Our busy lives can be full of responsibilities, stressors, or bad habits that often make it tough to get a good night’s sleep. Online, you can find hundreds of suggestions and proposed remedies for people struggling to get the sleep they need. One such suggestion that appears frequently is meditation.
But we wanted to take a closer look at the science: can meditation really improve sleep quality?
Why it can be difficult to get quality sleep
If you’re having trouble during the night, you’re not alone. As many as one in three adults suffer from insomnia, with causes ranging from caffeine intake to clinical psychological disorders like anxiety. Getting enough sleep is critical for our health, and chronic insomnia can actually make underlying conditions worse. And while individuals should seek treatment for underlying psychological disorders, personal habits also dictate how well we sleep at night.
So what role can meditation play in our daily routines to ensure we get the sleep we need?
Harvard Health highlighted the potential benefits of certain types of meditation, and multiple studies also suggest that meditation can have physiological impacts on the sleep cycle.
Science says meditation does improve sleep
Research written in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, with regular meditation over the course of two weeks, participants showed positive improvements on both sleep quality and duration. Another study, published by the Medical Science Monitor, also suggests that daily meditation practice can lead to improved sleep quality as self-reported by participants.
Two other studies, published by JAMA Internal Medicine in 2015 and another by Sleep and Biological Rhythms in 2016, found that mindfulness meditation improved the sleep quality of older participants. In fact, the 2016 study noted improvements in all stages of the sleep cycle.
Meditation, GABA and the sleep cycle
To understand how meditation can help improve your quality of sleep, it is important to understand the sleep cycle. The brain goes through four stages of sleep. Stages one through three are progressively deeper phases of sleep known as slow-wave sleep or Non-Rapid Eye Movement (Non-REM) sleep. During these phases, electrical activity in the brain slows down, the heart rate decreases and breathing becomes more shallow. The last phase, Rapid Eye Movement (REM), consists of increased brain activity. REM sleep is when most dreaming occurs. A quality night of rest will include several repetitions of these steps, which get longer each time.
With that process in mind, we can transition to the molecular mechanisms in the brain that regulate the sleep system, focusing on one class of molecules in particular: GABA. This is an inhibitory neurotransmitter; it acts by reducing activity between neurons. According to a report in Neuroscience, a publication of the International Brain Research Organization, and a study written by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, there are three subsets of these receptors in the brain, each with different effects on sleep:
- GABAA agonists enhance non-REM, slow-wave sleep-inducing deep sleep, but can decrease the quality of REM sleep. Multiple drugs including barbiturates (the active compounds in sedatives like Seconal and Donnatal), benzodiazepines (the active compounds in Xanax, Valium and Klonopin), imidazopyridines (the active compounds in Ambien and NSAIDs like ibuprofen) and cyclopyrrolones (the active compound in Lunesta) function by interacting with GABAA receptors.
- GABAB agonists enhance deep sleep and the functioning of the circadian rhythm, but with minimal effects on REM sleep. These agonists are not as well-studied as their GABAA counterparts, but include the compound GHB, or sodium oxybate.
- GABAC agonists have been studied for having potential uses in treating insomnia and narcolepsy, but have not been made clinically available and are not fully understood.
Transcendental Meditation is a type of meditation associated with hormonal changes in the brain that mimic the effects of GABA and stimulate releases of the neurotransmitter in specific areas of the brain. This is according to an article published in Medical Hypothesis. The article goes on to say that the relaxation associated with Transcendental Meditation is similar to the feelings of euphoria and relaxation experienced after exercise.
Another article, published in Brain Stimulation, found that the production and release of GABA in the brain increased after a single meditation session. This increase measurably changed the brain activity of meditators compared to a control group.
Put more simply, Dr. Herbert Benson, the author of the JAMA study, told Harvard Health that meditation works by inducing what he calls the “relaxation response.” The relaxation response describes the psychological changes that occur when the body calms down—it’s literally the opposite of becoming stressed out.
Tips for meditating your way to better sleep
This all sounds great, but meditation can be scary for beginners. Luckily, there are many resources that offer introductions into the world of meditation.
There are many schools of meditation to choose from, each with different methods of training and relaxation. To find one that is right for you, several the Mayo Clinic lists include: guided meditation, yoga practice, Transcendental Meditation, mindfulness meditation, Tai Chi and Qi Gong. While some commercial forms require instruction or certification, there are resources online available free of charge to help beginners integrate meditation into their daily routine. UCLA Health offers a free meditation app that provides instruction and resources informed by the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center. Other popular apps include Headspace, Calm and Simple Habit.
To determine if meditation is right for you, take 20 minutes and try the following routine from the Mayo Clinic:
- Keep an open mind to the process of meditation
- Find a quiet place where you will not be disturbed or interrupted
- Assume a comfortable position that allows you to maintain good posture, either sitting, laying down, standing up or walking
- Deep breathing at a consistent pace
- Relax your muscles
- Focus your mind on something. This can be a mantra, your breathing, part of your body or an emotion
- Consider choosing a phrase or word to repeat as you meditate
- Be mindful and recenter your thoughts as you notice your mind wandering
It is important to remember that quality is the key factor and is a product of a holistic regiment of healthy habits. Be sure to read our eight tips for a better night’s sleep.