Meditation and good sleep
In our blog we often talk about how sleep affects our daily lives and can help us reach our full potential. Our main focus is always on sleep, exploring the relationship between it and other aspects of our lives. We aim to provide you with up-to-date information from the scientific literature, as well as strategies for optimum rest and recovery.
One of our most basic human drives and a deterrent to sleep is the "fight or flight" response. This reaction, driven by the amygdala or the hypothalamus in the lower brain, can guide us to be attentive at a very high level to the stimuli around us. The reaction in this sense can take the form of fear or anger. Frequently practiced in Eastern cultures and traditions, meditation is an effective method of reducing stress and calming the "fight or flight" reaction, with surprising benefits for an effective rest.
Nowadays, the information we receive is more than ever, from a variety of channels and sources; from friends and other people in our social environment, from television, newspapers, magazines, the Internet and social media. Perhaps there is no better time to study the already tried and remarkably useful method of meditation to soothe the mind and learn to live in peace and balance, and perhaps improve our sleep throughout this process.
What is meditation?
Although there are several different meditation traditions, they all include several key components. Generally speaking, meditation is the practice to pay attention to a single focal point. The focus point may include breathing, body sensation, such as heart rate, or a word or phrase, also known as a mantra. The purpose of meditation is to realize the fluctuations of mind and chaotic thoughts, and then return to the point of focus to calm our thoughts and relax the mind.
What happens when you meditate?
The studies point to the cognitive and physiological ways in which meditation causes relaxation and helps sleep. Studies with rodents have found a connection between the breathing neurons and the locus coeruleus, a brain area associated with excitement and emotion. This suggests that focused breathing, which is part of meditation, can have a perceptible calming effect on action-oriented regions of the brain.
Research also finds astonishing changes that happen in the brain over time, while practicing meditation. For example, studies have shown that expert Buddhist meditators have more gray matter in the brain than other people - that is, the area associated with muscle control and sensory perception, which is otherwise proven to diminish with age. In other words, meditation seems to protect the brain from the unfavorable consequences of aging. Other brain studies show that meditation can reduce activity in the region responsible for the busy mind, wandering rapidly from one topic to the next.
Research also finds that meditation practice can affect serotonin levels - the "happy" neurotransmitter. In summary, meditation is associated with a number of cognitive and physiological processes that can affect your rest positively, such as improving mood, sensory perception, happiness, and reducing the wandering of the mind.
The Benefits of Meditation
We have convincing evidence of the benefits of meditation in terms of general health and well-being. In a particular study, people practicing meditation for eight weeks demonstrated increased left anterior activation (the brain area associated with a positive effect) but also stronger biomarkers of the immune system compared to the control group. The study is new to meditation, which suggests that its benefits appear relatively fast.
Research also offers convincing evidence of the benefits of meditation on sleep. In particular, they show that regular meditators demonstrate a lesser need for a night sleep (or need less sleep) and a less restful and fragmented sleep. In other words, sleep can be deeper and more effective for people who consistently practice meditation, than those who do not. The data also suggests that meditation can be a promising treatment for people suffering from insomnia or long-term sleeping difficulties. Studies of insomnia patients show that meditation can reduce stress and improve sleep for people with similar difficulties.
How to Meditate?
All you need to do is sit down, then close your eyes and find a comfortable posture that makes it easier for you to relax, focus and concentrate on deep relaxation. Put all your attention on your chosen focal point, such as breath, or a particular mantra. Use your focus to ground you and bring you back if different thoughts begin to get into your mind and take away your concentration. Experts usually recommend a 10-minute meditation practice for optimal health benefits.
If you have not meditated so far, 10 minutes can look like an eternity, but practice becomes easier and time will begin to fly. While recommendations on the best time for meditation during the day may vary, in order to create a habit, find the time of the day that best suits your schedule and is possible for regular practice, even in just a few minutes.
As one is exposed to an increasing number of stimuli, potentially limiting our ability to lead a peaceful and balanced life, meditation may be more important than ever. It is a simple practice and can offer tremendous health benefits, including improved positive mood, relief of stress and healthier sleep.