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February 18, 2017
GIVEN THE FRANTIC PACE of today’s lifestyle, it’s no wonder that millions of Americans suffer from inadequate sleep, both in quantity and quality. In fact, nearly a third of adults report occasional sleeplessness, and 10 percent of the population suffers from chronic insomnia.
While there are several types of prescription medications that can help people fall and stay asleep, many people prefer to save medication as a last resort. One popular go-to for people who have trouble sleeping is meditation.
Meditation, at its most basic, is the practice of being in the present moment, rather than dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. It can take many forms, but the variety that’s currently most popular for sleep improvement is called mindfulness meditation. This type of meditation essentially consists of being aware of thoughts drifting freely through your head without reacting to or focusing on them.
All too often, we find that at the end of an arduous day, when our bodies (and minds) desperately need rest, our brains insist on staying wide awake, replaying the day’s missteps repeatedly or concocting worst-case scenarios for our current, nagging issues. Many people find it hard to flip the switch and transition their racing minds into sleep mode. Meditation is like a shortcut to this switch.
A clinical trial, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2015, found that mindfulness meditation taught by a certified professional was more effective at improving sleep quality than just practicing good sleep habits, such as maintaining a regular bedtime and avoiding stimulants like caffeine in the evening. That’s because meditation promotes relaxation by shutting off the stress response. It quiets the proverbial chattering monkey of the mind.
While meditation requires no special equipment or training, it does take time and effort. Dr. Herbert Benson, director of Harvard’s Institute for Mind Body Medicine, recommends a daily practice of about 20 minutes. You’ll need a quiet, comfortable space where you won’t be interrupted.
The website Mindful.org offers several tips for getting started with mindfulness meditation. Focusing on the sensations of your body and your breathing is a crucial first step. It’s easy to become distracted – the key is to acknowledge individual thoughts without emotionally reacting to them or becoming “lost in thought,” or following the thought train.
Mindfulness meditation requires consistently getting back on track. Sound complicated? While it’s doable and worthwhile, it can take a lot of work to get the hang of it on your own. The author of the 2015 JAMA-published study, Dr. David S. Black, recommends starting with a course taught by a professional.
Anecdotally, quite a few regular practitioners of meditation report needing less sleep to feel refreshed and healthy, essentially claiming that they’ve trained their minds and bodies to need less sleep by improving sleep efficiency.
But don’t get too excited – taking up meditation probably won’t mean you’ll have more hours in the day to get things done. A clinical study found that long-term meditators needed an average of 30 minutes less sleep per night compared to their non-meditating peers. Until you achieve guru status, it’s best to aim for the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep per night.
Meditation is free, easily accessible, and has no harmful side effects. In fact, it can have many benefits associated with reduced stress, including improved memory and even better relationships – and who wouldn’t want that? If you’re struggling to sleep well, mindfulness meditation is definitely worth a shot.