The Power of Meditation for Better Sleep

Dr. Rebecca Robbins
August 27, 2018

Dr. Rebecca Robbins is a sleep researcher whose work examines how sleep impacts our daily lives and can help us meet our full potential. She is partnering with Beautyrest to put a renewed focus on sleep—exploring the connection between sleep and other aspects of our lives. She will be providing ongoing insights from scientific literature as well as strategies for optimal rest and recovery.
 
One of our most basic human drives and a deterrent of sleep is the fight-or-flight response. This response, governed by the amygdala or hypothalamus in our lower brain region, can orient us toward being on high alert to the stimuli around us. Reaction in this pathway can take the form of fear or anger. Commonly practiced in Eastern traditions, meditation is an effective method for stress reduction and calming the fight or flight response with surprising benefits for rest.
 
In today’s age of information, we receive more content than ever before from increasingly nuanced channels; from friends and others in our social environment, to television, newspapers and social media. There is perhaps no better time to learn the time-tested and remarkably beneficial method of meditation for calming the mind and learning to live peacefully and in balance, and perhaps improve your sleep in the process.

Meditation: Defined

While several different traditions of meditation exist, they all involve several core components. In essence, meditation is the practice of turning attention toward a single point of focus. The point of focus could include the breath, a bodily sensation (e.g., the heartbeat), or a word or phrase (also known as a ‘mantra’). The goal in meditation is to acknowledge the fluctuations of your mind and thought patterns, then come back to the point of focus to calm the thoughts and relax the mind.
 

What Happens When You Meditate?

Research points to the cognitive and physiological ways in which meditation induces relaxation and aids with sleep. Studies with rodents have uncovered a pathway between neurons responsible for breathing and the locus coeruleus, a brain region associated with arousal and emotion.1 This suggests that focused breathing, which is part of meditation, can have a tangible calming effect on action-oriented regions of the brain.

Research has also uncovered fascinating changes that take place in the brain over time with meditation. For instance, studies have shown expert Buddhist meditators have more grey matter in the brain compared to controls, the region associated with muscle control and sensory perception, which otherwise is shown to decline with age.2 In other words, meditation appears to protect the brain from adverse implications of aging. Other brain imaging studies have shown meditation can decrease activity in the default mode network (DMN), or the region responsible for a busy mind, wandering quickly from one topic to the next.3
 
Research has also found meditation practice can affect serotonin levels, the “happy” neurotransmitter.9 In sum, meditation is associated with a host of cognitive and physiological processes that can improve your rest, such as improving your mood, sensory perception, and happiness and also reducing the business of your mind.

Benefits of Meditation

We have convincing evidence on the benefits of meditation in terms of overall health and well-being. In research from Dr. Richard Davidson, individuals trained in meditation for eight weeks demonstrated increased left-sided anterior activation (the brain region associated with positive affect), but also stronger immune system biomarkers compared to controls.4 Interestingly, the individuals in Dr. Davidson’s study were new to meditation, suggesting the benefits of meditation can take hold relatively quickly.
 
Research also offers compelling evidence for the benefits of meditation on sleep. Specifically, research shows well-practiced meditators demonstrate lower nocturnal sleep need (e.g., they needed less sleep)  and less fitful and fragmented sleep.5 In other words, sleep may be deeper and more efficient among individuals who consistently practice meditation compared to those who do not. Research also suggests meditation may be a promising treatment for individuals suffering from insomnia, or prolonged sleep difficulty. Research with insomnia patients shows meditation can reduce stress and improve sleep outcomes among individuals with sleep difficulties. 6


How To Meditate

All you need is a place to sit or stand, then close your eyes and find comfortable posture, set a point of focus and consciously slip into deep relaxation. Focus all your attention on your chosen focal point, such as your breath or mantra. Use your focal point to ground you and bring you back if thoughts start to enter the mind and take you away from your focus. Experts generally recommend a meditation practice of 10 minutes for optimal health benefits.
 
If you are new to meditating, 10 minutes can seem like an eternity, however, it becomes easier with practice and the time will start to fly by. While recommendations differ on the best time of day to meditate, in order to establish a routine, find a time of day that best suits your calendar and is feasible for regular practice – even if just for a few moments.

As a human is exposed to an ever-increasing number of stimuli, potentially limiting our ability to lead a peaceful and balanced life, meditation may be more important than ever. Meditation is a simple practice, and can offer tremendous health benefits, including improved positive emotion, stress relief, and improved sleep.
 
References
1Yackle, K., Schwarz, L. A., Kam, K., Sorokin, J. M., Huguenard, J. R., Feldman, J. L., … Krasnow, M. A. (2017). Breathing Control Center Neurons that Promote Arousal in Mice. Science (New York, N.Y.), 355(6332), 1411–1415. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aai7984
2 Chételat G, Mézenge F, Tomadesso C, Landeau B, Arenaza-Urquijo E, Rauchs G, André C, de Flores R, Egret S, Gonneaud J, Poisnel G, Chocat A, Quillard A, Desgranges B, Bloch J-G, Ricard M, Lutz A. Reduced age-associated brain changes in expert meditators: a multimodal neuroimaging pilot study. Sci Rep. 2017;7:10160. doi: 10.1038/s41598-017-07764-x
3 Brewer JA,  Worhunsky PD,  Gray JR,  Tang YY,  Weber J, Kober H. (2011). Meditation experience is associated with differences in default mode network activity and connectivity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 108(50, 20254-20259. doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1112029108
4https://journals.lww.com/psychosomaticmedicine/Fulltext/2003/07000/Alterations_in_Brain_and_Immune_Function_Produced.14.aspx
5https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3756031/
6https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26390335