If you’re anything like me, you periodically experience nights in which you just can’t silence the incessant prattle of the voice in your head, no matter how much you wish you could. Sometimes the chitter-chatter concerns grievances of times past, sometimes you’re wrestling a seemingly all-consuming idea, and sometimes you’re just pumped about the day ahead. But regardless of whether the source of your ruminations is discouraging or encouraging, all you crave is a way to first press pause on wakefulness and then arise feeling refreshed at a reasonable hour. Today we’ll consider a simple practice that you can try next time you seek a mental off-switch at night. For the last two years, I’ve benefited greatly from using meditation for sleep, so I hope you give it a go and reap its rewards too.
While I’m fortunate that I don’t have insomnia, the practice we’ll consider may be particularly useful if you suffer from this debilitating condition. To be clear though, this blog is not intended to review or prescribe treatments for insomnia – it is simply meant to give you a useful strategy to improve your sleep when you find yourself lying awake in bed, mulling over how bizarre it is that all you seek is a way to lose consciousness.
In today’s post, we’ll first view the lay of the insomnia landscape. To identify how to help put the brakes on insomnia, we’ll then consider what’s driving it. Finally, I’ll direct you to some useful resources in your search for the land of nod.
Insomnia is probably more pervasive and problematic than you think
Insomnia is characterized by difficulty falling or staying asleep, as well as daytime dysfunction. Unsurprisingly, people with insomnia have maladaptive thoughts about sleep and have more pre-sleep cognitive ruminations than people without insomnia.
But here’s something worth contemplating: Insomnia’s not only the most prevalent sleep disorder, it’s also the second most prevalent mental health disorder, affecting 7% of Europeans (1). Note to self: remember that there’s life outside of Western nations. So, let’s pan back, regain some perspective, and ask whether sleep difficulties are also commonplace in lower-income countries further East.
You bet they are.
An analysis of people aged over 50 years from eight countries across Africa and Asia showed that 17% of people reported severe nocturnal sleep problems (2). As you imagine, sleep problems become more likely as people age, but this number still disturbs me.
And not only is insomnia widespread, it’s remarkably burdensome. Insomnia substantially increases the risk and severity of many ailments, from metabolic problems to cardiovascular pathologies, from mood disorders to neurodegenerative diseases (3). (Check out this episode of humanOS Radio for more on roles of sleep in aging!)
It’s particularly frustrating that key stakeholders don’t seem to have woken up to just how troublesome insomnia is. Funding for insomnia studies remains frustratingly elusive, even for research by the world’s foremost experts in the topic.
Okay, I’m stepping off my soapbox now.
So, insomnia’s a really big problem. As you can imagine, myriad factors contribute to insomnia, and one person’s insomnia tends to differ markedly from the next person’s. Insomnia’s a particularly difficult disorder to study for these reasons. We’ll leave a nuanced discussion of the biological bases of the disorder for another day, but a quick overview will help highlight how we can intervene to abate the buzz of insomnia cogitations.
Why do People get Insomnia?
When researchers study the perils of sleep disruption, they often keep subjects awake by poking them, prodding them, and generally being a pain in the butt. What’s different and interesting about insomnia though is that it arises without intrusions from outsiders: it’s endogenously-driven. And whereas many people might intuit that a hallmark of insomnia is insufficient sleep, insomnia is often not so much characterized by sleep loss as it is by sleep fragmentation and variability in sleep timing.
But what causes insomnia?
As is frequently the case, insomnia has strong genetic underpinnings. Variation between people in several genes has been found to contribute to how likely someone is to experience insomnia (4). These genes code for proteins with functions such as:
- Regulation of the circadian system (the internal clockwork that programs our daily patterns of biology and behavior).
- How effectively chemicals (neuromodulators) that promote sleep in our brains act on their targets.
- Serotonin transport. Serotonin is a neuromodulator with complex roles in the regulation of behavior, mood, and sleep. The important consideration here though is that the pathway that this gene regulates is not just about sleep, it also affects anxiety, depression, and stress responses. No wonder that insomnia so often coincides with psychiatric issues.
Unfortunately, we can’t do much about our genes though (CRISPR notwithstanding)! So, what else is going on?
Researchers have used magnetic resonance imaging to scan people’s skulls and thereby compare patterns of activity in the brains of people with insomnia to those without. Such studies have often shown that people who experience less pleasure in response to stimuli that most of us find rewarding are more likely to suffer from disrupted sleep. And this is crucial, for each of us needs to be content to disengage from monitoring everything going on around us to give in to the unconscious state of sleep.
We can’t change our genes, but can we put this knowledge of brain activity to use in countering sleepless nights?
Meditation for Sleep: Hope or Hype?
I’ll begin this section by being very clear that of all the behavioral means of treating insomnia, cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) undoubtedly has the most scientific support. So, if you have insomnia, seek a specialist. And expect to start with CBT-I.
This said, CBT-I doesn’t work for everyone who has insomnia, and perhaps 60 to 70% of insomnia patients don’t achieve full remission with CBT-I. For these people, meditation offers hope, and we’ll focus on mindfulness meditation since it has the strongest scientific backing of the various meditation practices.
Mindfulness Meditation for Sleep: Countering Insomnia
The skeptic that I am, if I played a word association game with myself three years ago then ‘mindfulness’ would have been quickly followed by ‘hippy’, ‘hype’, and ‘woo’. Now that I’ve meditated almost daily for two years, ‘mindfulness’ is still followed by ‘hippy’. ‘Hype’ also pops up, but much later. ‘Woo’ has wandered off and hasn’t planned a return trip anytime soon though.
The reason for my change of heart is that I believe that my meditation practice has benefited my health more than anything I’ve tried. (Please note that I’ve always both been very physically active and had a relatively healthy diet.) My practice isn’t time-consuming – 10 to 15 minutes shortly after waking generally does the trick – and I think that what I’ve gained in productivity more than compensates for “lost” time.
Fundamentally, mindfulness practices cultivate non-judgmental awareness of the present, with the aims of living with self-compassion and without unnecessary attachment to outcomes. In mindfulness practices, you don’t strive to change the source of distress. You change your attitude to stress.
Man, that all still sounds so woo to me.
But the results can be cool and diversely beneficial, altering many brain networks such that numerous facets of well-being improve, not the least blood pressure, cognitive performance, and mental health. And as biology gives rise to behavior, you shouldn’t be surprised to know that mindfulness is also associated with remodeling of the very structures from which brain activity emerges (5).
We frankly don’t comprehensively understand why mindfulness practices are so effective, but it seems that meditation may help curtail sleep-related stress in insomnia, nullifying rigid thinking about the inability to sleep. Specifically, mindfulness can help people:
- Recognize the mental and physical states that precede insomnia.
- Shift mental processes, appeasing excessive arousal.
That’s all intriguing, but what about the actual results of studies of mindfulness meditation and insomnia?
One of the best ways to assess the entirety of well-conducted studies is by meta-analysis – collating the findings of previous studies in a way that excludes poor studies and gives weight to good ones. A relatively recent meta-analysis included six studies of mindfulness interventions in insomnia, showing that mindfulness reduced wake time and improved sleep quality (6). Mindfulness didn’t affect the other sleep measures the researchers looked at, but this form of meditation definitely seems to have its merits.
It seems that mindfulness meditation is not all hype.
Meditation for Sleep: Resources
Let’s return to you.
If your interest is piqued and you haven’t yet given meditation a go, you could embark on a local course. Or you could read a book on mindfulness that contains a program to follow for several weeks. My favorite for beginners is Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world. People with more experience should read Full Catastrophe Living. And if books aren’t your thing, you could try one of the many meditation apps that now exist, like Headspace.
But what if you don’t want to go to such efforts, investing so much time in something you’re still wary of? What if you’ve got enough to do in your day and “don’t have the time” to sit around in silence doing nothing?
I’d argue that people with these attitudes may have the most to gain from mindfulness, but I fully understand their feelings. (I’ve been there.) While I doubt these people will enjoy the full benefits of a consistent meditation practice, why not teach yourself a simple body scan meditation?
And with that preamble, we arrive at the crux of today’s blog.
Meditation for Sleep: A Tip to Help You Fall Asleep
Body scan meditations are typically done lying down, so they’re well-suited to switching off immediately before sleep or if you prematurely awake from sleep with a racing mind. By meditating at these times, you’re not consuming time from your waking day, you’re quieting your mind and taming stress when you intend to be relaxed, and who knows, you may even gain some of the advantages experienced by more committed meditators.
Here is a brief body scan meditation you can try:
Body scan meditation sequences are easy to remember, so you’re unlikely to need to play the meditations aloud after listening to them a few times. And if you don’t like these, there are plenty more free body scan meditations online from other prominent teachers such as Joseph Goldstein, Jon Kabat-Zinn, and Sharon Salzberg.
Needless to say, you’ll probably benefit more from a more intensive practice under the guidance of a professional. And no, mindfulness won’t work for everyone. Other types of meditation are worth exploring too, although these may not work either. But as far as I can tell, you have little to lose and much to gain from trying this simple tip.
Please let me know how you get on, and I hope you find this habit as helpful as I have in your search for superior sleep!
- Insomnia is common and may predispose people to an array of health problems.
- Many people with insomnia experience sleep-related stress.
- A regular meditation practice may produce many health benefits.
- Mindfulness meditation has consistently been found to improve some sleep measures in people with insomnia.
- Try a body scan meditation on nights when you can’t sleep!
- Wittchen HU, Jacobi F, Rehm J, Gustavsson A, Svensson M, Jonsson B, et al. The size and burden of mental disorders and other disorders of the brain in Europe 2010. Eur Neuropsychopharmacol. 2011;21(9):655-79.
- Stranges S, Tigbe W, Gomez-Olive FX, Thorogood M, Kandala NB. Sleep problems: an emerging global epidemic? Findings from the INDEPTH WHO-SAGE study among more than 40,000 older adults from 8 countries across Africa and Asia. Sleep. 2012;35(8):1173-81.
- Bassetti CL, Ferini-Strambi L, Brown S, Adamantidis A, Benedetti F, Bruni O, et al. Neurology and psychiatry: waking up to opportunities of sleep: State of the art and clinical/research priorities for the next decade. Eur J Neurol. 2015;22(10):1337-54.