Meditation and Sleep: Mindful Meditation as a Natural Remedy for Insomnia

A guide to meditation as a natural remedy to sleep and the different methods of meditation you can practice before bed.

By Sheryl Grassie

Jun 9th, 2022

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Meditation is the practice of training your attention and awareness away from the past or future and focusing on the present to achieve and mentally calm and emotionally calm state. For over 2,000 years, Buddhists have reaped the benefits of meditation. Yet, the western world has only recently caught on to the health benefits of this practice. One of the most valuable: a cure for insomnia.

Fifty to 70 million Americans face challenges with falling or staying asleep. One of the root causes of this epidemic of troubled sleep has to do with an inability to turn off the anxious thoughts of the mind.

Meditation, and in particular mindfulness-based meditation, teaches us to be in present time free from worries about the future or concerns of the past. The practice of living in the present can help still worry and restlessness. In quieting your mind, you often eliminate a major barrier to falling asleep or getting back to sleep.  

Meditation does much more than quieting the mind, however. In fact, it works in physiological ways too. Meditation mimics the beginning of sleep by catalyzing a relaxation response in the body, where your temperature drops, your blood pressure goes down, your breathing slows, and your heart rate lowers. It also encourages brain waves to slow and increases the production of both human growth hormone and melatonin (the sleep hormone). Overall, meditation has the same regenerative effects that sleep does, and like sleep, it can dramatically improve mental outlook.

Meditation is not the same as simply relaxing before you fall asleep. It is a practice that must be done regularly over time to experience the benefits. When committed to the practice of mediation, it is an amazingly effective remedy for insomnia.

How Meditation Improves Sleep

Meditation improves sleep by changing body chemistry and affecting brain functioning. Most notably, meditation has been proven to relax the body. The relaxed state achieved through meditation is called “hypometabolic” or “anabolic” and is categorized as a stage in which the body repairs itself, much like sleep. In fact, in many ways, meditation mimics sleep because it provides the same regenerative benefits of sleep, only it takes place while you are awake. Not only does it share in the benefits of sleep, but it also prepares the body for deeper, more restful sleep come night time.

Intensive research on meditation and sleep started as early as the late 1970s with a seminal study (Mason et al, 1979) on the sleep patterns of experienced transcendental meditators. What came from the study was an understanding of the sleep differences between meditators and non-meditators. There are several primary ways that meditation impacts, and actually improves, sleep. First, it increases melatonin, the hormone which aids in sleepiness and lengthens deep sleep, including REM sleep.

Additionally, meditation affected brain waves. In several studies, theta and delta brainwave states took place in the subjects. Theta and delta brain waves, in contrast to the faster beta waves we experience while wide-awake, are slower and associated with deeper sleep. According to the studies conducted, meditation allows our body to achieve these deeper brainwave states quicker and more often.

In short, meditation has a direct effect on sleep by:

  • Creating an anabolic state or relaxation response with lowered metabolic functioning and imitating the “repair” state of sleep while awake
  • Building up the sleep part of the brain that produces sleep hormones and increases melatonin production
  • Increases the frequency and length of REM sleep cycles (also known as the deep, restorative stage of sleep)
  • Moves brain waves out of beta and into the deeper states of theta and delta

Meditation: A Natural Aid For Insomnia

In 2015, the Journal of the American Medical Association International Medicine reported results from a study regarding meditation as a sleep aid.  Older adults with insomnia were tested on two different sleep protocols. One group practiced mindfulness meditation and the other learned about sleep hygiene practices. Researchers found a significant improvement in the sleep quality of the subjects in the meditation group compared to the sleep hygiene group.

Countless other studies, such as the 2014 study conducted by the Oxford Academic SLEEP journal, a 2018 study in the Journal of Applied Gerontology, and the 2005 study in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, have concluded that mindfulness is a viable treatment for adults with chronic insomnia.

Types of Meditation

There are many types of meditation that originate from many sources. Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Islam, Judaism and many other religious and cultural groups have meditative practices as part of their ideologies. Some are well known like Transcendental Meditation (TM) , which was popularized in the 1960s by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Other types of meditative practices are more esoteric, like the native rituals of the Charou Indians in Peru.  Although there are literally dozens of different types of meditation, practiced for a variety of reasons, they generally fall into one of three categories—mantra meditation, mindfulness meditation, or guided meditation. All forms of meditation involve an altered mental focus of some kind, with the goal of concentrating inward and distancing from exterior consensual reality. Some forms of meditation are seen as a tool in spiritual attainment.

Mantra Meditation

Mantra meditations are practiced with a focal point, hence the mantra. A mantra is a chosen word or phrase that is kept private by the meditator and repeated over and over until the mind drifts to another level of consciousness. Mantra meditation might be practiced by sitting in a chair, closing your eyes, and saying your mantra silently. You can also choose another focus instead of a mantra.  You can light a candle and focus on the flame. You might think of a static visual image like a tree and when your mind wanders, bringing your consciousness back to the image of the tree. The point of mantra meditation is to quiet the mind by focusing on a single thing, whether word or object. Transcendental Meditation (TM) is a well-known form of mantra meditation.

Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness is the most popular and most studied form of meditation. In mindful meditation, the goal is to bring your awareness into the present time by focusing on a stimulus in the here and now. For some types of mindfulness meditation, like Zen meditation or Vipassana meditation, both of which are Buddhist practices, the breath is the focus with a goal of uniting the body and the mind. In other popular practices like Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn and popularized in the early 1990s, any focus relating to present time works. For example, you can set your focus to be your breath, the weight of your body, the sound of your breathing, the wind, or other outside stimuli as long as it is happening now.

Guided Meditation

In guided meditation, something outside you, like a teacher or a recording, takes you on a meditative journey deeper into your consciousness. Sometimes the guided aspect is only at the beginning and then you are left to your own imagination. For instance, you might be guided to walk slowly down a flight of stairs and through a series of doors. You are told at the last door you will meet a wise teacher who will have a message for you. At the point in the meditation that you reach the door, the guiding stops and your subconscious will fill in the rest. There are specific guided meditations focusing on different aspects of your life, with guided meditations for depression, for achievement, for relationships. This form of meditation can be done at home alone with a recording, or in a group, or one-on-one with a teacher or therapist.

How to Meditate

Meditation is a simple process and takes as little as five minutes a day. You can, of course, meditate for longer. It is ideally exercised earlier in the day but can be done before bed. If done in the evening, it is recommended you perform meditation at least an hour before. The beauty of meditating is that it is easy to do and can be done wherever you are. There is nothing to purchase or pack, no real restrictions about where or when you can meditate, and it can benefit numerous other areas of your life in addition to your sleep.

Begin by researching the different types of mediation and select which method you’d like to try. You may try a couple of different techniques before deciding on the best for you. Next, join a class or simply pick a time each day to lead yourself through a self-guided meditation session.

For the greatest benefit, meditation should be done every day. Find a quiet comfortable place to sit (lying down is not the preferred posture) and close your eyes. Depending on the method you choose, set your focus on a stimulus, whether that’s a mantra or your breath, and begin. When your mind begins to wander, bring your awareness back to the present through your stimuli (i.e. your manta or breathing).

Start with five minutes a day. Then, over the coming days and weeks, increase the amount of time you meditate to 15-20 minutes daily.