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Medically Reviewed by Dr. Nicole Moshfegh
Between 50 and 70 million American adults chronically suffer from some sleep or wakefulness disorder. About 85 percent of U.S. employees report losing sleep due to work-related stress. Lack of rest undermines wellbeing, productivity, and longevity as risks for depression, anxiety disorders, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, heart attack, stroke, and other civilizational diseases increase.
People robbed of sleep are often driven to reach for sleeping pills. But sleep aids have downsides. They include rapidly increasing tolerance and the corresponding loss of power as well as various side effects. Cautionary tales about Ambien-induced short-term memory loss and the corresponding uninhibited cravings for, say, sweets or sex at bedtime–often forgotten in the morning–are legendary. So instead, we recommend turning to a side-effect free tool. Mindfulness meditation, one of the most common complementary health approaches, can help put restless minds—and bodies—to sleep. The “mind-calming practice that focuses on breathing and awareness of the present moment” has also been demonstrated to diminish fatigue, anxiety, depression, rewire brains, and even repair genes.
Mindfulness works by helping the sleep-deprived focus on the present moment. This is done by observing and acknowledging the sensations, feelings, and thoughts that pass through the mind–all with the awareness that we are not our thoughts and our emotions. This therapeutic method has roots in Buddhist psychology. The appeal of mindfulness has increased markedly in the U.S. over the last 15 years. The key to mindfulness meditation is the practice of detachment from potentially troubling feelings and thoughts. Detachment-based meditation takes place when “a feeling or a thought remains a feeling or a thought and we can remain aware of that without automatically reacting to it.” That is when we are able to see a thought as (merely) a thought and a feeling as (merely) a feeling. It’s freeing! When we do this, we are better able to let go of the anxiety that threatens our sleep.
The ivory towers of Western medicine woke up to meditation’s benefits in the 1960s, when Harvard University doctor Herbert Benson observed that meditation triggers what he dubbed a “relaxation response” (RR). The response is marked by decreased oxygen consumption, increased exhaled nitric oxide, and reduced psychological distress. Benson found that not only does the RR mitigate depression and anxiety, as well as insomnia, but that it can also lead to genetic alterations. In 2008, he and colleagues published an article in the journal Public Library of Science ONE, about how the relaxation response affected genes. Those who regularly meditated experienced anti-oxidation and anti-inflammatory changes—at the genetic level—that counteracted the wear of stress on the body.
Gene changes indicated that a daily RR practice, such as meditation, “may counteract cellular damage related to chronic psychological stress,” the paper maintains.
“It does away with the whole mind-body separation,” Benson said in his 1975 book The Relaxation Response. “Here you can use the mind to change the body, and the genes we’re changing were the very genes acting in an opposite fashion when people are under stress.”
You can use the mind to change the body, and the genes we’re changing were the very genes acting in an opposite fashion when people are under stress."
Several more recent, though also small, studies have affirmed the benefits of mindfulness meditation in specifically curbing insomnia.
A 2015 clinical trial published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, tracked 49 adults, age 55 and older, who complained about moderate sleep problems. Half of them took a course in which they learned about habits that are part of healthy sleep hygiene, such as going to bed at the same time every night and avoiding caffeine before bedtime. The other half took a mindfulness awareness class that taught meditation and other exercises designed to help them focus on “moment-by-moment experiences, thoughts, and emotions.” Both groups met for two hours once a week for the period of six weeks.
Compared with the people in the sleep education group, those in the mindfulness group had less insomnia, fatigue, and depression. The researchers concluded that the use of mindfulness awareness practices “resulted in improvements in sleep quality.”
“We were surprised to find that the effect of mindfulness meditation on sleep quality was large and above and beyond the effect of the sleep hygiene education program,” said David S. Black, PhD, MPH, corresponding author of the study and assistant professor of preventive medicine, Keck School of Medicine of USC and director of the American Mindfulness Research Association.
Not only did the researchers find that mindfulness could help reduce sleep problems in older adults, but that “this effect on sleep appears to carry over into reducing daytime fatigue and depression symptoms.”
We were surprised to find that the effect of mindfulness meditation on sleep quality was large and above and beyond the effect of the sleep hygiene education program.”"
The numbers are small, follow up short and generalizability from aging Southern Californian hippies to the real world may need to be shown,” said professor of sleep medicine Dr. Ron Grunstein who was not involved in the study. “How long will the effect last? Time for bigger numbers and longer trials. But this is a good start
How about younger adults? An even smaller study also indicates that meditation can help alleviate insomnia. According to a 2009 research presented at the 23rd Annual Meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies, insomnia sufferers between 25 and 49 years of age reported improvements in sleep quality and other sleep diary criteria when they were practicing meditation. Factors such as sleep latency, total sleep time, total wake time, wake after sleep onset, sleep efficiency, sleep quality, and depression all got better.
Principal investigator Dr. Ramadevi Gourineni director of the insomnia program at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Evanston, Illinois, who taught the study participants kriya yoga, in which meditation helps to focus inner attention, concluded that the study shows that “teaching deep relaxation techniques during the daytime can help improve sleep at night.”
Not all meditation is necessarily relaxing, however. A lot depends on its object. Often the explicit goal of meditation is mindful wakefulness and a sharpened mental focus. As part of the ReSource project, a one-year longitudinal mental training study, participants practiced various meditation exercises on a daily basis for three months. The practice involved three most commonly practiced types of meditation: breathing meditation, loving-kindness meditation, and observing-thoughts meditation. The authors found markers normally associated with wakefulness, such as higher heart rates and perceived effort, in the more demanding types of meditation—for example, the kind in which the aim is to increase loving-kindness or compassion or other meta-cognitive skills.
The takeaway? There are plenty of benefits to all kinds of meditation. But if it leaves you more focused than relaxed and nowhere near catching some z’s, you might want to stick to just observing yourself breathe.
Keep in mind that mindfulness meditation consists of mostly meditating during the day rather than just at bed time. While it can help some people to mediate or engage in a relaxation exercise as they fall asleep, it is more important to have a regular exercise during the day as well to really see long term benefits.
There are many types of meditation. Some of them promote concentration and stimulate. The less cognitive effort an exercise requires, the more likely it is to promote sleep. For sleep, try mindful breathing, counting, and guided meditation.
Breath grounds all meditation. Breathing meditation means paying attention to one’s breath and redirecting it constantly to simply breathing. The most basic method of mindfulness meditation is to direct your attention on your own breathing—the inhales and the exhales. Focus on the sensations accompanying breathing. This simple thing—paying attention to your breath—can be surprisingly hard, even for longtime practitioners. If the mind wanders away from your breath, expect it. Just gently bring it back each time.
How to do it?
Breathing meditation can be done in any setting, but since your goal is to fall asleep, your eyes should be closed. There are ways to energize with breathing meditation, and ways to calm down. The latter often means extending your exhales slightly longer than you inhales.
Here’s what the process looks like:
For a more structured sleep-inducing technique, check out Harvard trained medical doctor and holistic medicine guru Dr. Andrew Weil’s explanation of the 4-7-8 method. In it, you inhale through your nose to a count of four, hold the breath to a count of seven, and and exhale through your mouth to a count of eight.
“This breathing exercise is a natural tranquilizer for the nervous system,” Weil has said. “Unlike tranquilizing drugs, which are often effective when you first take them but then lose their power over time, this exercise is subtle when you first try it, but gains in power with repetition and practice.”
If the breathing methods seem to take too much effort, there is an even easier way. Remember the old insomnia advice concerning counting sheep? The sheep are optional; the counting is key.
Since the idea behind sleep-inducing meditation is to shut out distractions and lull yourself into an unperturbed state, counting accomplishes this goal very well. It’s something reliable—no effort is required to recall the order of numbers—and something that can set our minds on autopilot.
“As you focus, your attention withdraws from the addictive stream of thought, conclusions, and opinions that your mind is usually fixed on,” writes meditation teacher and cofounder of AboutMeditation.com Morgan Dix. “By slowly bringing your mind back to the count, again and again, you start to train your awareness. That is the power of this practice.”
How to do it?
By slowly bringing your mind back to the count, again and again, you start to train your awareness. That is the power of this practice."
Guided meditation is simply the act of meditating in response to being guided. Its content can be a counting exercise, a breathing meditation or another mindfulness meditation exercise. The key thing about guided meditation is its passivity: you let someone else guide you in the exercise. The guide is a trained practitioner such as a psychologist or a meditation teacher. Since few of us can afford in-person visits from a meditation guru at bed time and eyes need to remain closed when guided meditation is used to induce sleep, it makes sense to opt for audio tapes over visits from in-persona guides, watching videos, or reading books.
How to do it?
Prepare for sleep. When sharing a bed with a partner, you might opt to use headphones that are comfortable enough to sleep with. Use an app ***(JUMP DOWN TO AUDIO LIST BELOW)*** or an audio file with a meditation track that you select ahead of time and find soothing. Your task then is simple: follow the prompts of the guide, often spoken to the tune of soothing music. You will be led through a progressive muscle relaxation exercise, deep breathing, counting down, guided visualization, and other mindfulness exercises.
Happy meditating! And, goodnight.