How does meditation help sleep?
Struggling with your snooze? Meditation could be the answer.
If you’re struggling with your sleep there are many things you can try to improve your rest. Regular exercise (but not late at night), a bedroom free of tech and other distractions, and ditching the late-afternoon coffees are all common strategies. One thing you might not yet have tried, though, is meditation.
Coach spoke to Niraj Shah, founder of Meditation: Unlocked, for more information on how meditation can help you get some valuable shuteye.
There have been a couple of studies in this area. One in particular from the University of Massachusetts Medical Center looked at meditation and the production of melatonin, the sleep hormone.
What’s supposed to happen is when it gets darker our natural rhythms start producing this melatonin and it helps us to sleep. But in modern life we’re always on, using screens, working late, eating late – it messes with that melatonin production.
The study showed that melatonin levels in meditators were significantly higher than in non-meditators, but the most interesting thing about it was that it showed it was a short-term effect. With someone who’s not meditating and starts meditating, it comes fairly soon, and with someone who is meditating and stops, the effect wears off quite quickly.
Do you need to meditate every day?
The ideal amount is really difficult. You have to put it in the context of modern life. It’s realistic for most people to meditate once a day. There are schools of thought that say twice a day, but I’m not sure how realistic that is. It’s like if you go to the gym five days a week and have a couple of rest days, that’s probably optimal, but you can get most of that benefit from going three times a week.
How long will it take to have an effect on your sleep?
That depends on you and your circumstances but I’d say for most people you’ll start noticing a change once you have been meditating three or four times a week for a couple of weeks.
The important point is that it doesn’t work in isolation. We all know we should move and eat certain things and so on. If we do all or enough of those things, it’s going to be more effective. The point is that we should be working our mind to some degree.
So a healthy mind is just one pillar of a healthy lifestyle?
Yes. It always concerns me when I see meditation practitioners treating meditation as the be all and end all, because it’s clearly not going to cure everything, but it’s a really important pillar. Mind, body, fuel, rest – that’s everything. It’s better to have four of them covered in a reasonable way, rather than being really great at two of them and not doing the others.
Are meditation apps a good way to start?
I think they’re really good because they make meditation super-accessible. Headspace does a great job, and there’s a couple of others like Calm and Simple Habit that are really awesome platforms. I still occasionally use an app and do guided meditations.
I know apps are a bit contentious in the meditation community – the idea that they’re dumbing it down and so on – but I don’t see it that way. I think if you can meet somebody at the place they’re ready to be met and it opens their mind to these ideas, that can only be a good thing.
The thing to remember is they can only take you so far. I don’t know of an app that can teach you how to meditate but a lot of these apps will at least guide you through the process and start opening you up to these concepts, and they will have an effect, so I highly recommend them as a first port of call.
After the apps the next step is to go to a group meditation session with a teacher. You can find these things in religious centers and yoga studios. If you’re really starting from scratch then group classes are a good thing. More gyms and workplaces are putting them on.
When you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep, there are some techniques from the meditation world that can really help.
Are there any techniques readers can try straight away?
Start to focus on your breath. The more you train and acclimate your mind to do things like focus your attention on your breath, the more you can do it when you’re not in a meditation practice. If I wake up at two in the morning I used to be up for couple of hours and my mind would start racing. Now I can very easily drop into focusing on my breath – with every exhalation, letting some tension go and sinking deeper into the mattress. By doing that, I can’t be in my active thoughts.
The second technique is body scanning – moving around different parts of the body and focusing on them. You can combine that with a non-meditation technique called progressive muscle relaxation. So I start with my fist – I squeeze it then let it go. Then squeeze the forearm and let it go, then the biceps and let it go. By focusing on these body parts, you’re allowing your mind to slow down, and through this process it’s normal to fall asleep.