The importance of sleep can never be overemphasized. As equally as important as eating healthy and exercising, sleep plays a vital role for brain function, emotional wellness, physical health, and even for our own safety. Maintaining a good quality sleep, of approximately 7-8 hours a day for adults, provides a heap of benefits to one’s health and productivity.
Sadly, however, many do not get enough sleep.
In fact, more than 1 in every 3 adults are sleep deprived, according to the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In a CDC survey comprised of 74,000 people in the United States, researchers found out that 35 per cent of them get less than seven hours of sleep each night. Worse, five per cent or about 1,300 people reported nodding off or falling asleep while driving!
Long-term and immediate dangers of sleep deprivation only mean that something ought to be done to stop, or at least minimize, the number of the sleep-deprived population. One scientifically-backed way to promote better sleeping habit is meditation—or the process of calming and silencing the mind while being completely alert.
Meditation’s power to calm the mind is beneficial to those who suffer from sleep disorders. In 2008, the Journal of Behavior Therapy published a research on the effects of mindfulness meditation on 30 patients diagnosed with psychophysiological insomnia. In a span of six weeks, researchers discovered that meditation has “statistically” and “clinically” reduced insomnia symptoms, dysfunctional sleep-related cognitions, and sleep effort among participants.
This was further verified in 2015 when a study examined mindfulness meditation as a treatment for patients with regular sleep disturbances. The results showed that mindfulness meditation improved overall sleep quality as well as saw significant improvements in “ insomnia symptoms, depression symptoms, fatigue interference and fatigue severity.”
On the flip side, sleep loss and sleep disorders play a massive role in developing chronic health issues such as diabetes and obesity. A study published in the Journal of Sleep Medicine Reviews proved that sleep-deprived individuals experience an altering glucose metabolism, overeating, and decreasing energy expenditure.
Essentially, meditation is about learning to focus on the present moment. It increases self-awareness and consciousness of one’s surroundings. Many also use it as a way to shape positive habits such as gratefulness, optimism, and self-discipline.
Meditation for better sleep is also another shared experience among those who practice it. Having more control of one’s thoughts, from a state of worry and agitation to a state of peace and comfort, enables the mind to relax, and soon drift off into a deep sleep.
But what actually happens inside the body of someone who regularly meditates and consequently enjoys a great sleep every night?
Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland to signal our body when it is time to sleep. Melatonin levels usually peak at night and drop in the morning when the sun comes up. Sleep disorder like insomnia happens when a person has low levels of melatonin and experience stress.
To treat this, patients usually find solace in melatonin supplements which creates dependency, and generally not healthy over the long run. Meditation, on the other hand, can provide the same kind of relief and relaxation just like sleeping pills, but in a natural and pocket-friendly way.
In fact, the University of Massachusetts Medical Center's Stress Reduction and Relaxation Program found in a study that people who meditate possess higher melatonin levels in contrast to those who do not. It remains uncertain however how meditation affects pineal gland’s production of the melatonin hormone. But one thing is clear in the study-- regular meditation ramps up melatonin production.
Electrical activities in the brain are displayed in the form of brainwaves. The brainwave patterns vary in frequency. For instance, the "Beta" waves- the fastest of the four different brainwaves- are triggered when one is consciously alert. This may be useful during the day for an actively engaged mind, but they are least helpful during night time. Insomniacs typically experience higher beta brain waves in the evening causing their mind to wander during bedtime aimlessly.
Meditation, on one hand, is believed to reinforce mild brainwave patterns such as Alpha, Theta, and Delta, and simultaneously cancel out the agitated beta waves. A research study from The Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) suggests that people who meditate produce more of the relaxed brainwaves and therefore generally experience a good night sleep than those who don't meditate.
During sleep, the brain undergoes five different stages. Four of them are considered non-REM sleep, and one being the REM, which stands for Rapid Eye Movement.
REM sleep is characterized by the rapid moving of eyes in various directions, while heart rate and breathing become faster than normal. The REM stage is regulated by the area of the brain called the “pons,” which also regulates melatonin. REM sleep usually happens for 90 minutes in total during the entire sleep cycle. The first period of REM takes place for 10 minutes, and each REM stage gets longer, with the last REM phase lasting up to an hour.
According to studies, REM is responsible for stimulating areas of the brain that is instrumental for learning and retaining memories. REM sleep facilitates neural connections which are vital to one's mental and overall health too. In other words, not having enough REM sleep poses health hazards. In animals, for instance, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke discovered that rats deprived of REM sleep had experienced a significant decrease in its lifespan, from 2-3 years to as short as five weeks!
So how does meditation come to the picture? Meditation, according to the neuroscientists at Massachusetts General Hospital, stimulates the pons region of the brain. They found out that those who meditate experience more REM cycles in their sleep.
Now that meditation holds scientific support to back up its sleep benefits, it is fit to explore how meditation works. For starters, here are the ways to start your meditation journey:
1. First, find a conducive environment to meditate. This could be a room, a garden, or anywhere quiet and free of distraction. Sit down properly with your feet resting on the ground, or in a cross-legged/lotus position. Make sure that when sitting, you maintain proper posture and never slouch.
2. Close your eyes and breathe slowly and deeply. Inhale from your nose, and exhale with your mouth. As you do this for two to three minutes, focus your attention on your breath and the way your chest, shoulder, rib cage, and stomach moves with each movement. When you are breathing slowly and deeply, you start to feel calmer and more relaxed.
3. When your mind wanders, gently bring your focus back to your breathing. Do not feel agitated when you find your attention straying away for many times. This is normal for new meditators since our brains are a natural repository of thoughts. What matters most is that you bring your attention back to where it is supposed to be.
4. After three minutes, open your eyes. Stand up slowly, and stretch.
Two to three minutes are the prescribed amount of time for starters. As you progress on your meditation journey and make it part of your daily routine, you’ll find yourself spending more time meditating for 15 minutes and more. You can also choose to explore other meditation techniques.
Sleep is an important component of a healthy living body and spirit. Sadly, many suffer from a lack of sleep due to stress and/or underlying medical condition. For people who want a natural approach to their sleeping problems, regular meditation is recommended to be part of their daily routine.
Neuroscientists have confirmed that meditation promotes the production of sleep chemicals melatonin in the body at night. Similarly, it reinforces a more relaxed state by cancelling out the beta wave, a brainwave pattern that causes one to sleep at hardly at night.
Lastly, meditation encourages REM sleep by stimulating the pons region of the brain which is responsible for the regulation of melatonin. Meditation can be done several times a day, and for those with sleep disorders, practicing it before going to sleep will naturally help with sleep quality.
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