Anytime you get less than seven hours of sleep you’re falling into a state of sleep deprivation. In this state, the mind and body slow down and change how they function. Neurons in the brain slow, which causes changes in reaction times, reasoning abilities, and decision-making skills. The effectiveness of your immune system gets compromised, making you more vulnerable illness. Without adequate sleep, the body releases more hunger hormones and fewer satiety hormones. These changes make overeating and unwanted weight gain far more likely. Chronic sleep deprivation has been linked to conditions and illnesses such as diabetes, stroke, heart disease, dementia, depression, anxiety, and heart attacks just to name a few.
But there are effective methods for getting more high-quality sleep and among them—meditation. Scientists have begun to study meditation and in an attempt to pinpoint how it affects the human body. While the changes are many, they seem to start in the brain.
Mindfulness meditation is the one most frequently used meditation methods for better sleep. This method triggers the body’s relaxation response wherein the heart rate and blood pressure decrease. Mindfulness meditation brings awareness to thoughts that appear in your mind and teaches practitioners to focus on the present. In this way, meditators learn to let go of past or future events that lead to the opposite of relaxation—fight or flight, in other words, stress.
Long-term practice of meditation methods like this lead to physical changes in the body that relieve stress and contribute better sleep. The amygdala, or emotional center of the brain, becomes more sensitive to negative stimuli when you’re sleep deprived. Meditation reduces the size of this part of the brain while thickening the reasoning and logic portion of the brain, called the prefrontal cortex. As negative thoughts arise, the strong connection between emotions and reason allows the practitioner to let go of negative emotions and maintain a present focus.
Meditation also reduces the amount of cortisol, a stress hormone, released in the body. A study done at the University of California - Davis used two groups, one that practiced meditation and one that did not to determine how meditation affected cortisol levels. Using their saliva, they found that the better the person was able to focus their thoughts on present sensations, the lower their cortisol levels.
Meditations ability to reduce stress provides a valuable tool in our fast-paced world. But, mindfulness meditation isn’t the only method that aids sleep. A 2006 study found that practitioners of Vipassana meditation spent longer amounts of time in slow wave and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. As we age, we tend to spend less time in these sleep stages. Meditation can make the sleep quality of a middle-aged person equal that of someone much younger.
Whether you need better stress relief or help reaching the deepest levels of sleep, meditation can improve the quantity and quality of your sleep. If you’re looking for a simple way to add meditation into your schedule, try using it as part of a bedtime routine. It can even be done while lying in bed. Experts have often said to only use the bed for sleep and sex, but meditating in bed can be a peaceful way to slip into a rejuvenating sleep.