Do you constantly struggle to fall asleep? Do you have trouble staying asleep once you finally drift off, waking up over and over throughout the night? Does the alarm go off in the morning and you feel worse than when you went to bed?
It’s not meant to be this way. If you’re sleeping as a healthy person ought to, you should be falling asleep within five to ten minutes and only wake once or twice during the night. And the aim of the game is to wake up feeling refreshed, not frazzled!
Surveys indicate that millions of Americans suffer from sleep deprivation, which can range from less than optimum hours of shuteye to downright insomnia. Happily, there’s an easy, drug-free solution: meditation.
Often, people struggle to fall asleep simply because their brain is far too active. They race around all day, feeling anxious at work, stressed out on the drive to and from home, and absorbing the worries and anxieties of the people around them. Most people expect these worries to simply vanish when they go to bed, but it doesn’t quite work that way. When you turn out the light, all those worries and struggles of the day come crashing into your head, swimming around and making you anything but relaxed.
The role of stress hormones
That chaos in your head at night is doing more damage than you can imagine. Stress causes the brain to send danger messages to your adrenal glands. This produces the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, which give you the strength and speed you need to outrun what your brain perceives as danger.
But that danger is all in your head, being spurred on by those work worries, financial concerns and relationship problems. These hormones increase your heart rate, get your blood pumping and shut off all bodily functions which aren’t actually needed to survive in the short term. And that includes sleep.
This is why meditation and sleep are such a fantastic combination. Meditation helps to calm the mind, thereby cutting off that stress response and allowing you to finally slip into peaceful oblivion.
Why sleep deprivation is a national pandemic
According to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), sleep deprivation is a very real problem. A recent study completed by the CDC sought to quantify this sleep problem by surveying more than 74,000 people across 12 states.
The survey indicated that a whopping 35 percent of respondents were getting less than seven hours sleep each night. Thirty-eight percent were prone to unintentionally falling asleep during the day. Most alarming of all, close to five percent of respondents reported nodding off or falling asleep while driving.
Back the truck up. According to those stats, more than 3,500 people fell asleep at the wheel in the previous month? That’s pretty darn scary! And remember that this is only in 12 states. Imagine how many people there are across the whole country falling asleep at the wheel at any one time.
The immediate, physical dangers of sleep deprivation are all too clear. The CDC notes that sleep insufficiency is linked to motor vehicle crashes (duh!), industrial disasters and medical errors. Makes you think twice about trusting that yawning doctor brandishing a hypodermic needle or scalpel, doesn’t it?
Dangers of sleep deprivation
Aside from the more obvious dangers, sleep deprivation is doing a whole lot more damage inside your body than you ever realized. Thousands of scientific studies confirm that the effects of sleep influence almost every single function in our bodies, with poor sleep making it virtually impossible to be truly healthy.
To give you an example of just how bad sleep deprivation can be for your health, here’s just a very small sample of the sleep-related studies which continue to pile up:
- A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine quantified the effects of sleep deprivation on 12 healthy young men. Researchers found that after two nights of just four hours sleep, patients experienced significant decreases in the satiety hormone leptin and huge increases in the desire to eat. The consensus: less sleeps means you overeat.
- A study presented in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that test subjects who were deprived of sleep for 17 to 19 hours suffered serious performance reductions. The study determined that this effect was similar to being drunk and that driving tired was the equivalent of drink-driving.
- Yet another study, published in the Journal of Sleep Medicine Reviews, proved that sleep loss plays an important role in the development of both diabetes and obesity. This was due to sleep deprivation altering glucose metabolism, up-regulation of appetite and decreased energy expenditure.
Benefits of meditation
Over the years, meditation has received a lot of bad publicity from people under the impression that it’s simply a fad. These people think that meditation is just a way of showing off or proving how “green” and in connection with the earth a person is. But science shows there is far more to meditation. It can provide significant, wide-ranging health benefits that extend well beyond simple relaxation.
For starters, daily meditation can dramatically increase your energy levels. Constant stress can exhaust your adrenal glands by forcing them to continually produce cortisol and adrenaline. This ultimately leads to a decline in energy levels over time. The only way to break the cycle is to kick stress in the butt.
One of the best ways to do this is none other than meditation! A study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry confirms this, finding that meditation “can effectively reduce symptoms of anxiety and panic and can help maintain these reductions in patients with generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder or panic disorder with agoraphobia.”
Next, meditation can boost your mood, which is perhaps not surprising considering that it’s dynamite against stress. A study published in the Journal of Cognitive Therapy and Research found that meditation can “help to anchor a person in the present moment by identifying, even labeling, what arises in the stream of consciousness without becoming engrossed in or judging it.” Study researchers went on to conclude that this process can lead to a relaxed state of mind, which in turn results in decreased depression and elevated mood.
Many people are surprised to learn that meditation can also help with weight loss. The key to understanding how this works is by recognizing that stress contributes to the production of hormones which causes our bodies to put on weight. When we’re stressed, angry or anxious, our adrenals pump out the hormone cortisol like there’s no tomorrow. These elevated cortisol levels contribute to the rapid accumulation of fat around our bellies, butts and other areas of the body. Researchers have proven that meditation lowers cortisol production, thereby reducing the amount of weight that you put on.
Perhaps the most important benefit of all is the link between meditation and sleep. The ability of meditation to calm the mind and focus awareness on the present moment is a critical element of achieving higher quality sleep. This is particularly effective when you meditate just before bed, helping you to brush off those ever-present worries and remove (temporarily, at least) the stresses of the day from your mind. The result is that you’ll have less trouble getting to sleep, achieve a deeper, more restful slumber and wake up actually feeling refreshed for once!
A 2008 study published in the Journal of Behavior Therapy examined the effect of mindfulness meditation on 30 patients diagnosed with psychophysiological insomnia. After six weeks of tracking the study participants, researchers found that meditation helped the patients achieve “statistically and clinically significant improvements in several nighttime symptoms of insomnia as well as statistically significant reductions in pre-sleep arousal, sleep effort, and dysfunctional sleep-related cognitions.”
A study completed in 2015 further verified the positive relationship between meditation and sleep. The study once again used mindfulness meditation to treat patients suffering from regular sleep disturbances. Researchers found that not only did mindfulness meditation improve overall sleep quality, it also resulted in significant improvements in “insomnia symptoms, depression symptoms, fatigue interference and fatigue severity.”
Types of meditation
There is a huge range of different meditation types you can try. In some respects, this can put a lot of people off meditation, because they’re literally overwhelmed by choices. With this in mind, the best way to choose a type of meditation is to establish your goals. Because different kinds of meditation work on our minds and bodies in different ways, a basic understanding of meditative practices is important.
Type 1: Focused attention
Any type of meditation which involves enhancing your concentration can be classed as focused attention meditation. These practices typically involve focusing one’s attention on a specific object (real or imagined) for a period of time. This hones your attention on a single thing, cutting away distraction and removing all that “white noise” created by everyday worries and plans. A classic example of this is focusing on your breathing, such as with Vipassana Meditation.
Type 2: Mindfulness
Mindfulness meditation differs from focused attention meditation in that it doesn’t require you to focus your attention on one specific thing. With this practice, you let your attention flow freely without judgment of attachment. You allow all of your perceptions, thoughts, memories and senses to flow freely through your mind. In the process, you monitor and examine them. This detached state allows you to calm your mind and analyze your thoughts in absence of emotion. The result is more ordered thinking, a calmer mind and less stress.
Type 3: Effortless transcending
This kind of meditation is arguably one for the pros, as it requires no mental effort or concentration. People who successfully practice this form of meditation achieve a state of emptiness, introversion and calmness. The goal is to recognize your pure essence by eliminating all thought. Understandably, it’s a hard state of achieve, but when you do, apparently the feeling is truly blissful!
— Liivi Hess
Want to learn more about the benefits of meditation? Here are seven ways meditation can help you to become a better person.