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Sleep Better with Meditation

SLEEP & HEALTH

How Meditation Helps You Sleep

If we don't get the recovery that sleep provides, we can feel even more stressed and anxious, and a vicious cycle begins. Both exercise and meditation make the brain release hormones that help us feel good.

CURA of Sweden explains how meditation and mindfulness are good for sleep and has some simple exercises you can use night after night.

What is Meditation?

Meditation means that you focus your thoughts on one object, activity or thought in order to reach a state of physical and mental relaxation and tranquillity. The aim is to calm the mind and improve well-being by reducing stress and silencing or ignoring the thoughts that constantly bother us.

Meditation is a practice with its origins in Hinduism, and is thousands of years old. Nowadays, meditation is found in many cultures around the world. Buddhism describes meditation as 'resting effortlessly in what is'. No matter how or where one meditates, the aim of meditation is to achieve mental clarity and inner peace.

There are many different ways to meditate. Usually you meditate by silently repeating a word (a so-called mantra), focusing on a single point or, for example, on your own breathing. When you repeat a mantra, thoughts are released and it becomes easier to concentrate while you become more conscious. There are also guided meditations that focus on the whole body or on parts of it. Some meditations also involve prayer, sound or colours.

Why Meditation Is So Good for You

Nowadays scientists are conducting more and more research into the effects of meditation. Research has revealed that meditation improves our cognitive flexibility, concentration, memory capacity and ability to regulate our emotions. These are all qualities that help us make more thoughtful and compassionate decisions.

Physiologically, both breathing and heart rate decrease when you meditate and less of the stress hormone cortisol is released. The body's healing ability also increases. Meditation causes the brain to release a cocktail of happy hormones. The pain-relieving happiness hormone endorphin increases, along with the feel-good hormone serotonin, and the love hormone, oxytocin. Meditation also increases the amount of the sleep hormone melatonin which explains why we sleep better when we meditate.

Meditation lowers the activity of the sympathetic nervous system, which is the involuntary nervous system responsible for raising blood pressure and heart rate and preparing the body for physical activity. As well as this, meditation increases the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system, which works when the body is resting.

The Difference Between Meditation and Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a type of meditation and roughly means 'being consciously present'. You train yourself to only observe your surroundings, and allow thoughts to come and go, without reacting to them or judging them. The point of mindfulness is to focus on the present without worrying about the future or processing the past. Mindfulness is used, among other things, to manage stress, anxiety, depression and sleep problems.

In meditation, mindfulness and also yoga, breathing is very important. Your stress level, heart rate and blood pressure drop when you breathe deeply. Then a signal is sent to the brain to calm down, which affects you both physically and mentally.

Deep breathing with your stomach, so-called diaphragmatic breathing, can be an effective way to relax and reduce stress levels if you have difficulty falling asleep. The focus of the breath is shifted down from the chest to the abdomen. Sit on a chair or lie down, and breathe through your nose. Put one hand on your chest and one on your stomach. Push your stomach out as you inhale and draw in the air as far down into your lungs as possible. Relax your stomach as you breathe out. The hand on the stomach should move more than the one on the chest. It should go up and down when you breathe in and out.

How Meditation and Mindfulness Can Help You Sleep Better

Many studies on meditation have shown that it reduces stress and anxiety and increases well-being. Meditation also helps you sleep better as it creates a state of relaxation. Research shows that mindfulness, meditation and exercise can help with falling asleep and improve the quality of sleep itself. This works for both elderly people as well as people with chronic sleep disorders.

It's not yet fully known how meditation affects sleep, but it seems to cause changes in the brain that can result in better sleep. The more you meditate, the better the effects on your stress level and well-being, which can lead to better sleep. Meditation doesn't have to take long. Studies have shown that daily, short meditation exercises of just thirteen minutes improved participants' memory, concentration and mood.

Tips: Exercises to Help You Sleep Better

Practicing Meditation

Meditation takes practice. That's why you shouldn't give up if it feels pointless or you can't concentrate. Start with just a few minutes each day and gradually your experience will change. Find a quiet and peaceful place and sit or lie down. Close your eyes and breathe slowly. Focus on breathing in and out. If thoughts come, don't focus on them. Instead, just let them pass. Continue to focus on your breathing.

You can also choose a mantra to repeat. Start by saying it out loud to yourself, then whisper it, then finally say it quietly in your head. You can create your own positive affirmations or mantras such as "I am good" or "Love and light". Find something that makes you feel strong.

An Easy Mindfulness Exercise

Do a simple body scan. Sit comfortably with your back straight, or lie on your back. Close your eyes and focus on your breathing. Focus on your body, part by part and think about how you feel. Start with the soles of your feet, your toes, your ankles and so on, working your way up. This is how you scan your body.

Deep Breathing Exercises

Pranayama is a breathing exercise for de-stressing. Sit comfortably keeping your back straight.

  • Place the right thumb over the right nostril and the right index finger over the left nostril. Breathe out.
  • Then close the right nostril with the right thumb and inhale through the left nostril. Count to four in your head.
  • Now close the left nostril and hold your breath while counting to four.
  • Then open your right nostril and exhale for four.
  • Hold your breath again for four counts.
  • Inhale again into the right nostril for four.
  • Close your right nostril with your thumb and hold your breath for four.
  • Breathe out through your left nostril for four and then hold your breath for four.
  • Now you have completed one set. Repeat at least four times.

Yoga for Better Sleep

There are several good yoga exercises for relaxation and sleep:

  • Legs Against the Wall: lie on your back and stretch your legs towards the ceiling at an angle of 90 degrees. If that feels too difficult, rest your feet against a wall and push your buttocks against the wall to hold a 90-degree angle. Let your arms fall to your sides and relax for at least five minutes.
  • On Your Back with Butterfly Legs: lie on your back, bend your knees and pull your feet towards your buttocks. Let your knees fall to the sides and down to the floor like 'butterfly wings'. Relax with your arms out by your sides.

Apps for Meditation and Mindfulness

There are lots of mindfulness and meditation apps available to choose from. Many of them also have meditation exercises with a focus on improving your quality of sleep. YouTube has plenty of guided meditations and yoga exercises for all levels and needs.

With the help of technology, you can easily find different ways to unwind and sleep better. Guided meditation for beginners. Most are available in free or paid versions.

  • Headspace – the classic meditation app. Exercises for beginners.
  • The Mindfulness App – mindfulness and meditation.
  • Stop, Breathe & Think – helps young people under twenty-five to meditate and practise mindfulness.
  • Calm – a popular meditation app with guided meditations, stories and sounds.
  • Smiling Mind – a free meditation app created by a non-profit organisation. Aimed at young people.
  • Insight Timer – a large selection of meditations and mindfulness exercises.

Sources:

https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/12-benefits-of-meditation 

https://www.nytimes.com/guides/well/how-to-meditate

https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/8753-201512048753

https://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/what-mindfulness

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhist_meditation

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meditation

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_meditation

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31982328

https://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/docs/default-source/members/sigs/spirituality-spsig/avdesh-sharma-meditation-as-medication2.pdf?sfvrsn=13e6a51_2#:~:text=There%20is%20evidence%20for%20increased,serotonin%20activity%20in%20the%20brain.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4769029/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6784812/

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12035-013-8468-9

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3328970/#:~:text=Meditation%20increases%20melatonin%20concentration%20by,pg%20ml%3B%20unpublished%20data).

https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/12-benefits-of-meditation

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5455070/

https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/mindfulness-meditation-helps-fight-insomnia-improves-sleep-201502187726

https://www.sleepfoundation.org/insomnia/treatment/meditation

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26900914

https://www.healthline.com/health/meditation-for-sleep#how-to-meditate

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