Sleep is essential for human health. Sleep is when the brain restores itself, and it plays a “housekeeping” role — removing toxins that build up in the brain during waking hours. Good quality sleep brings many benefits, including:
Good quality sleep brings many benefits, including:
- Less frequent sickness
- Better weight control
- Lower risk of serious conditions like diabetes and heart disease
- Reduced stress and improved mood
What is healthy sleep?
For adults, healthy sleep typically means seven or more hours of sleep a night, on a regular enough basis that it leads to a feeling of rest and restoration when one gets out of bed in the morning. It's a mix of quality and quantity: Some individuals can get by well on five hours a night, while others need more like 10 hours. Sleep needs can differ at different ages too.
Sleep has multiple stages, divided into rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep. There are three stages of non-REM sleep:
- Stage 1: A brief stage of light sleep, lasting 5 to 10 minutes
- Stage 2: Light sleep during which muscles partially contract and then relax, the heart rate slows, and brain waves become slower
- Stage 3: Deep sleep — if someone is woken from this state, they may feel groggy or disoriented
Stage 3 non-REM sleep is considered the most important stage of sleep. During this phase, the brain produces very slow delta waves. Non-REM sleep is critical because it’s when the body releases growth hormone, repairs tissues, and strengthens the immune system.
REM sleep is the stage in which dreaming occurs as brain activity recommences — so it's not as restorative. The entire sleep cycle lasts roughly 90 minutes and repeats itself several times over the course of a night.
The bottom line is that quality sleep is critical to physical, emotional, psychological, and brain health. However, it can be hard for busy individuals to turn off their active brains enough to get quality sleep, which is why meditation can help. Meditation involves slowing down and paying close attention to the present moment, whether that means one's own breathing, a repeated internal (silent) mantra, or a guided narrative or visualization.
What Is Meditation for Sleep?
Meditation for sleep is any kind of meditation that helps deepen an individual’s quality of sleep.
Meditation can bring many benefits, including:
- Reducing stress and gaining a new perspective on your situation
- Increasing self-awareness and focus on the present
- Reducing negative emotions and increasing gratitude
- Improving attention and concentration
- A greater sense of creativity
Meditation can change patterns in the brain, to the point where it can improve adults’ attention span. It can also help the heart slow down. Given the physiological and stress reduction effects of meditation, it stands to reason that meditation can also help improve the restful quality of sleep.
Want an in-depth overview of meditation, check out our article 'What is Meditation'.
Meditation for sleep typically involves guided meditations that gradually remove the day's cares and concerns. The gentle voice of a guide (usually on a podcast these days) or one of our videos on demand at Sofia PRIME, encourages techniques like visualization of peaceful landscapes and a progressive letting go of the day's events or relaxation of the body's muscles. This last kind of meditation is known as body scan meditation, in which the individual becomes aware of stress being held in different parts of their body and progressively mindfully relaxes them, section by section.
Meditators are encouraged to breathe in a deep, measured way while meditating. Deep breathing is important to gain a sense of relaxation. It is deeply soothing: By stimulating the vagus nerve, it reduces heart rate variability, calming the body's parasympathetic nervous system. An overstimulated parasympathetic nervous system can lead people to feel a sense of danger and overalertness, making it impossible to sleep.
Many sleep meditations draw on techniques from yoga Nidra. Yoga Nidra is a traditional yogic practice that is similar to but not exactly the same as meditation. It has similar benefits. As it has benefits for sleep, offering a way to help calm the fight-or-flight impulse that meditation does, it's often categorized as a kind of sleep meditation. According to practitioners, it helps to activate the pineal gland and release the body's natural melatonin, an antioxidant and sleep hormone that some take as a natural supplement.
Meditation for sleep allows practitioners to draw on their own bodies' wisdom, allowing it to calm itself and feel at ease, thereby gaining the ability to rest and restore itself on a cellular level.
What Keeps People up at Night?
There are many factors that keep people up at night. These can be physical, like too much light interfering with one's body clock. Cigarette smoking interferes with sleep, as do extreme temperatures (hot or cold). Some prescription drugs, like antidepressants, can also keep people up at night. Dietary habits, like too much caffeine in the afternoon or alcohol consumption, can also hurt sleep quality. While many people drink a glass of wine to help themselves get to sleep, alcohol can often result in poor sleep quality and waking up in the middle of the night dehydrated. Similarly, a too-heavy meal during the day can make it impossible to fall asleep.
But when we talk about chronic issues with sleep, the causes are usually emotional and psychological in nature — stress and anxiety are major causes of poor-quality sleep.
These are the factors that may be unavoidable — work conflicts are a fact of life, and some relationships may just be volatile, not to mention universal health concerns and the stressful world in which we live. But out-of-control stress can make it impossible to sleep. Anxiety can also lead to a vicious cycle of insomnia, with sufferers anxious that they can't get to sleep, leading to further insomnia.
Fortunately, stress and anxiety may be the issues that are most handily aided through meditation.
Benefits of Meditation for Sleep
Meditation, including measured breathing, stimulates the vagus nerve, which leads to the calming of the parasympathetic system. On a physiological level, that leads the body to calm down, making the heart rate slower and more even and allowing the body to escape from its state of "fight or flight." That means less stress and anxiety, so you can escape the cycle that keeps you in a state of insomnia.
Meditation also influences several elements of brain function, with studies showing that long-term meditators can enjoy enhanced states of "slow-wave sleep," the most restful part of the sleep cycle. In these studies of Vipassana meditators, meditators of all ages enjoyed the benefits, while in nonmeditators, sleep grew increasingly shallow and disrupted with age.
Overall, meditation leads to a state of calm and peacefulness that is conducive to deeper and better sleep. "Calming the monkey mind" — that is, taming the cycle of endless distracting thoughts that can prevent one from being present and focused — is one of the main reasons that meditators choose to practice. The monkey mind can be particularly active before sleep, and anxious mental chatter is particularly distracting when you're trying to sleep.
Meditation can allow a practitioner to get more restful sleep, calming both the body and mind. It can have benefits like:
- Increasing serotonin (which becomes melatonin, the hormone that helps you sleep)
- Decreasing blood pressure
- Reducing heart rate
All of these contribute to a sense of well-being and consequently better sleep.
To learn more about the benefits of meditation, check out our article, 'Top 10 Science-Based Benefits of Meditation'.
How Meditating During the Day Can Help with Sleep
Meditation's effects are profound, leading to a sense of greater peace and calm, better focus and mindfulness, and greater ability to concentrate.
With this greater feeling of self-control comes better productivity, as well as groundedness in the moment.
A day spent mindfully and with a sense of clarity is a day in which you're more likely to achieve your goals, leaving you with a sense of peace at night — rather than the stress that contributes to insomnia. If you live with a better mood and sharper focus, it's more likely that you won't be beset by sudden anxiety the last thing in the day.
Additionally, every benefit mentioned above related to meditation for sleep applies to daytime meditation — the reduced heart rate, lowered blood pressure, and activation of certain brain regions, for example. These benefits accumulate in the brain, as noted in the longtime Vipassana meditators mentioned above, and lead to better neurological health — which leads to better sleep. A healthy blood pressure, for example, means your body doesn't have to work as hard to maintain its functions, and high blood pressure can lead to a slew of heart and brain problems. Healthy blood pressure should mean better sleep — and also getting up early more naturally. You may also enter a virtuous cycle as blood pressure in turn is lowered by better sleep.
Many meditators notice that one good habit tends to follow another. If you're mindful about your daily meditation practice, you may come to be more mindful about the food you consume, the exercise your body needs, and the quality of sleep it requires.
Being more fully awake and alert during the day and being more mindful of your body's natural clock and rhythms can improve both your waking hours and sleep.
Want to learn to meditate? Check out our article 'How to Meditate'.
Other Ways to Improve Sleep
There are many common-sense tips for getting better sleep that is nonetheless easy to ignore in daily life:
- Make sure you don't spend too much time on your devices or staring at screens before bedtime. Most sleep experts agree it's far better to read or take a nice, soothing bath rather than staring at your phone. Give yourself half an hour before going to bed. Screens are bad for sleep partly because of the blue light that keeps your brain awake and partly because of the often-alarming news or demands on your time that makes it hard for you to unwind.
- Make sure your bedroom is dark. Bedrooms need to feel like spaces for sleep, not work. Along with ditching your bedroom TV, make sure any light pollution is blocked out with adequate curtains.
- Don't drink too much alcohol. As noted above, alcohol can help you get to sleep at first, but it leads to shallower sleep, as it is dehydrating.
- Don't drink coffee or caffeinated tea in the afternoon. Caffeine is a stimulant that leads to wakefulness — which often hits just as you're trying to go to sleep. Try and cut yourself off around noon to be safe.
- Don't eat a large meal right before bed. This, too, can interfere with your sleep patterns.
- Exercise. It's logical that if you're tired out at the end of the day, you'll more easily be able to fall asleep. Don't time your workout too close to bedtime, as some people find that stimulating rather than exhausting.
- Eat a balanced diet. Avoid too salty foods, fried foods, and an excess of sugar. Anything that puts strain on your body also puts strain on your ability to have healthy sleep.
- Ask your doctor about certain medications. Like caffeine, ephedrine can be stimulating. Certain antidepressants can also affect your sleep patterns. If your doctor has prescribed these to you, they're no doubt of benefit, but ask about side effects and how these can be mitigated.
- Weighted blankets. Some people find these helpful to reduce anxiety and lead to a better night's sleep.
Meditation and Better Sleep: Conclusions
If you're looking for help learning to meditate and get better sleep, make Sofia Health your first stop. It's a great resource for anyone looking to improve their wellness, reduce their stress, and take control of their health.
Learn more about meditation