New Research Explains the Science Behind Meditation Apps and Why They Work So Well

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At this point, it’s almost common knowledge that most people don’t get enough sleep. The Cliff Notes are: one in three U.S. adults aren’t catching their 40 winks regularly. (1) And while getting by on less sleep used to be a badge of honor, it looks like people are done with turning a blind eye to the problem. A 2023 Sleepopolis survey revealed that 61.7 percent of respondents cared more about sleep than they did in previous years. And while a majority of people (92.6 percent) wanted to improve their sleep quality, only 53.7 percent said they knew how. 

Judging by their incredible popularity, it looks like sleep and meditation apps may be the answer for some. Statista reports that the global market for meditation and mental wellness apps reached over 533 million U.S. dollars in 2022, and by 2028, they’re projected to surpass $2.6 billion in revenues worldwide. (2)

Why Are Meditation Apps So Popular?

Historically, meditation was a niche practice, and its benefits were perceptually limited to those seeking spirituality. Today, however, meditation has hit the mainstream in a big way as emerging research backs its benefits for stress reduction, mental health — and sleep. 

Lauri Leadly, CCSH, RPSGT, clinical sleep educator, founder, and president at Valley Sleep Center, says that “sleep apps are popular because more and more people are recognizing what poor sleep quality is and (finally) seeing it for what it is: a health risk.” 

Noting that Valley Sleep Center treats people from all walks of life, from CEOs to night shift workers, Leadly says whether it’s due to “stress, underlying health conditions (including physical and mental health), being too busy, or not busy enough (bored) our society is dealing with an issue that can’t be ignored for long — insufficient sleep.” 

Leadly says the spark for mediation apps likely started in 2020 during the pandemic. 

“We were all talking about self-care, mindfulness, finding the good in each day, even though we were home, or even worse yet — quarantining. That’s when we saw an uptick in mental healthcare and mindfulness apps.” 

She adds, “We all know that in some ways, technology can hinder our sleep, such as being on our mobile device right before going to sleep, watching television, or using a computer screen in bed. However, there are ways technology can help you sleep, too, and one of those is the ever-evolving sleep meditation app.” 

The Science Behind Meditation Apps and Improved Sleep

The appeal of meditation apps likely lies in their versatility and adaptability — undoubtedly, they meet their users where they’re at. Whether you’re looking for a quick hit to relieve some stress on your lunch break or a longer meditation to unwind before bedtime, these apps not only improve accessibility — they also do a bang-up job of demystifying the processes of mindfulness, meditation practices, and sound bedtime routines.

Less Stress, More Mindfulness

One of the primary mechanisms through which meditation apps facilitate sleep is by reducing stress and anxiety levels. Anyone who’s ever laid awake at night deliberating over company layoffs can surely attest to the fact that stress is a major contributor to sleep disturbances. (3) The science of it all may not be what you’re thinking about as the minutes and hours tick by, but in case you were wondering, stress triggers the release of the stress hormone cortisol, and cortisol can promote wakefulness and interfere with sleep and your sleep-wake cycle. (4) One study even found that stress can cause a nine-fold increase in cortisol levels. (5

To keep their stress in check and bridge the gap to sleep, it seems people are increasingly turning to meditation apps. And for those who think these apps may be too “woo-woo,” there’s plenty of evidence to support them. Research has repeatedly shown that they can reduce stress and anxiety, possibly paving the way for better sleep. 

One study examining the Calm app, specifically, concluded that it is an “effective modality to deliver mindfulness meditation in order to reduce stress and improve mindfulness.” (6)

Another study from 2019 demonstrated that mindfulness meditation improved both subjective and objective measures of sleep quality in individuals with insomnia. (7) Researchers ultimately suggested that meditation apps could be an effective tool for managing sleep disorders.

Yet another study from 2018, published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, showed the same — mindfulness meditation improves sleep quality. (8)

We could go on, but you get the idea. 

Speaking of mindfulness, meditation apps may also aid sleep by promoting a sense of mindfulness and present-moment awareness. And we’ve all been there — we lay down to sleep with the best of intentions, and the flood comes. We lay there hour after hour, ruminating about anything and everything to the point where sleep seems impossible. 

By arming themselves with mindfulness techniques through meditation apps, restless sleepers can learn to redirect their attention away from intrusive thoughts and focus on the sensations of the present moment, such as the breath or bodily sensations. This shift in attention can help quiet the mind and create the mental space necessary for sleep.

Meditation Activates the Body’s Parasympathetic Nervous System

Research has shown that meditation and mindfulness practices, such as deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation, can also activate the body’s parasympathetic nervous system. (9) Also known as the rest and digest response, activation of the parasympathetic nervous system counteracts the “fight or flight” response associated with stress, ultimately promoting feelings of calmness and relaxation conducive to sleep. (10)

Improved Bedtime Routines

Beyond leaning into meditation and mindfulness practices, the use of meditation apps before bedtime can help the restless among us by establishing a calming bedtime routine. Good sleep hygiene tells us that winding down before bed is key to quality sleep. A well-established bedtime routine, repeated night after night, helps entrain our bodies for sleep by reinforcing our body’s natural circadian rhythms. Eventually, your body will begin to recognize these elements of your routine and signal that it’s time to prepare for sleep. For those who can’t do it themselves, meditation apps are a good place to start. 

The Possibilities Are Endless, but Mediations Apps Are Not the End-All

Leadly says, “There are so many apps that can help a person drift off,” and the permutations within each are almost endless. She adds that “Sleep apps can be an excellent addition to the nightly routine or bedtime ritual we set for ourselves, but they’re not the cure-all. 

While you can find apps that help lull you to sleep with relaxing sounds and white noise and others to guide you through meditations and help you concentrate on breathing to promote relaxation and calm so you can sleep, Leadly notes that some people may need more help than what these apps can offer and at the end of the day, people need to be discerning about what they need. “Those with sleep apnea, for example, may need more help, such as a sleep study to get to the root cause of why they aren’t sleeping, a prescription for CPAP, or other treatments,” says Leadly. 

Ultimately, she says, “Think of a sleep app as an aid to get your headspace to the right place.” 

  • 1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022b, September 7). Sleep and sleep disorders. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

  • 2. (n.d.). Topic: Meditation and mental wellness apps. Statista.

  • 3. Petersen, H., Kecklund, G. and Åkerstedt, T. (2023), Disturbed sleep and its attribution to stress and other causes: A population-based survey. Scand J Psychol, 64: 99-104.

  • 4. Nicolaides NC, Vgontzas AN, Kritikou I, et al. HPA Axis and Sleep. [Updated 2020 Nov 24]. In: Feingold KR, Anawalt B, Blackman MR, et al., editors. Endotext [Internet]. South Dartmouth (MA):, Inc.; 2000-. Available from:

  • 5. Cay M, Ucar C, Senol D, et al. Effect of increase in cortisol level due to stress in healthy young individuals on dynamic and static balance scores. North Clin Istanb. 2018;5(4):295-301. Published 2018 May 29. doi:10.14744/nci.2017.42103

  • 6. Huberty J, Green J, Glissmann C, Larkey L, Puzia M, Lee C. Efficacy of the Mindfulness Meditation Mobile App “Calm” to Reduce Stress Among College Students: Randomized Controlled Trial. JMIR Mhealth Uhealth. 2019;7(6):e14273. Published 2019 Jun 25. doi:10.2196/14273

  • 7. Rusch HL, Rosario M, Levison LM, et al. The effect of mindfulness meditation on sleep quality: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2019;1445(1):5-16. doi:10.1111/nyas.13996

  • 8. Rusch, Heather & Rosario, Michael & Levinson, Lisa & Olivera, Anlys & Livingston, Whitney & Wu, Tianxia & Gill, Jessica. (2018). The effect of mindfulness meditation on sleep quality: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials: Effect of mindfulness meditation on sleep. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 1445. 10.1111/nyas.13996.

  • 9. Jerath, R., Barnes, V. A., Jerath, S., & Hamilton, B. (2012). Dynamic Change of Awareness during Meditation Techniques: Neural and Physiological Correlates. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6, 16179.

  • 10. LeBouef T, Yaker Z, Whited L. Physiology, Autonomic Nervous System. [Updated 2023 May 1]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2024 Jan-. Available from:

  • Leadly, Laurie. Author Interview. March, 13, 2024.

Sharon Brandwein

Sharon Brandwein

Sharon Brandwein is a Certified Sleep Science Coach and a freelance writer. She specializes in health and beauty, parenting, and of course, all things sleep. Sharon’s work has also appeared on ABC News, USAToday, and Forbes. When she’s not busy writing, you might find her somewhere curating a wardrobe for her puppy.

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