All of us, at one point or another, have struggled with sleep. As Dr. Matthew Walker states in his excellent book “Why We Sleep”, sleep is not merely the absence of wakefulness, it is far more than that. Here are a few well established benefits of sleep, and well known issues linked to a lack of it:
- When we’re asleep, numerous brain functions are restored. Sleep helps facilitate improved memory creation – research has shown that a night of solid sleep helps us retain new information far better.
- Athletic performance is also significantly enhanced when a person has slept enough the previous night, as it helps slow the build-up of lactic acid, while also ensuring better regulation of oxygen in the blood.
- At the same time, a routine lack of sleep can damage your immune system, double your risk of cancer, and increase your chances of developing Alzheimer’s later in life.
- Reductions in sleep, even for just one week, can affect your blood sugar levels enough for you to be classed as pre-diabetic.
- The effect of sleep deprivation on our motor functions and reaction times was highlighted with an experiment, which showed that being awake for 18 hours has the same effect on our cognition as being legally drunk!
Clearly, the importance of sleep is impossible to overstate! And yet, we face a number of issues with it, which manifest in different forms:
- For a lot of folks, a lack of sleep is simply a by-product of their jobs. They’re either unable or unwilling to sleep for more than 4 to 5 hours each night, as their work consumes the rest of their day. Meanwhile, as Dr. Walker states in his book, even full-grown adults need at least 7.5 to 8 hours of sleep a night to function properly.
- Disturbed sleep is another issue, where one might wake up in the middle of the night, and then have a hard time falling asleep again.
- There may also be instances where you get 7-8 hours of sleep, but you still feel tired when you wake up in the morning.
Ultimately, any kind of sleep issue needs to be addressed, and on the face of it, most sleep issues seem to be intrinsically linked to our lifestyles. But there are a few simple things we can do to improve our sleep quality without altering our lifestyles – meditation being an effective solution!
Impact of Meditation on sleep
- Research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that regular practice of mindful meditation significantly improved the quality of sleep in adults, and that it helped reduce sleep-related daytime impairment.
- Another study has shown that meditation has numerous other physiological effects that aid sleep, such as better regulation of our levels of melatonin (a hormone that regulates sleep), and enhanced quality of rapid eye movement (or REM) sleep – the deepest state of rest.
- There’s also a deeper, neurological effect that meditation can have on our sleep patterns. There is a tiny cluster of neurons embedded in our brain stem – this cluster acts as a “respiratory pacemaker”, and is linked to the different breathing patterns we exhibit when we yawn, gasp, are relaxed or excited. Research conducted by Dr. Mark Krasnow, found that fast breathing caused the neurons to trigger a state of agitation, while slower breathing produced a more calm state. This highlights how slow, rhythmic breathing patterns, used in many meditation techniques, can help induce a state of mental tranquility, leading to a more relaxed state, and the quicker onset of sleep.
More tips for better sleep
There are a few more tricks you can explore, to try and fix your sleeping patterns:
- Stick to a sleep schedule – Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day makes it easier to adjust to a sleep pattern. One handy tip is to set an alarm for your bedtime!
- Avoid gadgets for an hour before bed – Blue light from screens inhibits the release of melatonin, so try avoiding screens for up to an hour before bed.
- Avoid coffee after lunch – The effects of caffeine can take up to 8 hours to wear off, so a cup in the evening can make it hard to fall asleep at night.
- Keep your surroundings cold – Try lowering the temperature in your room if you can, it helps you sleep better.
At the end of the day, when it comes to sleep, one thing is certain – quality and quantity both matter. Sleeping well enough, and long enough, is critical to the way we get through each day. If you’ve had trouble with sleep in the past, it’s never a bad time to start trying to fix it!