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Meditation for sleep: Why it works, the best meditations to try

Maurice Beer M.D.
June 6th, 2021 · 7 min read

You’ve tossed. You’ve turned. You’ve counted those sheep. And yet, you’re still fighting the clock trying to finally fall asleep. Sleep deprivation is frustrating at best and dangerous at worst, and so many of us have a hard time with it. If you’re having a hard time getting to sleep - and staying asleep - you might want to ditch those sheep and try out deep sleep meditation instead.  

In this article

  1. The rising popularity of meditation 

  2. How does meditation affect sleep? 

  3. What is a sleeping cycle? 

  4. Popular types of meditation for sleep 

  5. What are the best sleep meditation techniques? 

  6. Does sleep meditation have side effects?

  7. A 10 minute meditation for sleep 

  8. Deep sleep meditation music 

  9. The best meditation apps to try now 

In Brief

  • Meditation is an ancient practice that is becoming increasingly popular for improving wellness, sleep cycles, and physical health, especially in a time filled with anxiety, uncertainty, and sleepless nights. 

  • Regular meditation improves the levels of our hormones needed for a normal sleep cycle, including cortisol and melatonin. 

  • There are a ton of meditation techniques that can help you drift off faster including yoga Nidra, mindfulness meditation, breathwork, and body scans. 

  • Modern-day technology puts meditation at our fingertips. With apps, podcasts, and videos galore, there are plenty of tools to bring this age-old practice into the new world. 

The rising popularity of meditation

Meditation is an ancient practice, but only recently have we started to see it become a staple in mainstream American culture. A National Health Interview Survey found that meditation popularity is increasing in the United States, with a 10% increase in people practicing it from 2012 to 2017, and the path for mindfulness has just continued to grow.

So why is meditation so popular lately?

It’s no secret that we’ve seen our fair share of stress in the past couple of years (2020, anyone?). With all of that stress has also come a countermovement, one focused on mindfulness, spirituality, and healing from within.

This is where meditation has become a mainstay for so many. Meditation emphasizes mindfulness, relaxation, wellbeing, and balance. It’s also relatively accessible: you don’t need much more than a quiet room and your own breath to give it a try - which is part of why it has become such a popular method for helping its practicers drift off a little more easily.

It goes beyond mental healing, too: regular meditation can also have an impact on the health of your physical body. The relaxation and stress relief that comes with regular meditation has been used as part of a holistic treatment for conditions like pain relief, gastrointestinal issues, and more and more evidence is pointing towards it being part of the toolkit for treating insomnia. 

What is a sleeping cycle?

To understand why meditation can be such a helpful tool for going to bed, it helps to understand sleep itself - and as it turns out, a successful night’s sleep has a lot to do with your hormones.

Our natural sleep cycles are largely determined by sunlight, hence why we (normally) are awake during the day and asleep at night. These are our “circadian rhythms,” or our body’s natural clocks that determine when we release the hormones that affect everything from sleep quality to physical health.

As the sun rises, we see an increase in cortisol, our “stress hormone” that keeps us on high alert. On the flip side, cortisol begins to decrease at nighttime. At the same time, melatonin (aka our “sleep hormone”) starts to rise. The movements of these two opposing hormones help our bodies to relax and drift off.

Other hormones are also released according to our circadian rhythms, including thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) and prolactin (PRL). TSH stimulates your thyroid, a gland responsible for releasing hormones important for energy, and underactive thyroids have been associated with sleep issues. Prolactin, a hormone responsible for growth, increases steadily throughout the night to promote the deeper sleep needed to make it a quality night’s sleep.

But because of modern-day stresses and stimuli, our melatonin and cortisol levels aren’t always able to follow this normal rhythm, leading to disrupted, low-quality sleep. 

How does meditation affect sleep?

If you’re constantly stimulated by all those stressful things on your to-do list, it means that your cortisol levels are still elevated, blocking you from that sweet dreamy release of sleep.

Practicing a calming meditation for sleep is a promising solution.

Not only does meditation help calm your mind and improve your mental health, but it also addresses the root hormonal issues that are causing your restless nights. Studies have shown that meditation can help promote a better night’s sleep by lowering circulating levels of cortisol that are keeping you awake, as well as increasing the hormones you need to fall asleep and stay asleep: melatonin, PRL, and TSH!

So now that we know that there’s real evidence to back up how meditation can affect your brain chemistry for the better, let’s talk about the different kinds of yoga that people practice in a bid to reclaim their sleep.

  • Yoga Nidra, or “yogic sleep,” takes meditation one step further and follows a guided meditation to bring your body to a state of deep, conscious relaxation. Getting to this deep state of conscious relaxation actually triggers your pineal gland to release melatonin!

  • Body scan meditations are another popular form of meditation for mindfulness, relaxation, and better sleep. As the name suggests, this form of meditation requires you to literally “scan” your body and bring consciousness to how you’re feeling and any tension you might be holding.

  • Breathwork is another useful tool for falling asleep. As opposed to other forms of meditation which simply bring awareness to your breathing patterns, breathwork involves actively changing them, which can have a ripple effect on the rest of your body.

For example, take pranayama breathing, a deep-breathing technique. Not only does practicing pranayama breathing help to relax you, but research has shown that it can actually help decrease your blood pressure and slow your heart rate down, setting you up for a more relaxed state. 

What are the best sleep meditation techniques?

Because there are so many different variations of meditation that you can do, you might wonder what the best sleep meditation technique is for you.

Truthfully, it depends. As with any health practice, what works for one might not work for the other. However, these are some of the best sleep meditation techniques that we like:

  • Guided meditation. If you have a hard time meditating on your own or need a place to start, you can try a guided meditation for sleep. These guided meditations are some of the best sleep meditation techniques because you can follow along with a teacher, making it friendly for both beginners and seasoned meditators alike.

There are a ton of guided meditations for sleep on the web, from podcasts to Youtube videos, all led by people intent on helping you drift off. Even Diddy wants to help you on your journey to wellness and better sleep (check out his guided meditation on Audible here).

  • Mindfulness meditation. Meditation is all about increasing your mindfulness and awareness even in the face of stress, which makes mindfulness meditation an excellent tool for sleep. This is especially true if you’re someone who gets even more stressed because you can’t fall asleep.

Mindfulness meditation focuses on being in the moment, giving yourself compassion, and not focusing on the potential negatives of not being able to fall asleep at this very minute.  And it’s very effective: mindfulness meditation has even been found to reduce instances of insomnia as compared to other sleep interventions!

  • Body scan meditation: One of the best sleep meditation techniques is body scan meditation, which involves actively acknowledging what is happening in your body.

Simply start from the top of your head and slowly move downwards, seeing what you notice. Do you have any tension that needs to be let go? This can go a long way in helping you to release physical stress and get you sleepy faster. 

Does sleep meditation have side effects?

As promising as meditation might be for promoting sleep, it might not be for everyone. It comes with a certain degree of mental change, after all, which isn’t going to be good for everybody.

A recent study found that up to 8% of people who practice meditation might actually experience more harm than good. Some negative side-effects of meditation include:

  • Feelings of dissociation

  • Worsening anxiety and depression symptoms

  • Panic attacks

So it’s a good idea to talk to a professional and figure out if meditation is right for you. 

A 10-minute meditation for sleep

You don’t need a lot of time to practice deep sleep meditation: in fact, you can get started with as little as ten minutes. You’re tossing and turning in bed anyway, so why not give a ten-minute meditation a try?

Here’s a good place to start: 

  1. Get into bed, making sure it’s nice and cozy and there are no distractions that could draw you out of your practice. 

  2. When you get to the perfect position, close your eyes and start deepening your breath. 

  3. Focus on the sound of your breathing and the sensations in your body. If you notice any areas that are holding tension, let yourself loosen them. 

  4. Continue focusing on the sound of your breathing. You may notice other intrusive thoughts butting in - cast them aside and return your focus to your breathing whenever this happens.

  5. Dedicate a full ten minutes to doing nothing but this.

The process itself sounds easy enough, but it does take some time and regular practice to master mindfulness and meditation. You might need to start with a shorter period of time (say, five minutes), then slowly work your way up to the ten-minute mark. 

Deep sleep meditation music

Having the right kind of background noise might also be a great tool to utilize on your quest for a better night’s sleep. Deep sleep meditation music can function as a kind of “white noise” to tune out other distractions while you’re attempting to fall asleep, but studies have shown that music with specific frequencies (specifically, 432 Hz) also has a calming effect that can increase your sleep quality.

There are several options for deep sleep meditation music, including some that are accompanied by guided meditations to maximize your meditation experience:

  1. Slowing Down

  2. Relaxation Breath

  3. Tuning In

  4. Deep Sleep

  5. Sleep Meditation     

Best meditation apps to try now

Normally, you’d want to put away digital devices in a bid to fall asleep (all that blue light from your screen can mess with your melatonin!) But as the popularity of meditation rises, we’ve also seen a rise in meditation apps that guide you through meditations to calm your body and your mind.

These apps include tools like guided meditations for sleep and are a great place to start your sleep meditation journey:

  1. Calm 

  2. Headspace

  3. Breethe

  4. Buddhify

  5. Insight Timer 

There are also several podcasts that you can try. For example, The Mindful Minute by Meryl Arnett is a good way to test the meditation waters, while Ten Percent Happier with Dan Harris breaks down the science of meditation for the skeptical.

Conclusion

Meditation is one of the best ways to guide yourself to better sleep: all you need is your own mind and a little bit of time to dedicate to it.

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