How Meditation May Improve Your Sleep Pt.2

The Sleep-Wake Cycle

Humans are diurnal beings, meaning we generally sleep when it’s dark outside and are active when it’s light. This is controlled by our circadian rhythm, commonly known as our sleep-wake cycle. Cycles vary slightly between people, but we have similar mechanisms. Around 9am, when light peeks through our curtains, a small brain region called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) becomes activated. It sends signals to other brain regions, increasing our body temperature and stimulating hormones, such as cortisol, to wake us. Once again, around 9pm, the SCN becomes activated, this time signaling the brain’s pineal gland to release melatonin, a hormone known for regulating sleep, into the blood, making you feel less alert.

Decreasing Melatonin Levels 
Circadian rhythms are great in theory, allowing humans to be active at a common time and create routines utilizing our light-sensitive eyes. However as we age, the level of melatonin secretion tends to decrease, thereby altering our circadian rhythm and making it more difficult to fall asleep. This is a growing concern as over 50% of elderly people suffer from insomnia. Insomnia and sleep disturbances have been associated with neurodegenerative diseases, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. Some studies are demonstrating the possibility that such sleep disturbances preceded the cognitive decline, meaning it’s possible that poor sleep habits could be accelerating such neurodegeneration. As our population ages and continues to outlive our ancestors, we can only imagine that sleep disorders and neurodegenerative decline will also be on the rise. 

Using Melatonin Supplements  

The easy answer for low melatonin levels is to increase them using oral supplements. This is a common solution, as over three million Americans reported using melatonin sleeping aids in a recent survey. Although melatonin supplements are touted as safe, they are not recommended for use over two to three months, making them a short term solution. Users also need to be aware of possible side effects, including daytime sleepiness, headaches, and dizziness, as well as less common effects such as feelings of depression, anxiety and irritability. Dependence has also been associated with the supplement, meaning users may need to continually increase their dosage to receive the same results.

Increasing Melatonin Levels Naturally 

Through the natural health practice of meditation, we may be able to increase our melatonin levels without the fear of side effects or ongoing supplement costs. As researchers begin to understand the associations between meditation and melatonin levels, more studies are being conducted demonstrating its effectiveness. One study enrolled experienced meditators to assess their melatonin levels after completing a meditation and comparing the levels to a night without meditation. They found that only after meditating did their melatonin levels increase. Researchers hypothesized this was due to reduced melatonin metabolization or through a direct effect on the pineal gland. Another study examined specific times of melatonin increase after a night-time meditation, finding that significant increases were seen 10 minutes post-meditation, and even greater melatonin levels seen after 45 minutes. This suggests that meditating around 30 minutes before bed could be an effective natural method to encourage sleep.
Sleep Your Way to Good Health
The ability to have a restful sleep each night is of primary importance for health and wellbeing. Every person knows the frustration of not being able to fall or stay asleep, so if we had a healthful and proven method to enhance our sleeping experience, why not try it? By reducing our secondary arousal, increasing our low frequency brain waves and increasing our melatonin levels, meditation may enable us to spend less time lying awake and more time in deep sleep.