Meditation, which primes us to be more aware of the present moment and promotes relaxation, is becoming increasingly popular across the globe.
It’s estimated that between 200–500 million people practice meditation for its energy-boosting benefits, improving focus and memory, relieving anxiety, and as more studies show, it may even help you sleep.
Meditation to treat insomnia
There’s increasing scientific evidence to suggest meditation, and in particular mindfulness meditation, can help alleviate the symptoms of insomnia and improve sleep quality.
One study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, aimed to determine the impact of mindfulness meditation on sleep disruption. They examined the sleep quality of 49 adults suffering from moderate sleep disturbances.
Half of the group completed a mindfulness awareness course, designed to help them focus on present thoughts, emotions, and experiences, whereas the other group participated in a sleep hygiene course, that aimed to educate and improve sleep habits.
Relative to the sleep hygiene group, the meditation group showed significant improvement in the quality of sleep and reported a reduction in insomnia, daytime fatigue, and depression. While more research needs to conducted here, the results are promising.
The use of meditation in treating insomnia is particularly attractive as unlike pharmaceutical options, it’s easy to implement, accessible, low-risk, and typically cost-free.
How does meditation affect sleep?
Mindfulness meditation is effectively the art of getting out of your head, the direct opposite of a busy, anxious mind that can make it impossible to sleep. Our mind’s tendency to get caught up in racing thoughts is often strongest in the evening, usually because this is the only time of day when your mind is relatively still and not focusing on the next activity.
Therefore, anything that clears your head at this time will help you get a better night’s slumber. Dr. Herbert Benson, director emeritus of the Harvard-affiliated Benson-Henry Institute for Mind-Body Medicine, explains practicing mindfulness meditation for just 20 minutes per day is enough to break the chain of your everyday thoughts and evoke the relaxation response.
This response is a deep physiological shift that helps alleviate many stress-related conditions including high blood pressure, pain, and depression.
At a biological level
To drift off to sleep, you need to be in a relaxed state, which means your heart rate and blood pressure levels should be relatively low. Meditation has been shown to lower both of these, as well as lower levels of cortisol, which is often described as the 'stress' hormone.
A study in Thailand examined the effect of mindfulness meditation on serum cortisol levels of 30 medical students. They found that blood cortisol levels were significantly lower after a 4-day mindfulness meditation than before.
Cortisol is responsible for keeping you alert throughout the day and it helps with the metabolism process by turning food into fuel. However, when levels are too high, particularly in the evening when levels should be naturally low, it can have detrimental consequences on the ability to get to sleep.
This is because cortisol suppresses the sleep hormone, melatonin, which is responsible for initiating the onset of sleep.
Another study looked at the direct effects of meditation on melatonin levels. To assess this, they examined melatonin levels of experienced meditators during an evening mediation session and compared this to melatonin levels on a control night, which was the same time of day but with no meditation.
In line with the results of the study of medical students in Thailand, they found that plasma melatonin levels were significantly higher during the period immediately following the meditation than on the control night. Again, more research needs to conducted here but there are promising signs of a positive relationship between meditation and sleep.
That sounds like a good idea… so how do you meditate?
We recommend checking out Headspace for tutorials and practices on guided meditation. It’s the perfect place to learn and practice meditation, and they even offer a step-by-step guide for sleep meditations too.
You don’t need apps or special equipment to meditate – all you need is a quiet space and 20 minutes.
Here are the basic steps:
Find your meditation space – this should be a quiet, calming environment without any distractions.
Get into a comfortable position – you can either sit or lie down, depending on your personal preference.
Focus on your breathing - close your eyes and breathe slowly. Inhale and exhale deeply. Notice your body
Refocus your breathing – it’s natural for thoughts to appear, when this happens stay calm and refocus on your breathwork.