professor of neurology specializing in sleep at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. He studies non-pharmacological treatments for various sleep disorders and treats patients at the university’s Sleep Medicine clinic. “It’s not that there’s something wrong with those apps. It’s a reasonable first thing to try.”

But, he adds, these kinds of apps aren’t based on scientifically-proven solutions, and they don’t really fix the problem of why someone is not sleeping.

Ong wanted to do something about that, so a few years ago, he consulted for a team that developed an app that uses a science-based approach to address insomnia called Sleepio. (However, he doesn’t have any ongoing financial interest in the product, he says.)

Sleepio and a few other apps like SHUT-i and a free one developed by the Veterans Administration use the most sustainable and evidence-based solution for insomnia. It’s a kind of therapy called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia—CBT-I for short, he says. It helps the patient understand the biology of sleep and gives them a bag of tools and tricks to change their own thought patterns and behaviors to treat their underlying sleep issues.

“CBT for insomnia is a specific package … [that] includes different techniques like spending less time in bed [and] what to do if you are in bed and can’t sleep,” says Ong. “It’s teaching you how to change your behavior to better work with your brain to give you confidence that you’re going to be able to sleep on a regular basis.”

NPR has the full article

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