Not being able to sleep has to be one of the most frustrating things. All of us need sleep, and if we don’t get enough, we feel tired, irritable, forgetful and fuzzy-headed. Stress, anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, medication, etc. are all factors that can keep us up at night. But while we know they cause sleeplessness, is there anything we can do about it? Fortunately, yes. There are several ways we can hasten the onset of sleep and improve overall sleep quality. One of them is meditation. In fact, there’s research that shows that it can help battle insomnia and help us sleep better. It’s safe, has other health benefits and can be done by anyone. What’s more, it’s believed that meditation can even increase levels of the sleep hormone, melatonin.
How does meditation work exactly? It basically trains the brain to focus. For instance, if you’re stressed out, meditating can help shift your mind from those stressful thoughts into a state of calm. When it comes to sleep, meditation provokes a response to the relaxation that helps temper stress and anxiety. When the mind is filled with thoughts, especially worries, it makes it harder to fall asleep. There’s too much noise that it keeps you awake. With meditation, those areas of the brain that are active and linked with anxiety and hypervigilance are brought to a balanced state as brain waves slow down.
Meditation helps us transition between the five major brain waves we have until we’re calm enough to sleep. Gamma waves are a fast, hyperactive state and help the brain transfer information quickly. Beta waves are activated in our waking state when we’re interacting with the world and performing cognitive tasks. Alpha waves are a resting state of the brain. They’re activated in certain meditative states and promote calm and learning. The slower theta waves occur when we sleep or when we’re in deep meditation (we’re in a sort of dream-like state). The slowest delta waves occur during deep, dreamless sleep and when we’re in the deepest meditative state.
Meditation can increase the amount of time spent in slow wave sleep (SWS) and improve rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. In 1997, researchers reported that senior practitioners of transcendental meditation (TM) spent more time in SWS and had enhanced REM. Later studies echoed these findings in people who practiced mindfulness meditation. They found that mindfulness meditators had more sleep cycles, indicating quality sleep. The researchers suggested that older meditators could have the same sleep patterns as younger non-meditators. This is significant considering that as we age, we spend less time in SWS.
The pineal gland releases melatonin according to our circadian rhythm. As night falls, it triggers the release of this sleep-promoting hormone. Higher levels relax you and help you fall asleep. But it’s not just the night that encourages melatonin production; even meditation does. A 1995 study by the University of Massachusetts Medical Center found that women who meditated had higher levels of melatonin than those who didn’t. Another study by several institutions found that nighttime plasma melatonin levels in experienced meditators were higher immediately following meditation compared to when the subjects weren’t meditating on the same period on a control night.
For some, meditation can sound a little new age-ish and something that’s not grounded in science. However, studies show otherwise. Research published in JAMA Internal Medicine showed that older adults who practiced mindfulness meditation found more relief from sleep disturbances than by following a sleep hygiene education program. The study included 49 older adults. Half completed the mindfulness meditation program, and the other half completed a sleep education program. Those in the mindfulness group experienced less insomnia, fatigue, and depression.
According to Dr. Herbert Benson, director emeritus of Benson-Henry Institute, mindfulness meditation is a physiological shift towards the opposite of stress. It can ease stress-related conditions like high blood pressure and depression. Since sleep is closely tied to stress for many people, meditation evokes the relaxation response to help one sleep.
If it’s your first time venturing into meditation, it can seem a little awkward. Your thoughts seem too many, and you may wonder if you’re on the right path. Keep in mind that this is normal and that with practice, you’ll find it much easier to relax.
Breathing is a good focal point as it gives you control. Pay attention to your breath, how you inhale and exhale. Feel your chest/belly rise and fall with each breath and how the air goes in and out of your nose.
Thoughts will enter your mind, and that’s okay. Let them in if they’re trying to but don’t focus on them. Be an observer and nothing else. Move your mind back to your breathing so that you’re in the present.
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As you become more centered and in the present, turn your focus on your body and how different parts feel. Don’t move anything; just feel your hands resting on your lap or your feet on the floor. If there’s tension in a part of your body, try to relax and feel it go. Do this from your feet and work your way towards your neck and face.
We’re sleeping fewer hours than we did in the 1940s and that doesn’t bode well for the stressful lives we lead in the modern world. Considering that 1 in 4 Americans develops insomnia every year, it’s time to start paying attention to tackling sleep issues. There’s no one way to address them, but meditation has proven itself to be a powerful tool in the battle for sleep. What makes it even better is that it can be practiced in conjunction with other sleep-promoting ‘assistants’ like light therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy and using the best mattress available.