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Conquer Insomnia In 6 Weeks? There’s An App For That–And It Could Change Your Life

There’s plenty of science behind Sleepio, now available on iOS 8, but it’s an animated professor that brings users back for weekly sessions.

When Peter Hames complained to doctors about his insomnia, they responded by pulling out a prescription pad. Then came the inevitable: more sleeping pills.

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But Hames, who is the CEO of health care company Big Health and has a background in experimental psychology, believed there was a way to train the insomnia out of him. “Out of desperation, I got a self-help book,” he tells Fast Company. The Englishman picked up a copy of Overcoming Insomnia and Sleep Problems by Colin Espie, a professor at the University of Glasgow, and within six weeks, he claimed his insomnia was cured.

Sleep diary

“My first reaction was it’s totally amazing,” said Hames, who recently moved from London to San Francisco. “My second reaction was this is totally insane. You have millions of people worldwide who are suffering from problems with behavioral solutions.”

Then Hames did what any logical, entrepreneurial person might do: He traveled to Scotland and asked Espie to start up a digital medicine company with him to treat disorders using cognitive behavioral therapy techniques. That was four years ago, and since then, Big Health has published findings of its customized sleep program Sleepio in medical journals, including the Associated Professional Sleep Societies’s SLEEP, Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, and Sleep Medicine Clinics.

Hames declined to disclose user numbers, but said Sleepio has logged more than a million hours of sleep data. The company struck a partnership with Jawbone in April, allowing users to import data from the Up band into its dashboard. Beginning with iOS 8, which launches today, it’ll capture that data using the iPhone’s M8 motion coprocessor chip. Though it’s lacked a mobile presence until now, Sleepio decided to make its foray into iOS 8 to integrate with HealthKit and create a customized sleep program for insomniacs, who, out of habit, are reaching for their smartphones in the late hours of the night anyway. (Update: Shortly before launching iOS 8, Apple discovered a bug in HealthKit, delaying the release of apps that integrate with HealthKit. The version currently in the App Store does not integrate with HealthKit, which will launch at the end of the month.)

“We can take all that and reach a whole different scale of users,” Hames said. “We’ll never do the tracking. Other people can do that better than us. I think the opportunity here is digital medicine.”

A randomized trial involving a control and a placebo found Sleepio’s web app helped three-quarters of people who reported persistent sleep problems improve their sleep to healthy levels in six weeks. Overall, Big Health said the program is comparable in effect with face-to-face therapy, helping long-term poor sleepers hit the sack 56% faster and boost daytime energy by 58%.

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Sleepio loosely models its central character, the Prof, on Espie. A personal sleep expert, the animated professor doles out step-by-step directions to set users’ bodies back on course to healthier sleep. The app essentially repurposes the content from its web app, which repackages the chapters from Espie’s book into short video segments. But the technology behind it can tailor the experience to individuals based on their historical sleep data. “We know even exposure in just a short period of time can help people with their sleep,” said Hames. “The more you work with it, the more data is in the system, the more refined it is to you.”

The Prof

When users enter the Sleepio app, the Prof begins by asking if they’re looking to fall asleep at that moment. If so, users can consult him through the Help Me Now feature, and the Prof will offer suggestions, such as focusing on a spot in the ceiling or wall. If users indicate they’re not trying to sleep, the Prof will ask what problems ail them (falling asleep, waking up in the middle of the night, waking up too early, not feeling refreshed), how long it’s persisted, and assign them a sleep score.

Though users know they’re interacting with an animated character, having someone or something stand in the role of a therapist makes the experience feel a little more real to them. If the Prof notices a rough night, he’ll follow up with a text message. At the end of each session, the Prof tries to schedule another appointment (“Same time next week?”), sending email reminders. If you’re running late for your appointment, he’ll shoot you a worried text message. And if he receives no word after several hours, he’ll send another one, this time conveying disappointment. In general, 70% of users interact with the Prof, said Hames, and some even write back apologetically when they miss a session.

Of course, the Prof is always there–as long as you pay your fees (just like in real life). Sleepio is available in the App Store as a free download, but after seven days, users can choose between a $5 monthly plan for instant sleep help or a subscription to all of Sleepio’s features at $149 for 12 weeks or $249 for the whole year. Users who don’t upgrade can continue to record their sleep for free. Hames admits it’s a steep cost, “but we know it’s equivalent to face-to-face therapy, which will cost four to five times as much.”

There is a considerable market for such a service. According to figures from the National Sleep Foundation, 48% of people in the United States say they suffer from occasional insomnia, and 22% say they experience insomnia “every or almost every night.”

Given cognitive behavioral therapy’s potential to treat other disorders, Big Health plans to branch out. Hames said it’s likely the next program will tackle a host of problems related to or exacerbated by poor sleep. “The idea of sleep gives you a great jumping-off point,” he said. “We know if people have insomnia, they’re more likely to develop diabetes, three times more likely to be depressed, more likely to develop hypertension, and get a heart attack.”

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On that disquieting note: May tonight be a good night.

About the author

Based in San Francisco, Alice Truong is Fast Company's West Coast correspondent. She previously reported in Chicago, Washington D.C., New York and most recently Hong Kong, where she (left her heart and) worked as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.

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