Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Sleep disturbance is a widespread public health issue, affecting mental health and contributing to chronic conditions. An estimated 50 to 70 million Americans experience sleep disorders like insomnia, which hinder daytime functioning and increase the risk for diabetes, obesity, hypertension, heart attack, and stroke. Around the world, “coronasomnia,” has increased by at least 37 percent due to pandemic-related stress. While interventions like sleep aid medications can improve sleep quality in the short-term, they are not recommended as a long-term solution.
Research continues to show promise for alternative therapies like meditation, hypnosis, yoga, and yoga nidra to promote deep relaxation and sleep. With the increasing popularity of self-management strategies such as the use of meditation and sleep apps, a new study published in PLOS One tested the how the Calm app improved sleep and mental health-related outcomes like anxiety, depression, and fatigue.
The randomized controlled trial (RTC) followed 263 adults with insomnia symptoms for eight weeks and found that subjects who used the Calm app daily reported better sleep quality compared to the control group. According to Jennifer Huberty, PhD, an associate professor at the College of Health Solutions at Arizona State University and the lead researcher of the study, scientific research had not yet explored the effects of mindfulness-based apps such as Calm on sleep quality. “The anecdotal evidence was very clear, but we needed to determine if it had promise as a solution for sleep disturbance,” she says.
Though the study began about two years prior to the onset of the pandemic, Huberty says that a recent survey of more than 5,000 subscribers to Calm reported that those who had COVID-19 and meditated experienced better mental health outcomes such as improved stress levels than those who did not meditate.
Huberty, who is also a yoga teacher and the director of science at Calm’s scientific advisory board, has been conducting research with the app for the past six years on subjects ranging from cancer patients to college students. Huberty began her yoga and meditation practice about 10 years ago after her daughter was stillborn at full-term, which helped her to cope with the insurmountable grief and loss. By the time she was expecting another child, she says that daily meditation helped her manage her anxiety throughout the pregnancy. “I believe that my life is enriched tremendously by yoga and meditation and that I am a better wife, mother, and friend because of my practice,” she says.
Huberty tried a few different mindfulness-based apps, including Ten Percent Happier, before she became a user of and advocate for Calm. “I conducted a study in 2019 on heme cancer patients and looked at the feasibility between Calm and Ten Percent Happier, and the satisfaction of the Calm app was much higher,” she says. “These findings helped me decide to use the app for my work with cancer patients. I then continued my work with Calm in other areas like pregnancy and sleep.”
The prevalence of mindfulness-based apps that promote sleep and meditation speak to the need for alternative or complementary solutions to help combat insomnia. Headspace’s meditation for sleep offers simple sleep hygiene tips to fall asleep and stay asleep. Insight Timer’s free sleep meditation library offers guided yoga nidras, meditations, and breathwork to promote sleep, and includes sleep music and sleep talks featuring bedtime stories like Alice in Wonderland or The Velveteen Rabbit. Additionally, a new sleep meditation app, Relax Melodies, was recently named the Best App for Sleep and was also among the top five most used wellness apps in the U.S. during the pandemic with over 50 million downloads by the end of 2020.
Still, there are barriers to treating sleep disturbances like insomnia, says Huberty. “Both pharmacological and psychological treatment options are typically dependent upon access to mental health care and both carry stigma,” she says. “Future studies are warranted to determine if a mindfulness meditation app could be used as an alternative.”
Read next: The 6 Best Apps for Yoga and Meditation