Helping people sleep better could also improve mental health, according to researchers behind what is believed to be one of the largest gold standard trials of a psychological treatment to date.
The study, published in The Lancet Psychiatry, found an online therapy programme for insomnia not only improved sleep but also led to reductions in mental health symptoms, such as paranoia and hallucinations, as well as reduced anxiety and depression.
“Insomnia can be part of the complex package of causes of mental health difficulties”
Crucially the study, which was conducted at UK universities, suggests the reason for improved mental and emotional health was largely down to getting a better night’s sleep.
According to the study authors, the findings challenge the commonly-held perception that sleep issues are a symptom of mental health problems.
Instead, poor sleep may be a contributory factor, they argue, and mental health clinicians should pay more attention to addressing sleep issues.
The study revolved around a six-session programme of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) called Sleepio.
In what is believed to be the largest randomised controlled trial of a psychological intervention to date, 3,755 people with insomnia were involved in testing the course’s effectiveness.
The trial – known Oxford Access for Students Improving Sleep (OASIS) – took place at universities round the UK, with students volunteering to take part. Roughly half did the CBT course, which consists of six 20-minute sessions hosted by an animated therapist, while the rest did not.
Participants completed daily sleep diaries and reported on insomnia and experiences of paranoia and hallucinations at various points during the trial period.
At the end of the therapy course, researchers found the intervention had reduced insomnia by 4.78 points on a 0-32 point scale, while experiences of paranoia had gone down by 2.2 points and hallucinations by 1.58 points.
Treating insomnia may also hold mental health benefits
Depression, anxiety, psychological wellbeing, nightmares and ability to function had also improved among those who did the course.
Further analysis showed the improvements in sleep accounted for almost 60% of the change in experiences of paranoia and hallucinations.
Lead study author Professor Daniel Freeman, from the University of Oxford, said the findings showed it was time to take sleep problems more seriously.
“For too long insomnia has been trivialised as merely a symptom, languishing way down in the league table of problems to be tackled,” he said.
“However, how well we sleep might actually play a role in mental health. For many people, insomnia can be part of the complex package of causes of mental health difficulties,” said Professor Freeman.
He added: “If you can sort out sleep, you could also be taking a significant step forward in tackling a wide range of psychological and emotional problems.”
The authors said more research was needed to understand whether the findings applied to people with clinical diagnoses of mental health disorders or with more severe symptoms of psychosis.