Meditate your way to better sleep
Nobody really knows why we need to sleep every night, but what we do know is how terrible we feel when we don’t get enough rest. Our bodies are designed to repair, restore and rejuvenate during deep sleep cycles. A good night’s reduces blood pressure and aids with digestion and cell repair, making memory and immune systems work better.
However, sleeping problems are widespread among adults and get worse as we age.
Up to 50% of people aged 55 and older are estimated to have some form of sleeping disturbance, including initiating and maintaining sleep.
Beside insomnia, ailments such as Narcolepsy – defined by the brain’s inability to regulate sleep-wake cycles effectively – can lead to excessive daytime drowsiness and abnormal REM (Rapid Eye Movement) cycles. Then there’s Sleep Apnea, which involves pauses in breathing during sleep that can last anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes. Shallow breathing, gasping and choking can dramatically interfere with one’s REM cycle and lead to higher blood pressure and diabetes.
If your REM sleep is disrupted for even one night, your body won’t follow its normal circadian cycle progression. Instead, the next time you’ll go directly into REM as a result of not getting the right amount of sleep the night before. You will continue to go through extended periods of REM sleep until your body feels it has “caught up” – and if it doesn’t, you will continue feeling groggy and fatigued.
Dr. Richard Horner, a professor of medicine at the University of Toronto, believes that sleep deprivation can literally effect every cell in your body. In a recent interview, he stated that “Sleep circuits impact on other vital functions: the cardiovascular system, the breathing system, learning and memory circuits. Sleep is like the engine of invention.”
Researchers at Chicago’s Sleep Disorders Clinic found a strong link between sleep deprivation and harmful effects on your metabolism – particularly diabetes, obesity, heart disease and stroke. Indeed, sleep disturbances are associated with numerous health problems such as depression and mood disturbances. Poor sleep quality also leads to excessive sleepiness and fatigue, which in turn affects our quality of life since we lack the energy to just go out and engage in activities that we used to enjoy.
Thirty percent of Canadians now get just 6 hours or less of rest every night.
THE BIOLOGY OF SLUMBER: Our Ancestors and Fragmented Sleep
Perhaps our inability to get enough sleep is a result of our increasingly hectic, busy lives – we’ve all had those nights when you get into bed and your mind starts replaying yesterday’s events, or nervously going over tomorrow’s routine, and suddenly you find yourself feeling more awake than you did all day. Between careers, kids, after-school activities and keeping up with technology, we juggle more than our ancestors ever had to deal with.
Or maybe it’s due to the dramatic shift in how we sleep – the invention of electricity in the late 19th century has interfered with thousands of years’ worth of biological programming. Before electricity, our sleep cycles followed built-in circadian rhythms that regulate our sleep-wake cycle of wakefulness. Humans slept in two distinct phases, separated by an intervening period of wakefulness of a few hours. We went to sleep shortly after darkness fell, only to wake in the middle of the night to talk or socialize for a couple of hours, before returning to sleep.
Researchers now believe that this modern-age adaptation toward a one-sleep cycle rather than segmented sleep has led to new health problems whose ramifications have yet to be discovered. But regardless of the underlying causes of sleep disturbances, science remains divided over how to care for sufferers. Insomnia medication often leads to tolerance as well as drug dependency. Breathing apparatus used for apnea sufferers can be so cumbersome that many refuse to wear them.
Mindful Meditation And Sleep
Several new studies are beginning to reveal the importance of using cognitive tools to improve our overall health.
Meditation, in particular, has been demonstrated to reduce the severity of sleep-related daytime impairment, such as symptoms of depression and fatigue.
A 2009 study by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine observed a group of people between 25-45 years old who suffered from chronic insomnia and had them meditate over a two-month period. Results indicate that patients saw improvements in sleep latency, total sleep time, total wake time, wake after sleep onset, sleep efficiency, sleep quality and depression.
According to Dr. Ramadevi Gourineni, director of the insomnia program at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, insomnia is believed to be a 24-hour problem of hyper-arousal, and elevated measures of arousals are seen throughout the day. “Results of the study show that teaching deep relaxation techniques during the daytime can help improve sleep at night.”
In 2012, another clinical trial analyzed the sleep quality of 49 middle-aged individuals and found that mindfulness meditation appears to have a role in addressing the burden of sleep problems among older adults by improving moderate sleep disturbances and deficits in daytime functioning.
“Mindfulness meditation is just one of a smorgasbord of techniques that evoke the relaxation response”
According to Dr. Benson, meditation can help ease many stress-related ailments, including depression, pain and high blood pressure. Mindfulness meditation involves focusing on your breathing and then bringing your mind’s attention to the present without drifting into worries about past or future. It’s a technique intended to break the cycle of everyday stressful thoughts in order to evoke the relaxation response.
Dr. Benson recommends practicing mindful meditation during the day, ideally for 20 minutes. “The idea is to create a reflex to more easily bring forth a sense of relaxation,” he says. “That way, it’s easier to evoke the relaxation response at night when you can’t sleep. In fact, the relaxation response is so relaxing that your daytime practice should be done sitting up or moving (as in yoga or tai chi) so as to avoid nodding off.”
While meditation in itself is not a cure-all for sleep deprivation, it is a promising start toward tackling one of the most important issues affecting our health today.
More sleep resources
The Great Canadian Buckwheat Pillow – not getting a good night’s sleep? Maybe it’s your pillow.
Sleep and disease– article on North Magazine
How to Choose a Meditation Cushion Part 1 – article on North Magazine
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