When it comes to getting a restful night's sleep, there are a few golden rules of sleep hygiene: have a consistent routine, put your smartphone away and watch your caffeine intake. But sometimes, the problem is a little more complicated. If you've got something on your mind, your brain and nervous system may be working against you. You may wake up more often during the night and experience less restorative sleep overall.
It's this mind-body connection that's inspiring researchers to explore whether people can achieve better sleep through meditation, yoga and other integrative practices. Learning how to calm your mind can be critical to boosting your quality of sleep and overall well-being.
There are many reasons Americans aren't sleeping well. Sleep apnea, chronic illness and other physical disorders are among the common culprits, but at the very top of the list is a range of psychological conditions. According to Harvard Health, these include:
In fact, among people using a consumer meditation app to help with sleep, the most common reasons cited for sleep disturbances were racing thoughts (82%) and stress or anxiety (73%).
Not all people experience interrupted sleep because of stress, however. Some people are wired to be more sensitive. Researchers have identified a trait called sleep reactivity, which refers to the extent to which stress makes it difficult to fall and stay asleep.
People with high sleep reactivity more easily experience a deterioration in sleep quality when they're stressed as compared to those with low sleep reactivity. This may be because their sensitive sleep systems are more affected by cognitive behaviors, such as worrying.
Mind-body therapies (MBTs) are an integrative approach to health. They focus on developing mental awareness to benefit your physical well-being. A growing number of studies are finding that MBTs are effective in treating insomnia and improving sleep quality among a wide range of groups. Examples of MBTs include mindfulness meditation, yoga, deep breathing, stress management, cognitive behavioral therapy and music therapy.
These types of approaches can help improve your overall health by easing tension. Sleep, after all, is about slowing the body down. When you sleep, your heart rate slows, your body temperature decreases, and your muscles loosen. MBTs have a similar effect, helping you reduce anxiety, heart rate, blood pressure, metabolic rate and oxygen consumption.
Let's begin by looking specifically at meditation. Mindfulness meditation is about being purposeful with your thoughts and feelings instead of letting them carry you away. Instead of dwelling on the past or what might happen in the future, you learn to focus on and bring your thoughts back to the present. As a result, meditation can be effective in transforming cognitive processes, such as rumination and negative thinking.
Research also supports this theory. A study in the Annals of The New York Academy of Sciences reviewed 18 randomized controlled trials and concluded that, yes, you can get better sleep through meditation. Through long-term practice, this type of MBT can:
Yoga is also a mind-body practice. Similar to meditation, it directs your attention to the present moment, combining focused breathing with movements to help develop strength and flexibility.
This ancient practice has many benefits that can last throughout the day and improve sleep quality at night. Yoga can:
Yoga may even have better long-term effects on sleep quality than aerobic exercise. A study in Sleep Science compared the two activities among women with Type 2 diabetes and found significant sleep benefits among women practicing yoga after six and 12 weeks. The group that ran on a treadmill showed a significant positive effect after six weeks but a diminished positive effect after 12 weeks. This could be attributed to the benefits of practicing yoga in an invigorating group environment, as compared to exercising alone.
The effect of yoga on sleep quality also seems to correlate to the length of time devoted to yoga practice. A study in the journal BMC Psychiatry found a direct link between time spent in yoga class and improved quality of sleep. Older adults who incorporate yoga into daily routines also experience better sleep and quality of life over the short and long term.
While most studies have focused on meditation and yoga, there are many other MBTs that may help you get more restful sleep. Research comparing meditation, tai chi, qigong and yoga found that overall, these interventions improved sleep quality and insomnia symptoms, but not necessarily the quantity of sleep. Among the four MBTs, meditation seemed to have the most significant positive effect.
Improving the connection between your mind and body may be key to getting better sleep, whether you choose a mind-body therapy, such as quiet meditation, yoga or deep breathing. Through regular practice, you can learn to release some of the tension and stress that's keeping you up at night and translate the calm into more restful, uninterrupted sleep.
Do you meditate or practice yoga before heading to bed for a restful night’s sleep? Chime in on what’s been working (or not working) for you in the comments below!
© 2021 American Sleep Association.