Anyone who has ever had trouble getting enough sleep knows just how much exhaustion effects every aspect of your life. Being under slept has been linked to problems with everything from our immune system to learning. But did you know that meditation can help to transform your sleep?
I love science, but it rarely impacts me more than my own direct experience. 12 years ago, long before reading any of this, I started meditating for 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes at nights. What happened? I started sleeping for an hour less every night. I would wake up energized after 7 hours of sleep instead of exhausted after 8. I assumed that the time spent meditating was so restful that I just needed less sleep. This is surely part of the truth. What the science below shows is that I am also likely getting a much higher quality of sleep when meditate regularly.
You probably know that sleep happens in stages. Generally we talk about 4 stages. In stage 1 you are between sleep and wakefulness and it is very easy to wake you up. In stage 2 you are falling deeper to sleep and it becomes harder to wake you. In stage 3 you experience what is called Slow Wave Sleep (SWS) or Deep Sleep. Most of us can not remember this stage, it is one of emptiness or darkness. Stage 4 is Rapid Eye Movement (REM). This is when we dream.
The majority of the night is spent in SWS and REM. These are believed to be the times when the body and mind rest, regenerate, assimilate the days events and prepare for the coming day. Science aside, we all know what it feels like to wake up well rested and, perhaps more often, to wake up feeling tired. The length of time spent asleep matters, but I for one notice that some nights I get 8 hours that felt restless and wake up feeling exhausted. Other times I get 8 hours that feel like I dropped into an abyss and I wake up feeling amazing. Clearly sleep is not just about quantity, but quality as well.
This paper reports that meditators (both TM and Vipassana) experience “enhanced states of SWS and REM sleep compared to that of non-meditating control group.” We know that the act of meditating itself is restful. I have reported that it can lower stress at work and that the reductions in depression, anxiety and stress last long beyond the actual meditations, but now we are seeing that it can also make sleep more restful.
It is widely accepted that sleep changes with age. The amount of time that we spend in SWS decreases over the years. But this can be counteracted with meditation! The authors note a study suggesting that “older meditators could retain the sleep pattern of younger non-meditating controls.” Again, meditators appear to get more out of the same amount of sleep.
The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) controls bodily functions that are usually beneath our conscious awareness. I wrote recently about how you can use breathing exercises to help regulate and control things such as heart rate, digestion and arousal while awake (to be posted 12/9). This paper includes evidence that meditation can have helpful, rest promoting effects on the ANS while we are asleep.
When you are in a “fight or flight” state your sympathetic nervous system is active. The opposite state is often called “rest and digest”. This is regulated by the parasympathetic nervous system. It is now believed that restorative sleep can be characterized by “autonomic flexibility.” In order to get the most restful sleep possible we want to have some sympathetic activity during REM sleep that is then balanced with high parasympathetic activity during deep sleep (SWS). This balance is a sign of “autonomic flexibility”. The authors point out that in non-meditators “aging alters autonomic flexibility leading to an overall increase in sympathetic activity along with reduced parasympathetic activity, thereby bringing about autonomic arousal and decrease in sleep quality.” But, “Vipassana meditation practices help to retain the flexibility of autonomic activity during different stages of sleep.”
Perhaps you have heard of people taking Melatonin to aid in sleep? Well, “Meditation practices are reported to enhance the melatonin levels” as well. The benefits of meditation on sleep reported in this paper go on to include effects on blood flow to various regions of the brain, metabolic function regulation and even stress reduction. As I said at the start, understanding the science is great, but what I really recommend is that you try this out for yourself and see what happens for you. Drop me a note. I’d love to hear about your experiences.
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