Many Apps Promise To Put You To Sleep, Some Help Curb Insomnia : Shots - Health News People struggling with insomnia often turn to apps to help them fall asleep. But scientists say only some apps use proven methods that can help address the underlying causes of sleeplessness.

Some Apps May Help Curb Insomnia, Others Just Put You To Sleep

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If you have trouble sleeping, well, join the club. And we all might be interested in a new study that suggests people with insomnia might find relief in a mobile phone app. There are many sleep apps out there, but as NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee reports, scientists say some apps are better than others.

RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: Try searching for sleep apps on your phone, and you'll likely come up with a long list. To get a sense of which apps people like to use, we asked our audience on social media and got nearly a hundred responses.


UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR #1: Welcome to bedtime stories for grown-ups.

CHATTERJEE: That's a popular podcast. Christina Bellows of Ypsilanti, Mich., depends on it.

CHRISTINA BELLOWS: Using this podcast, I think each one is, like, maybe 20 minutes, and I very rarely make it all the way through.

CHATTERJEE: Then there's Paige Thesing from Santa Barbara, Calif., who's had insomnia since high school. She's been using an app called Inscape for about 4 months.

PAIGE THESING: It starts with a woman kind of telling you to relax and instructing your breathing.


UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR #2: Begin by taking a few long, deep breaths.

CHATTERJEE: Thesing says it used to take her four hours to fall asleep. Now it only takes her about 20 minutes.


UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR #2: And relax as you are.

CHATTERJEE: But most of these apps and podcasts don't treat the underlying insomnia, says Jason Ong, a clinical psychologist and sleep researcher at Northwestern University.

JASON ONG: These type of apps that are really more trying to get people to relax, it's usually not a very stable and sustainable solution.

CHATTERJEE: That's because they don't address the reasons why people struggle with sleep, like stress, anxiety or bad sleep habits. The most effective treatment, he says, is a form of talk therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, or CBTI. It helps people understand the biology of sleep and why their own habits and behaviors might be messing with it.

ONG: If you modify some your behaviors, you can actually work better with the way your brain regulates sleep and wake.

CHATTERJEE: CBTI gives people tools and tips to change those behaviors. For example, if someone is kept up in bed by anxiety, it suggests scheduling a worry time during the day. This therapy also helps people sleep more efficiently, say, by spending less time in bed and getting out of bed if they can't fall asleep.

ONG: An important part of CBTI is to teach people that what's going to give you confidence in being able to sleep again is to follow these tools so that from a night-to-night basis you're much more likely to be sleeping.

CHATTERJEE: Now people can get CBTI directly on their mobile phones through a handful of apps, and studies have shown that these apps are effective. One is called Sleepio.

ONG: In Sleepio, it's like an avatar of a real therapist who's walking a patient through that process.

CHATTERJEE: Ong was a consultant for the team that developed Sleepio, although he has no ongoing financial interest in the product. He was also the co-author on a recent study in which participants reported that their insomnia symptoms and overall quality of life improved after using the app. Now, CBTI apps aren't widely available, and while they cost less than in-person therapy, they can be pricey. A 26-week subscription of one called SHUTi costs $149. But there is one free app developed by the Veterans Administration and is called CBT-i Coach. John Torous is a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School. He recommends it to his patients.

JOHN TOROUS: Anyone can access it. You don't have to be a veteran.

CHATTERJEE: However, he cautions that these apps may not work for everybody. One of the problems is that people don't stick with them. That's why, he says, if you find something you like, use it.

TOROUS: If you find something that works, I think that's always a good first step.

CHATTERJEE: The next step, he says, is to talk to your doctor. Insomnia is a complex disorder and is sometimes caused by underlying medical conditions that are easily treatable. Besides, he says, keeping your doctor informed might give some extra motivation to stick to an app and make sure you always get a good night's sleep. Rhitu Chatterjee, NPR News.

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