Sleep-related problems are frequently a reason why people start meditation classes or ask me for advice. The reasons why our sleep is disturbed are many and varied, and although it’s hard to give general advice, regular meditation often leads to improved sleep. The key term to note is ‘improved’ rather than ‘longer’. We know that almost half of people over 50 experience some kind of sleep problem; for many a chronic sleep condition can lead to a range of physical and mental health problems.1 The good news is that meditation has been shown to help, but it does depend.
As a general principle, improved relaxation is correlated with better sleep; we all know that restlessness and agitation, particularly at bedtime, can make it hard for us to ‘drop off’. So at this most fundamental level, some regular meditation is likely to lead to a more relaxed state, and when the practice is established, better sleep patterns. But one of the critical differences between medicalised and traditional forms of meditation is the notion of ‘cure’ and ‘treatment’.
If you’re not sleeping, it’s often linked to other factors, such as an underlying health problem, stress from work or relationship issues. While meditation can make a difference, the actual solution to the problem might also rest in some clearer thinking. So the first question for you to resolve is why aren’t you sleeping? If you can go some way to answering this, it will make a big difference to the kind of meditation practice you should use. For example, if work-related stress is a root cause, you might want to tackle this as well as meditating for better sleep. Similarly, if you have a health problem that’s limiting your sleep, tackle that issue as well as thinking about meditation. Don’t use meditation to mask other issues.
Based on the feedback I receive, meditation usually helps people get better sleep, but there are typically several issues at play. For example, after undertaking an evening practice, I encourage students not to spend too much time on social media or watching TV. If you discover that engaging with social media at bedtime limits your sleep, you might wish to change that habit in addition to meditating.
In traditional meditation systems, there are practices linked to sleep and dreaming, but their role is to support the meditator in personal and spiritual development. It’s also not unusual to see more experienced meditators have less hours but better quality sleep, from the physiological perspective this makes sense although there are few scientific studies in this area.
As always email us if you have any concerns. And please post your thoughts and experiences below.
1 Black, D. S., O’Reilly, G. A., Olmstead, R., Breen, E. C., & Irwin, M. R. (2015). Mindfulness meditation and improvement in sleep quality and daytime impairment among older adults with sleep disturbances: a randomized clinical trial. JAMA internal medicine, 175(4), 494-501.