The Woolcock Institute of Medical Research

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Insomnia app even better with sleep tracker

Friday, September 17, 2021

An innovative app designed to treat insomnia is even more effective when connected to a wearable sleep-tracking device like a FitBit, our research shows. 

Researchers at the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research paired their new smartphone app for insomnia with a wearable sleep tracker device to see if patients slept better. 

“Excitingly, we found that people with insomnia who used both the app and the FitBit had greater improvements in sleep compared to those who didn’t use the FitBit,” says the Woolcock's Associate Professor Christopher Gordon. “These people were also more motivated to stick with the therapy too, which is, of course, crucial to treating their insomnia and getting them back to sound sleeping.”  

The study is published in the journal Behavioral Sleep Medicine.

One in three Australians has insomnia, a common sleep condition characterised by difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or both. A recent Sleep Health Foundation report estimated the societal cost of the disorder at $11 billion annually.

The gold standard treatment for insomnia is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) delivered by a psychologist, however, with a psychologist shortage and a tendency for GPs to address sleep problems with medication, many patients go untreated.

“A lot of people live with this condition, routinely feeling tired, foggy and low, without realising that there is good, effective treatment available,” says Associate Professor Gordon, the senior author on the paper. 

Using technology to treat insomnia

To meet the demand for insomnia treatment, our researchers are developing SleepFix, a mobile app that uses behavioural therapy, a key component of CBT, to treat insomnia. The app employs sleep restriction therapy to limit the amount of time spent in bed.

During the four-stage program, a person’s poor sleep patterns are retrained to spend less time in bed awake and more time asleep. 

So far the app has proven to be highly effective in treating insomnia, halving standard therapy time.

Making the app even more effective

In the latest study the team investigated whether integrating the app with a sleep-tracking wearable device would improve therapy and engagement. 

They enlisted 128 patients, assigning half to a three-week program using SleepFix, and the other half to SleepFix used alongside a FitBit, which tracked their sleep and synchronised with the app. Participants completed questionnaires about their insomnia, sleep, and daytime function.

“We found that those using the dual devices had more total sleep time than those in the other group, and they were also less likely to wake up after falling asleep,” Associate Professor Gordon says. “This group was more involved and engaged in the therapy process, which we know from experience, makes it more likely people will complete therapy, and ultimately benefit from it.”

The study is the first worldwide to show that using a consumer-grade wearable device improves engagement with therapy and sleep. The research provides clinicians with a new evidence-based sleep therapy that could be provided to patients with insomnia without the need for sleeping pills and seeing specialised therapists, that are often difficult to access, the expert says. 

Where to next?

Next, the researchers plan to test SleepFix in other populations – such as older people with insomnia and those with chronic pain who have poor sleep or insomnia – to determine if this therapy can be beneficial for them also. If you are over 60 years old and would like to take part in our next study, please email .

The SleepFix app is not yet available to the public. Our research team is currently looking for investor support to make the app commercially available (interested parties should email Christopher Gordon). If you'd like to know when the app can be downloaded, please sign up to our email updates.

The study was undertaken in collaboration with The University of Sydney, and the Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) for Alertness, Safety and Productivity.

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