How Meditation May Improve Your Sleep

The Stress of Sleep

How often do we hear healthcare professionals stress the importance of getting seven to eight hours of sleep each night? We’re told that sleeping less than that is detrimental to our health, and sleeping more also has health consequences. So with those thoughts in mind we ensure we get to bed at a reasonable hour. However, there we are, staring up at the ceiling, with each passing minute becoming increasingly concerned about the sleep we are missing out on. Sound familiar? It might, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention(CDC) states that over one third of all Americans aren’t getting enough sleep. In a review of 13 countries, including some of the most populated places in the world, the United States and Canada tied for third as the most sleep-deprived. As more research is conducted, we are finding that sleep impacts almost every aspect of health, including fertility, heart disease, immunity levels and mental wellbeing. 
Contributing Factors to Insomnia 
A major contributor to insomnia - the inability to fall and stay asleep - is deemed to be cognitive and metacognitive arousal. Cognitive, or primary, arousal occurs during those times when your brain just can’t seem to turn itself off. It’s those to-do lists you begin as soon as your head hits the pillow, or the thought that you need to get eight hours a sleep to function - both are interfering with your ability to fall asleep. Metacognitive, or secondary, arousal is based on the importance you give those cognitive thoughts, like placing the outcome of your entire next day on your current inability to fall asleep, with no way around it. In combination, primary and secondary arousal are thought to encourage and perpetuate insomnia.

Meditation May Reduce Secondary Arousal  

A common form of treatment is the use of prescription sleeping pills, with millions of Americans reportedly using them. However, these pills come not only at a monetary cost, but also at a health cost, with side effects that can include memory loss and a dependence on the drug. One possible alternative could be meditation, which is increasingly becoming known for its ability to reduce secondary arousal and increase low-frequency brain waves associated with deep sleep.

How Do We Solve Sleeping Problems? 

Secondary arousal may show up as: “I need eight hours of sleep, but I’m lying awake in bed and need to get up in seven hours. Therefore I cannot have my most productive day tomorrow”. We’ve accepted these thoughts as fact with no way around them. But, what if there was? Studies have shown that mindfulness meditation can allow us to accept our current state with compassion and unattachment, letting us acknowledge that in this fleeting moment we are having difficulty falling asleep, but not dwelling on it. In doing so, meditation reduces our distress and arousal, thereby stopping this sleep-impeding cycle and helping us fall asleep.
Meditation and Lower Frequency Brain Waves
Meditation may also enable us to get to a deeper level of sleep and wake up more energized, which may be due to an increase in lower frequency brain waves. As we go from being awake to asleep, our brain goes through different brain waves. Beta waves are one of the fastest, and are produced when we are alert. When we begin to relax, slower alpha waves are produced. As we enter the stages of sleep, our brain waves continue to slow down, producing theta waves and then delta waves. But when our brain is aroused, it takes a longer time to produce slower brain waves, thereby inhibiting our ability to sleep. However, experienced meditators have been shown to have reduced levels of beta and alpha waves, possibly due to an increased level of calmness from the practice. These lower frequency waves may enable them to get past these barriers of an active brain and efficiently reach deep levels of sleep.
Investing in Your Health
Every day our society continues to advance, with no indication of slowing down. As exciting as these times are, the stimulation may impede our ability to receive adequate rest. We can continue searching for the quick fix to our sleeping problems; however, it’s possible that investing energy into a daily meditation practice could be our most holistic and healthful tool.