Having Trouble Sleeping? How Meditation Can Help
It’s the same story every single night: You’re exhausted, but you can’t sleep. Or you fall asleep quickly but then find yourself awake at 2 or 3 a.m. with your mind racing. You’ve tried everything — blue light glasses, avoiding digital devices before bed, weighted blankets, open windows, white noise machines, even melatonin and sleeping pills — nothing seems to help.
The reason you aren’t getting better sleep may be that you’ve been so focused on your external environment. You’ve forgotten that getting good sleep is very much an inside job. Tinkering with the room temperature and reducing your caffeine intake can certainly help support healthy sleep habits, but these things don’t tell the whole story and they probably won’t cure your insomnia, either.
The Science of Sleep
To understand the science behind a good night’s sleep, I interviewed RoundGlass Research Lead, Cognitive Neuroscientist Dr. David Vago, Ph.D.
“There are two problems people have when they're trying to fall asleep,” he explained. “One is sleep onset (trying to fall asleep) and that's where we start ruminating and thinking of all the things that happen in a day or what's going to happen in the future ... then there’s sleep maintenance (staying asleep.)”
Vago explained that those who struggle with sleep maintenance experience what’s called “poor sleep efficiency” — a measure of how long you are in bed and how many times you wake up.
In addressing sleep onset insomnia and being able to get to sleep faster, Vago says meditation can be a very effective tool — one that many of us may have tried in the past without even knowing it.
The Cross-Section of Meditation and Sleep
“A breath meditation to help you concentrate on one thing can help remove the distractions of your mind that are preventing you from falling asleep. It’s like counting sheep. Everyone’s heard about counting sheep to fall asleep, but that's a meditation! You're counting, you’re visualizing, you're focusing your attention. It’s the same thing when you focus on your breath.”
Vago explains that while focusing on external objects like fluffy white sheep can be helpful, focusing the mind through meditation practices like breathwork or body scans is even better. “The benefit of focusing on your breath is you can actually control your parasympathetic system,” he says.
Bringing your focus internally through meditation to slow your breathing or progressively relax your body puts the brakes on the stress response responsible for keeping you alert and unable to snooze, and tapping into that parasympathetic system is crucial to drifting off. “Melatonin gets released when your body is ready to fall asleep,” Vago says. “But if your mind is active and aroused, it's fighting the body's desire to rest ... Your breath is the is the most powerful sleep aid that you can use.”
Can Meditation Help You Stay Asleep?
When it comes to sleep maintenance, however, studies have shown an interesting side effect of regular meditation. Vago says that researchers studying the sleep patterns of regular mediators found that they actually have less efficient sleep.
“We don't know exactly what the numbers are,” says Vago, “but the more you meditate, the less efficient your sleep will be.” And while that might seem like bad news for meditators, that isn’t exactly the case. Dr. Vago explains “It’s not clear why, but what is clear is that what you observe, especially in advanced meditators, is that they don't need as much sleep.”
Essentially, if you looked at two brain scans showing the same indicators of inefficient sleep, one from an advanced meditator and one from someone who doesn’t meditate, the meditator would report feeling great in the morning, with few of the ill-effects the non-meditator might experience, like sluggishness, fatigue, or brain fog.
Dr. Vago is currently studying the reason behind this phenomenon, but his hunch is that meditation may trigger many of the same restorative benefits we get from sleep. “When you're meditating, your body is relaxed and you're at this low base level of arousal,” he says, “so there's not a lot of brain activity. It's possible that the restorative functions are also happening in meditation, so you don't need as much sleep.”
Mindfulness and Meditation for Sleep
Dr. Vago’s study of meditation’s role in supporting good sleep is part of a growing body of research on the topic. Meditation has been proven to activate the relaxation response, which lowers your heart rate, helps regulate your breathing, and gives your melatonin levels a natural boost and has also been shown to improve sleep quality and duration as much as a prescription sleeping pill.
If you’d like to try meditation to treat your insomnia and get better sleep, adopting a regular meditation practice of any kind will help, but there are a few specific tools that have been shown to work particularly well.
Mindfulness Meditation: Mindfulness is a practice that simply involves becoming aware of your sensations and emotions, and cultivating acceptance for these thoughts and feelings – whatever they are.
Mindfulness has been used extensively to test the effect of meditation on sleep. One group of researchers examined 54 adults with chronic insomnia and randomly assigned them to participate in either mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), mindfulness-based therapy for insomnia (MBTI), or eight weeks of self-monitoring (SM) in which they simply tracked their sleep without any intervention.
Researchers found that the groups which took part in the weekly MBSR or MBTI sessions saw their total wake time each night reduced by as much as 40-55 minutes. Even more promising, these improvements were consistent even six months after the end of the study.
To get similar benefits, you can begin your mindfulness practice by bookmarking the link below and meditating before bed.
Try this RoundGlass meditation class: Body Scan for Deep Sleep with mindfulness coach Alison Hutchens.
Guided Sleep Meditation: If staying asleep isn’t an issue, but you do struggle to drift off each night, a guided sleep meditation is a fantastic option to consider. Guided sleep meditations (such as a body scan meditation like Dr. Vago mentioned above) aren’t focused on making you fall asleep, instead, they’re specifically designed to allow you to relax your body and quiet your mind so that sleep can come more naturally.
Meditation Apps: It’s important to note that each of the studies cited above involved in-person– interventions. This means that the meditation instructions and mindfulness practices were taught face-to-face, which is ideal but not always possible. One study from the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine examined whether meditation apps could provide similar results, namely effectiveness for sleep disturbances, as well as the importance of sleep and the effect of sleep disorders on overall health.
So even if you aren’t able to practice with an in-person meditation class or teacher, you can rest assured that accessing meditation through an app is a more convenient way to improve your daytime fatigue ability to fall asleep.
Getting Better Sleep: A Wholistic Approach
To tap into a restful, restorative sleep, you need to take a wholistic approach and begin internally by quieting your mind and creating an inner refuge that invites rest instead of resisting it. Meditation can help you do this by clearing your mental slate and removing anything that might get in the way of a good night’s rest.
In many ways, sleep is the foundation of wholistic wellbeing. If you’re not sleeping well, everything else suffers — your relationships, your physical health, your mental health, and your job performance. It makes sense that the perfect sleep solution has to be wholistic as well.
You’ve already created the external conditions for good sleep by buying a decent mattress or getting blackout blinds, isn’t it time to invest in creating the proper internal environment, too?
Try a RoundGlass sleep meditation today and let us know what you think!