Online therapy may improve insomnia, study finds

family-1822498_1920While digital screens may be linked to some cases of insomnia, a new study shows that they could also help restore regular sleep, according to a recent report published in JAMA psychiatry.

The study evaluated chronic insomniacs whose main complaint was lack of sleep. Most had used medications or supplements, and a handful of participants still did. More than half who used an automated online therapy, called SHUTi, reported improvement within weeks and were sleeping normally after a year. Led by researchers at the University of Virginia, providers recruited 303 people ages 21 to 65. Half were randomly assigned to receive education on insomnia and advice to help improve their sleep habits. The other half got the online therapy product—six interactive lessons delivered over a six week period with online sleep diaries, progress reports, and personalized recommendations.

Say a patient’s main problem is they wake up too early. The online program instructs said patient to get out of bed whenever it happened and sit and read for 40 minutes. The activity is more likely to induce sleepiness than a more engaging project, like drawing or watching television.

The research team tracked the participants by assessing their sleep quality every few months with a standardized questionnaire. After a year, 57 percent of patients using the online therapy were sleeping normally, while 27 percent improved their sleep from advice and education alone.

The technology uses cognitive behavior therapy techniques, an approach that therapists have been using successfully for years. These include sleep restriction, where an individual must set a regular sleep window and aim to stick to it over a period of time; and stimulus control, which aims to break that association between lying bed and activities like watching television or eating. The therapy also works to reduce an individual’s sleep-related anxieties.

More than 30 percent of people in the U.S. experience insomnia, with nearly 10 percent suffering from a chronic insomnia disorder, which can occur at least three times per week, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

There are a dozen or so online programs on the market that use cogitative behavior therapy, which can be used to treat a variety of conditions, including depression. The one caveat for these self-care methods, however, is adherence—these therapies require a great self-discipline and consistency to be effective. Regardless, online therapies have a potential to reach a large number of people.