With dramatic headlines such as “Catastrophic sleep-loss epidemic” emerging more frequently, the need to start taking sleep seriously is quickly becoming a hot topic.
In an interview with the Guardian, Professor Matthew Walker, director of the Centre for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley, said that sleep deprivation affected “every aspect of our biology” and was widespread in modern society. And yet the problem was not being taken seriously by politicians and employers, with a desire to get a decent night’s sleep often stigmatized as a sign of laziness, he said.
According to the American Sleep Association, 50-70 million US adults have a sleep disorder with insomnia being recognized as the most prevalent sleep disorder, afflicting approximately 9% to 20% of the adult population (1). On top of that, the CDC has reported that 1 in 3 adults don’t get enough sleep overall. Fortunately, this exhausting cycle can be broken by implementing some new habits that can help train your mind and body for a more restful sleep.
Why Can’t I Sleep?
The answer to better sleep isn’t always as simple as getting in 7-8 hours per night. How many times have you gone to bed at a reasonable hour only to wake up the next morning having to drag yourself out of bed? You could have a full 8 hours of sleep, but still wake up feeling exhausted or not well rested if the quality of your sleep is poor, or if you’ve run into sleep deficit.
To improve sleep quality, you have to address the two main areas below:
1. Psychological Factors
It is hard to sleep when your head is buzzing and preoccupied. Are ruminating thoughts about family, finances, health, or deadlines circulating endlessly through your mind? Feeling worried or nervous on a consistent basis can interfere with sleep quality.
A few anxiety-related symptoms that can lead to insomnia and sleep disturbance include:
- Preoccupation with thoughts about past and future events
- Feeling overwhelmed by responsibilities and upcoming events
- A general feeling of overstimulation
In the overstimulated world we live in, shutting our minds off in the evening is extremely difficult. Psychological factors such as stress, anxiety, and depression can have a large impact on sleep. While stress and mild anxiety can be usually handled at home if it is more severe or you are struggling to get a handle on things speaking to a healthcare practitioner as your starting point.
2. Poor Sleep Hygiene & Lifestyle Factors
Sleep hygiene refers to a set of best practices that are essential for good quality sleep. In contrast, poor sleep hygiene refers to lifestyle habits that are the opposite, and encourage poor sleep quality and sleep disorders.
For example, how often do you watch Netflix before bed or scroll through Instagram for 30 minutes in the dark? While these activities may seem relaxing and innocent, screens before bed can interfere with the sleep hormone melatonin from being released in sufficient amounts.
How To Sleep Better
Sleep Hygiene 101
Before you think about taking a natural sleep aid or indulging in a cup of herbal “sleep” tea, you need to make sure you’ve covered your bases with these best practices:
- Sleep in complete darkness: The sleep hormone, melatonin, is produced in the absence of light. So when the brain picks up on light in the evening, it automatically assumes it’s still daytime and therefore slows down production of melatonin. Whoops! Turn off all the lights, or wear an eye mask to bed.
- Turn off screens 1 hour before: In addition to the light from a screen, melatonin production also declines if cortisol, the daytime stress hormone, is still elevated due to activities like texting or watching TV. Instead, try to read a book, journal or meditate to wind down.
- Have an early dinner: eating late or having a very heavy meal for dinner can lead to acid reflux, indigestion and can upset blood sugar balance – all of which lead to sleep interruptions or disturbances.
- Go to bed by 10 pm: the deepest and most restorative sleep happens from 10pm-2am, so try to tuck in before 11 pm at the latest. If you’re not sleepy, aim to get in at least 20-30 minutes of exercise during the daytime to encourage an earlier bedtime.
- Check the temperature: Feel too hot or cold at night? Research shows that the ideal temperature is between 15 and 19 degrees Celsius, or 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit. (2) (3)
- Keep caffeine in check: we all metabolize caffeine at different speeds, but ideally, try not to have this after lunchtime!
Meditation for Sleep: The Winning Solution
Let’s say you practice excellent sleep hygiene, but you’re still lying awake at night or feeling tired in the morning. That’s a cue to turn your attention to address underlying psychological factors, such as stress and anxiety.
Of course, simply trying to “stress less” or “be less anxious” doesn’t really work, in fact it can do the opposite! This is where meditation comes in; it provides a far more structured approach for calming the mind in the long run, with no negative side effects. Not only does meditation ease stress, but research confirms it can also reduce anxiety, depression and pain. (4)
Furthermore, another study showed meditation’s positive impact in terms of mitigating the effects of insomnia. In this trial, patients were split into two groups: one received training on a standardized mindfulness awareness program (MAP) and the other received sleep hygiene education (SHE). Interestingly, the MAPs group did significantly better than the SHE group for insomnia, depression symptoms and fatigue. This reveals that while sleep hygiene is important, meditation could be even more effective. (5)
Sleep Meditation: How It Works
Over the years, neuroscientists have discovered that meditation can physically change and rewire the brain. When it comes to sleep in particular, meditation has the ability to thicken and build up the pons region of the brain, which produces melatonin and also serves as the on and off switch to restorative REM sleep.(6) Any weakness in the pons region prevents the brain from getting deep, restful sleep, and building it up does the opposite.
Secondly, meditation has the ability to weaken neural connections linked to fear, emotional stress and anxiety, and strengthen neural connections that promote rational thought. (7)
The most amazing finding? It only took researchers 8 weeks to start seeing positive changes in the brain.
How To Get Started With Meditation for Sleep
If you are a beginner to meditation, start with focused meditation. This calls for an object to be the centre of your focus (or an anchor) to help drive all other thoughts away. Gently as your thoughts start to drift your anchor acts as a reminder to slowly bring your attention back.
To get in the habit, try guided meditation sessions with an app like Muse; this will make the process easier and more enjoyable. The Muse app also comes with a brain-sensing headband that will analyze your brainwaves to help you keep track of your progress, and provide valuable insights.
Start with three minutes per day, and then build up to longer sessions if you want. Make it a consistent habit and you should notice an impact on your sleep within just a few weeks!
- Meditation can put you to sleep, finally
- Coping With Daily Stress: Meet Dan, Liza and Trevor
- 6 Ways Meditation Can Change the Brain
- Prevalence and perceived health associated with insomnia based on DSM-IV-TR; International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems, Tenth Revision; and Research Diagnostic Criteria/International Classification of Sleep Disorders, Second Edition criteria: results from the America Insomnia Survey.
Roth T, Coulouvrat C, Hajak G, Lakoma MD, Sampson NA, Shahly V, Shillington AC, Stephenson JJ, Walsh JK, Kessler RC Biol Psychiatry. 2011 Mar 15; 69(6):592-600.
- Onen SH, Onen F, Bailly D, Parquet P. Prevention and treatment of sleep disorders through regulation of sleeping habits. Presse Med.1994; Mar 12; 23(10): 485-9.
- National Sleep Foundation: The Sleep Environment
- Goyal, M., Singh, S., Sibinga, E., Gould, N., Rowland-Seymour, A., Sharma, R., Berger, Z., Sleicher, D., Maron, D., Shihab, H., Ranasinghe, P., Linn, S., Saha, S., Bass, E. and Haythornthwaite, J. (2014). Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-being. JAMA Internal Medicine, [online] 174(3), p.357. Available at: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/1809754 [Accessed 26 Mar. 2018].
- Black, D., O’Reilly, G., Olmstead, R., Breen, E. and Irwin, M. (2015). Mindfulness Meditation and Improvement in Sleep Quality and Daytime Impairment Among Older Adults With Sleep Disturbances. JAMA Internal Medicine, [online] 175(4), p.494. Available at: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/2110998 [Accessed 26 Mar. 2018].
- Schulte, B. and Schulte, B. (2018). Harvard neuroscientist: Meditation not only reduces stress, here’s how it changes your brain. [online] Washington Post. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/inspired-life/wp/2015/05/26/harvard-neuroscientist-meditation-not-only-reduces-stress-it-literally-changes-your-brain/?utm_term=.9a451504f541 [Accessed 26 Mar. 2018].
- Psychology Today. (2018). This Is Your Brain on Meditation. [online] Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/use-your-mind-change-your-brain/201305/is-your-brain-meditation [Accessed 13 Mar. 2018].
- Scientific American. (2018). What is the function of the various brainwaves?. [online] Available at: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-is-the-function-of-t-1997-12-22/ [Accessed 26 Feb. 2018].