Looking to get better rest? Consider meditation. Through decades of scientific study, researchers across the world have found the centuries-old practice to have a seriously beneficial effect on sleep. With meditation, you can train your body and mind to enter a sleep state more easily, plus increase your body’s natural production of sleep-friendly hormones while squashing the symptoms of stress that make sleep difficult.
Research conducted by India’s National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences scrutinized dozens of studies on the topic of meditation and its regulatory role on sleep, with studies ranging from early mind-body research in the 1960s to present day analysis. Their review found a positive correlation between meditation and sleep across a mind-blowing number of bodily functions including brainwaves, hormone production, cardiovascular system, and oxygen consumption.
Like a good nap, meditation recharges and refreshes the mind and body with both short and long term benefits. Physiologically, there are actually a lot of similarities between sleep and meditation: both boost your growth hormone and DHEA while reducing the stress hormone cortisol. Even your brainwave activity is stimulated in a similar way, boosting the alpha, theta, and delta waves while reducing beta waves, which are associated with stress and anxiety.
By resting the mind during the day — with meditation, breathing exercises, or other periods of stimuli-free stillness — not only do we get all of those great hormonal and brainwave benefits, but it actually helps us learn to access a rested state more easily.
In the 1970s, Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School and a pioneer in mind-body research coined the phrase “relaxation response” as a scientific term for meditation. In this state, the brain and body enter a deep physiological shift, seeing a decrease in activity across the body’s muscles and organs.
The relaxation response is thought to be the opposite of the stress response (AKA “fight or flight”) and has been thought to improve the immune and digestive systems, plus restore circulation. By training your mind to enter this relaxed state during the day, you can get to sleep more easily at night, and even get better quality rest. It’s like building a muscle or a skill: the more you practice entering a rested state while you’re awake, the easier rest will come at night.
Many sleep disorders are thought to be tied to stress, which boosts cortisol while suppressing melatonin, the hormone involved in regulating sleep/wake cycles. In a year-long study of older adults with moderate sleep disturbance, UCLA researchers found mindful awareness practices to be significantly effective in remedying sleep issues in the short term. Mindful meditation was also shown to reduce the effects of sleep-related daytime impairment (you know the ones — tired, cranky, unfocused). It was also shown to reduce insomnia symptoms, depression symptoms, fatigue interference, and fatigue severity.
In fact, the Sleep Foundation suggests meditation as an all-natural, medication-free way to treat insomnia, noting that the practice has been shown to reduce the use of sleeping pills, likely because meditation reduces measures of arousal in the brain (training that relaxation response and making sleep easier!).
And, as we’ve learned, meditation not only decreases cortisol (sleep’s enemy) but it also increases melatonin (sleep’s close, personal friend). So not only are you teaching your body to enter a more relaxed state more easily and release more of the hormone that’s going to help you sleep, you’re also working to diminish sleep-preventing stress in the first place. In short, meditation is safe, effective, and free to try — why not give it a shot today, and see how your Sleep Score looks tomorrow?