Can Meditation Improve Your Sleep?



Ryan the authorRyan Fiorenzi, Certified Sleep Coach
Updated: June 25, 2020

Meditation and Sleep

Meditation is a great option for people who are suffering from insomnia to get to sleep and stay asleep. It's safe (no side effects), doesn't cost anything, can be combined with other methods of improving sleep, and it can be done by anyone.

A 2015 study from the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) concluded that mindfulness meditation helped improve sleep quality among older adults with moderate sleep disturbances. 49 participants whose with an average age of 66 were split into two groups. Half of the group was taught mindfulness meditation, and the other half was taught sleep education. Both groups met 6 times, once a week for two hours. The mindfulness meditation group showed significant improvement relative to the sleep education group regarding insomnia symptoms, depression symptoms, and daytime fatigue.

What is Mindfulness Meditation?

The Mindfulness Meditation program used in the JAMA study is from the UCLA Mindful Awareness Center (MARC), whose purpose is to "foster mindful awareness across the lifespan through education and research to promote well-being and more compassionate society." MARC's website defined mindfulness as "Paying attention to present moment experiences with openness, curiosity, and a willingness to be with what is. It is an excellent antidote to the stresses of modern times. It invites us to stop, breathe, observe, and connect with one's inner experience. There are many ways to bring mindfulness into one's life, such as meditation, yoga, art, or time in nature. Mindfulness can be trained systematically, and can be implemented in daily life, by people of any age, profession, or background."

Their program isn't just seated meditation but includes mindful eating and mindful movement. Participants started with a 5-minute session, and gradually worked their way to 20-minute sessions.

How to Practice Meditation

There are many ways to practice mindfulness. Many meditation teachers recommend practicing both seated and moving meditations.

Seated Meditation

Here are some steps to practice mindfulness in a seated meditation:

  1. Find a place that is quiet and without distraction.
  2. Sit cross-legged, on your shins, or seated on a bed or chair with spine erect. Place the backs of your hands on your thighs so your palms are up.
  3. Breathe in for a count of 10, hold your breath for 10, and exhale for 10. Repeat that 5 times.
  4. Breathe in and tense your entire body for a few seconds, then relax and exhale quickly. Repeat 5 times.
  5. Let your breath flow in and out without controlling it, and spend some time feeling a sense of relaxation. If you feel tension in any body part, you can tense and relax that area and try to consciously relax it.
  6. Watch your breath without controlling it. Let go of any thoughts and feelings that come up.  It's a habit to think about the past, the future, what you have to do, to worry, to fear; remind yourself that this is your break from the normal mental routine. When any thoughts or feelings arise, just go back to watching your breath and feeling that sense of calmness.

It's easiest to start with just a few minutes of practice and gradually increase the amount of time. Understand that some days may feel very peaceful and other days will feel like mental warfare. Over time as you build the habit it will get easier.

Moving Meditation

Moving meditation is practicing mindfulness while doing many activities. Many people use martial arts such as Tai Chi as a form of moving meditation, but you could practice mindfulness while driving, washing the dishes, doing yoga, dancing, or walking.

Here are some steps for practicing mindfulness while driving:

  1. Turn off the radio, or turn on some calming music.
  2. Start by taking a few deep breaths and let go of any tension in your body.
  3. Practice being aware of all of the different components of driving without thinking about or feeling any emotions. Notice your grip on the steering wheel, the pressure you put on the pedals, and be aware of where you are on the road.
  4. If any thoughts or feelings come up, just go back to focusing on the practice of driving. Don't hurry, enjoy the present moment, and keep yourself in a relaxed and aware state.

Many mindfulness practitioners find it helpful to practice both seated and moving meditations. If you experience a lot of stress and anxiety throughout the day, you may find it difficult to slow your mind down at night. But if you had practiced some relaxation and mindfulness during the day, it will be easier to get into a state of calmness when you sit to practice meditation.

For more ways to practice mindfulness, visit the MARC website.

Body Scan Relaxation

Two people who used to suffer from insomnia we've spoken to swear by using a body scan technique to get to sleep every night. The technique isn't technically a meditation, but a relaxation technique to help fall asleep.

Start by laying flat on your back. Take a few deep breaths and let go of any tension in your body. If you that feel any body part is tense, breathe in, tighten up that muscle group, then exhale while completely relaxing that area.

Close your eyes and imagine a wave of relaxation slowly working it's way from your feet to your head. Visualize the relaxation going through your feet, calves, thighs, all the way up to your head. If you get to your head and you haven't fallen asleep, repeat the process.

Other Ways to Practice Meditation

If you find meditating alone is too much of an uphill battle, look for a yoga school that teaches meditation. Many won't have a class dedicated to meditation but will incorporate it into their yoga postures classes.

You can also ask a friend or partner to do it with you. Similar to having a workout partner, you'll stick through whatever time you've agreed to meditate for your partner's sake, and they'll do the same for you.

Some people find that they focus more when they're guided through a meditation. There are several options, including guided meditations on youtube and meditation apps. Here are a few popular options:

Meditation Advice

We've spoken with several experienced meditators who offered the following tips:

  1. Sometimes it will seem almost impossible to control your mind and emotions. Keep trying, even though you don't feel that you're making any progress. The days where you try hard lead to days where it seems to come easy.
  2. Try to practice at least once per day, if not more. You can also get in the habit of taking a couple of deep breaths and calming your mind and emotions a few times per day. If you only try to meditate once every few days, you may find that you don't notice much benefit. Just like any investment, you're more likely to get better results when you put more in.
  3. When meditating and any thoughts enter your mind, let those thoughts go. Everyone gets distracted when they meditate, experienced meditators have made a habit of not letting one thought turn into many more thoughts.
  4. Find times that work for you. Some people have more success when they wake up, others before they go to bed. You may find that meditation is a lot easier after you exercise.
  5. Quality is more important than quantity. If you're struggling, use a timer and set the time for short periods of concentrated focus.

Neuroplasticity

The term "Neuronal plasticity" was first used in the early 1900s by Santiago Ramon y Cajal, a Spanish neuroscientist and pathologist. Neuroplasticity was first used by Polish neuroscientist Jerzy Konorski in 1948 to describe changes in the neuronal structures that make up our brains. An easy way to understand it is that certain activities can "rewire" your brain.

In an article published by the National Institutes of Health entitled "Buddha's Brain: Neuroplasticity and Meditation," researchers explain "Over the course of meditating for tens of thousands of hours, the long-term practitioners had actually altered the structure and function of their brains." Researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and measured hemodynamic changes to study the brains of experienced meditators.

How Your Genes Respond to Meditation

Harvard University doctor Herbert Benson first coined the term "relaxation response" (RR). He was one of the early medical pioneers to write about the benefits of meditation, noting the relaxation response was recognized by decreased oxygen consumption, increased exhaled nitric oxide, and reduced psychological distress. He wrote about meditation reducing anxiety, depression, and insomnia, and he said it also leads to genetic changes. Benson, the author of The Relaxation Response and founder of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine and Massachusetts General Hospital, claims that the relaxation response  is "Effective with virtually all diseases with a stress component."

Dr. Benson explains further in a Washington Post article, "What we have found is that when you evoke the relaxation response, the very genes that are turned on or off by stress are turned the other way. The mind can actively turn on and turn off genes. The mind is not separated from the body."

Another study published by the National Institutes of Health found that people who meditated for 8 weeks had an increased change of expression of genes that control inflammation, circadian rhythms, and glucose metabolism.

Can Meditation Help You?

Meditation can be an effective way to help increase the amount of restful sleep you get every night. As with any skill it takes practice, so don't expect amazing results right from the beginning. Start with just a couple minutes twice per day, and gradually add more time. If you find your mind wandering, you can reduce the time to get a more focused practice.

And don't expect meditation to fix your sleep issues. You may be breaking some of the basic rules of getting good sleep. Learn the basics from top experts of good sleep hygiene to find out what you are doing that's preventing you from getting to sleep, staying asleep, and/or waking up refreshed.