Meditation and SleepUpdated on July 17, 2019
Meditation has a history that dates back thousands of years in Asia, but only recently has it started to take hold in the United States. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the use of meditation increased from 4.1 percent in 2012 to 14.2 percent in 2017.
In addition, medical research about meditation has grown and validated that this mind-body practice has the ability to provide numerous health benefits with limited or no downsides.
By inducing relaxation, meditation has great potential to help people with sleeping problems, including insomnia. It offers a low-cost method that is accessible to virtually everyone and can be done in the comfort of your own bedroom.
This guide serves as a primer about meditation, how it affects the body, and how it can be used to promote sleep. It reviews the best types of meditation for sleep, answers common questions that people have about meditation, and offers links to learn more and to get started meditating.
What is Meditation?
Meditation can take many forms, and this can make it challenging to define.
At a broad level, meditation is a mind-body practice for creating calmness. In practice, it usually involves four elements:
- A quiet location
- A comfortable posture
- A specific focus of attention (such as breaths, words, or images)
- A non-judgmental attitude that allows thoughts and observations to come and go
The specific location, posture, focus, and attitude can be modified based on the type of meditation. In some types of meditation, physical movements may be added, such as with many types of yoga that involve specific postures.
Meditation can have many goals, but as a mind-body exercise, it works to observe and recognize the ways that the brain and body are related and influence health, emotions, and well-being. It is considered to be a type of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) or integrative medicine. One of the most common ways that it is used is as a relaxation strategy.
What is the History of Meditation?
Meditation has a history that traces back thousands of years. Documented, written evidence of meditation can be found as far back as 1500 BCE in India. Other techniques of meditation, including Buddhist and Taoist meditation, developed around the year 500 BCE.
Distinct forms of meditation developed in different parts of the world, especially in Asia. In the 18th century, writings and teachings began to be translated and available in some parts of the western world.
In recent years, meditation has become increasingly popular, with nearly 15% of Americans reporting having meditated in 2017. Research studies of meditation have provided an enhanced insight into its potential benefits, and resources for practicing meditation have surged.
What Are the Health Benefits of Meditation?
Meditation has numerous potential health benefits. Many of these derive from the “relaxation response.” This term was coined by Dr. Herbert Benson in the 1970s and refers to a pronounced change in the body that goes in the opposite direction of our stress response.
Not surprisingly, then, one main potential benefit from meditation is in reducing stress. Stress is not just an emotion but is a bodily, physical response. When stress is chronic, meaning that it continues for a long time, it can have major health repercussions. Chronic stress puts people at an elevated risk of anxiety disorders, depression, heart disease, high blood pressure, stomach discomfort, headaches, skin problems, and menstrual problems.
By helping to reduce your body’s “on-alert” stress response, meditation can combat chronic stress. Research studies have found that for many people it can counteract the effects of stress by lowering blood pressure and reducing symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, anxiety, and mood disorders.
Meditation appears to change the brain as well. When studies have compared the brains of people who meditate with those of people who don’t, they find more folds in the exterior brain layers, an indication that they may have a higher ability to process information. Some research points to meditation activating parts of the brain needed for emotional regulation even when a person is not actively meditating. It may also contribute to slowing or reversing aging-related brain changes.
What seems like a simple act does, in fact, appear to be a positive mind-body practice. More is still to be learned about the mechanisms behind how meditation influences our health, but there is evidence that in altering the mind, it has cascading effects for the brain and the function of other parts of the body. This may mean that it can have a still greater role in our health, even in areas where its impact has not been conclusively shown, such as with managing complex pain or improving immune system function.
What Are the Downsides of Meditation?
There are very few established downsides to meditation, and it is considered to be safe for healthy people.
Some types of meditation involve physical movements or postures that may not be possible or advisable for people with certain health conditions. In rare cases, people with anxiety or depression have said that meditation has worsened their symptoms. People who have pre-existing physical or mental health problems should talk with a health professional before they start any specific type of meditation in order to discuss the benefits and risks in their situation.
One downside to meditation for some people is that it can take time. Practicing meditation requires setting aside time, and it may take awhile before someone is comfortable meditating. The time commitment or the feeling that they are “not meditating right” can be barriers to a consistent practice of meditation.
How Can Meditation Improve Sleep?
Meditation can improve sleep by promoting relaxation. The stress response leaves people feeling on edge, a state of hyper-arousal that is not permissive for falling asleep or staying asleep through the night. For this reason, research has found that relaxation techniques like meditation can be a useful behavioral approach for treating insomnia.
Meditation may also help enhance sleep by reducing symptoms of other health conditions. Meditation can decrease the severity of anxiety and depression, both of which frequently interrupt sleep. It can combat stomach problems that might prevent a person from getting comfortable at night. For some patients, it can be a part of an effective treatment for pain, such as low back pain, that can cause regular sleep disturbances.
What Types of Meditation Are Best for Sleep?
While most types of meditation have shared characteristics, they are not all equally useful if your goal is to fall asleep. Some types of meditation can be taxing mentally and have even been found to raise a person’s heart rate. This was found to be the case for loving-kindness meditation, a form of meditation that tries to send goodwill and warmth to others, in a large research study called the ReSource project.
At the same time, it is important to remember that meditation is an individual practice, which means that what brings relaxation, tranquility, and sleep can be different from person to person. A common approach is to start with meditation practices that are easier to do and then try others depending on the results.
The following sections describe some of the best types of meditation for sleep that you can try to get started.
The bulk of the most recent and thorough research about meditation and sleep has focused on mindfulness meditation. Core elements of mindfulness are a focus on one’s breathing and being aware in the present moment.
A meta-analysis conducted in 2016 reviewed the existing research about mindfulness meditation and found that it can contribute to reductions in insomnia. Improved sleep was found for multiple metrics including the time to fall asleep, sleep quality, and sleep efficiency.
Many programs for mindfulness meditation are extended over a period of time and include multiple activities. For example, one study used an 8-week program of guided meditations led by a trained instructor. Study participants then did meditations at home for 30-45 minutes per day for at least 6 days per week. In this study, some people had specific instructions that focused on tips to improve sleep hygiene and combat insomnia in a technique called mindfulness-based therapy for insomnia (MBTI). Patients who did had MBTI had greater reductions in insomnia compared to people who had more general mindfulness training known as mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). People who did MBTI and MBSR both slept better than people who did neither program. As an added benefit, the insomnia reductions persisted after 3-months, showing that mindfulness can be a long-term boost to sleep.
Mindfulness meditation has also shown benefit in research that focuses specifically on older adults with sleeping problems. Because many older people confront serious sleep disturbances, mindfulness has significant potential to offer relief. In one study, mindfulness generated better outcomes than a program that only taught older adults about sleep hygiene.
How Do You Do Mindfulness Meditation?
There are many approaches to conducting mindfulness meditation. To get started, check out this introduction that explains simple ways to begin mindfulness meditation while also providing links to recordings for guided meditations. Further resources to help with mindfulness meditation are available in the last section of this guide.
Progressive muscle relaxation is a stress management exercise that works by tensing specific muscles while inhaling and then relaxing those muscles when exhaling. You work through specific muscle groups until most of the body has been tensed and relaxed while maintaining steady breaths.
While it has not been as extensively researched as mindfulness meditation, progressive muscle relaxation has been found to be an intervention that can reduce sleep disturbances. In a study of patients with PTSD, its impact on sleep was unclear, but it did reduce depression symptoms.
It should be noted that progressive muscle relaxation is not recommended for people with uncontrolled cardiovascular problems or people with epilepsy.
How Do You Do Progressive Muscle Relaxation?
For a short written explanation of how to do progressive muscle relaxation, you can read this article from the Arthritis Foundation. A longer recording to guide you through this relaxation technique is available from Dartmouth University. Other links in our resources section at the bottom of this guide provide guided meditations for progressive muscle relaxation as well.
Focused breathing is a primary component of many types of meditation. Controlling and observing the breath provides a central point around which meditation can be based. Measured, rhythmic breathing can shift the nervous system to support relaxation for many people even without additional focus on thoughts, words, or images. In fact, as mentioned previously, in some people, this breathing-oriented meditation alone is the least taxing mentally.
Breathing can also be supplemented by counting. A long-held remedy for getting to sleep is counting sheep, but in this type of meditation, you simply count your breaths or just simply count up. Keeping your focus on the count and your breath can help to ease the mind and body into a greater sense of calm.
How Do You Do Deep Breathing and Counting Meditation?
The simplest way to do a breathing meditation is to lie down comfortably, close your eyes, and begin to slowly inhale and exhale. Your focus should be on keeping these breaths steady and controlled, feeling the air move in and out. More involved ways of doing a breathing meditation involve timing your inhalations and exhalations, such as Dr. Andrew Weil’s 4-7-8 method.
For a counting meditation, start in the same way as the breathing meditation — in a comfortable position with controlled respiration — and start counting slowly. You can choose a number ahead of time and restart when you reach it, or you can just keep counting until you are relaxed and ready for sleep.
Guided meditation is not a specific type of meditation per se. Instead, it reflects that there is a program to walk you through the steps of the meditation. This can be done in-person with an instructor. It may also be done with a video or audio recording.
Many people prefer guided meditations because they simplify the process of meditating. They are usually conducted by people who are well-versed in mindfulness or whatever type of meditation they are leading. Choosing a guided meditation also lets you know in advance how long the meditation will last, letting you pick an option that fits with your schedule.
Our resources section at the bottom of this article outlines a number of sources for finding high-quality guided meditations that can help you regardless of your prior experience with meditating. Many of these resources can be downloaded for easy offline access.
Can Anyone Learn to Meditate?
Yes, anyone can meditate. Like most things, for some people, it can take time to get used to. Meditating may feel difficult because it can be a stark contrast to the fast pace of the culture around us, but anyone can do basic meditations like deep breathing.
Though meditation is very accessible, not everyone can do all types of meditation. People with physical restrictions may be unable to do some posture-based meditations, for example. However, meditation can be practiced by anyone, and the ample options for guided meditation can provide a useful introduction to people who are new to meditating.
What Can I Do if I am “Bad” at Meditating?
Many people believe they are “bad” at meditating because they find that they are interrupted by other thoughts, such as those about work or family obligations while trying to meditate. This doesn’t mean that they are bad at meditating.
These kinds of thoughts are natural. Having them pop up while meditating is common and inevitable for most people who are not extremely advanced in their meditation practice. It is for this reason that thoughts are allowed to come and go without judgment. Remember that in most cases the goal of meditation isn’t to completely control or shut down your thoughts; instead, it is to bring about a relaxation response, and that can come from things as simple as slow, deep breathing.
How Can I Get Started Meditating?
For people who are looking to get started with meditation, it can be helpful to start by talking with a doctor. Some hospitals and medical systems have programs to help train people to meditate or may offer referrals to specialists who can help you with meditation. Many places like yoga studios and community centers have classes to learn about meditation and mindfulness.
Online resources are abundant for starting to meditate. Websites, recordings, and mobile apps have unlocked a wealth of options for finding a meditation program that resonates with you. In the last section of this guide you can find descriptions of some of the best websites and smartphone apps for learning to meditate.
What Else Can Improve the Success of Meditation for Sleep?
One major benefit of meditation is that it can be combined with many other steps to improve your sleep. For example, it can be used as part of a program of cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I), a talk therapy that has proven success in helping people, including people with complex conditions like depression and anxiety, get better sleep.
Meditation may be enhanced by improvement in sleep hygiene. Sleep hygiene is a term that refers to the sleep environment and to the habits that a person has that can contribute to quality sleep. For example, sleep hygiene can involve finding a supportive mattress, comfortable sheets, and blocking out noise and light from the bedroom. It can also mean having consistent schedules for getting ready for bed, going to sleep, and waking up each day.
Having a conducive environment for sleep can make it easier for you to relax when doing meditations, and meditation can be a part of the sleep-related routines that reflect good sleep hygiene.
Learn More About Meditation and Sleep
Part of the growth of meditation in recent years has to do with the dramatic increase in resources that make it easier to learn about and get started with meditation. The following sections direct you to websites, videos, and smartphone applications that can provide information and tools for meditation.
Please remember that while our guide is thorough and well-researched, it is not a replacement for medical advice. Always consult your doctor or qualified physician with any questions or concerns you have regarding medical conditions, treatments, and advice.
Meditation Information, Guided Meditation, and Meditation Tools
- University of California-Berkeley: Greater Good in Action. This program was launched by Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center that works to employ evidence-based approaches to increase happiness and well-being. The site includes details and tools for a huge range of practices including mindfulness and other types of meditation.
- Dartmouth University: Relaxation Downloads. This page provides an organized list of downloadable files for meditation. It includes files for mindfulness meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing, guided imagery, and soothing music.
- American Mindfulness Research Association (AMRA). The AMRA promotes research to better understand how mindfulness can contribute to better health outcomes. Their website includes details about their research, a library of information, and a tool to help find mindfulness programs in different parts of the world.
- University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) Mindful Awareness Research Center. This research program at UCLA offers articles, a newsletter, videos, a weekly podcast, and a list of guided meditations for people to get started with and continue the practice of mindfulness.
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Medical: Sleep Resources. This page includes links to a number of written and recorded tools for relaxation and sleep. They include guided visualizations and meditations, including some designed for students coping with school-related anxieties.
- About Meditation. This website offers a wide range of programs to help people read about meditation and to practice it in their daily lives. Many tools are free, and they also provide rigorous meditation courses for a fee.
- Insight Meditation Center: Meditation Timers. This page provides links to downloadable meditation timers that only have sounds at the very beginning and end of the recordings.
- Headspace. Headspace is a leading meditation app with a huge library of guided meditations for different contexts and of varying lengths. The app is easy to use, has offline capabilities, and has programs specifically for getting to sleep. Headspace has a free trial that includes guided meditations to help you get started. After that, a subscription is required and can be purchased monthly or yearly. It is available on both iOS and Android.
- Calm. Calm is a well-recognized meditation app that has a simple, intuitive interface and a growing slate of content. It offers meditations to use throughout the day as well as guided meditations and sleep stories for bedtime. Calm comes with a free trial after which you can choose from monthly, annual, or lifetime subscriptions. It is available on iOS and Android.
- The Breathing App. The Breathing App is simple tool to help control your respiration. Its only function is to direct your breathing according to the time and breath ratio that you select. It was developed in collaboration with Deepak Chopra, M.D., and is available for free on both iOS and Android.
Relaxing Music and Sounds
- myNoise. MyNoise offers a website, an app, and Spotify tracks that can be used to provide relaxing ambient sounds. The free version of the app comes with eight sounds that include white noise, temple bells, a Tibetan choir, and assorted nature sounds. More sounds are available by upgrading to the premium version of the app. A nice benefit of myNoise is that it includes sliders that let you make custom modifications to the different sounds.
- Relaxing Music For Sleeping. This is a one-hour YouTube video featuring calm, soothing music. The music itself can bring relaxation or could be used as background while doing meditation. A full album is available for sale.
- NCCIH: Meditation Origins and Traditions. This video features two medical experts who discuss the history of meditation and how it has come into use today.
- The Chopra Center: Videos. Deepak Chopra, M.D., is a leading figure in the movement of complementary and integrative medicine and places an emphasis on various roles of meditation in well-being. This YouTube page from the Chopra Center for Wellbeing provides a number of free videos and video series for meditation.
- The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh. Thich Nhat Hanh is a Buddhist monk from Vietnam, and this short book, published in 1996, is a beloved guide to the importance of mindfulness and how to practice it.
- Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., is an emeritus Professor of Medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and a renowned expert in mind-body medicine. He has been a leader in popularizing mindfulness meditation in the U.S. with this book as a flagship work.
- The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH): Yoga: What You Need to Know. This page from NCCIH, a component of the NIH, gives an overview of yoga and provides a science-based discussion of its benefits and risks while addressing many common questions about practicing yoga.