Between 50 and 70 million American adults chronically suffer from some sleep or wakefulness disorder. About 85 percent of U.S. employees report losing sleep due to work-related stress. Lack of rest undermines wellbeing, productivity, and longevity as risks for depression, anxiety disorders, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, heart attack, stroke, and other civilizational diseases increase.
People robbed of sleep are often driven to reach for sleeping pills. But sleep aids have downsides. They include rapidly increasing tolerance and the corresponding loss of power as well as various side effects. Cautionary tales about Ambien-induced short-term memory loss and the corresponding uninhibited cravings for, say, sweets or sex at bedtime–often forgotten in the morning–are legendary. So instead, we recommend turning to a side-effect free tool. Mindfulness meditation, one of the most common complementary healthapproaches, can help put restless minds—and bodies—to sleep. The “mind-calming practice that focuses on breathing and awareness of the present moment” has also been demonstrated to diminish fatigue, anxiety, depression, rewire brains, and even repair genes.
Mindfulness works by helping the sleep-deprived focus on the present moment. This is done by observing and acknowledging the sensations, feelings, and thoughts that pass through the mind–all with the awareness that we are not our thoughts and our emotions. This therapeutic method has roots in Buddhist psychology. The appeal of mindfulness has increased markedly in the U.S. over the last 15 years. The key to mindfulness meditation is the practice of detachment from potentially troubling feelings and thoughts. Detachment-based meditation takes place when “a feeling or a thought remains a feeling or a thought and we can remain aware of that without automatically reacting to it.” That is when we are able to see a thought as (merely) a thought and a feeling as (merely) a feeling. It’s freeing! When we do this, we are better able to let go of the anxiety that threatens our sleep.
The Relaxation Response Makes Us Younger
The ivory towers of Western medicine woke up to meditation’s benefits in the 1960s, when Harvard University doctor Herbert Benson observed that meditation triggers what he dubbed a “relaxation response” (RR). The response is marked by decreased oxygen consumption, increased exhaled nitric oxide, and reduced psychological distress. Benson found that not only does the RR mitigate depression and anxiety, as well as insomnia, but that it can also lead to genetic alterations. In 2008, he and colleagues published an article in the journal Public Library of Science ONE, about how the relaxation response affected genes. Those who regularly meditated experienced anti-oxidation and anti-inflammatory changes—at the genetic level—that counteracted the wear of stress on the body.
Gene changes indicated that a daily RR practice, such as meditation, “may counteract cellular damage related to chronic psychological stress,” the paper maintains.
“It does away with the whole mind-body separation,” Benson said in his 1975 book The Relaxation Response. “Here you can use the mind to change the body, and the genes we’re changing were the very genes acting in an opposite fashion when people are under stress.”
Several more recent, though also small, studies have affirmed the benefits of mindfulness meditation in specifically curbing insomnia.
Mediation Sessions are Better Than Sleep Education at Fighting Insomnia
A 2015 clinical trial published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, tracked 49 adults, age 55 and older, who complained about moderate sleep problems. Half of them took a course in which they learned about habits that are part of healthy sleep hygiene, such as going to bed at the same time every night and avoiding caffeine before bedtime. The other half took a mindfulness awareness class that taught meditation and other exercises designed to help them focus on “moment-by-moment experiences, thoughts, and emotions.” Both groups met for two hours once a week for the period of six weeks.
Compared with the people in the sleep education group, those in the mindfulness group had less insomnia, fatigue, and depression. The researchers concluded that the use of mindfulness awareness practices “resulted in improvements in sleep quality.”
“We were surprised to find that the effect of mindfulness meditation on sleep quality was large and above and beyond the effect of the sleep hygiene education program,” said David S. Black, PhD, MPH, corresponding author of the study and assistant professor of preventive medicine, Keck School of Medicine of USC and director of the American Mindfulness Research Association.
Not only did the researchers find that mindfulness could help reduce sleep problems in older adults, but that “this effect on sleep appears to carry over into reducing daytime fatigue and depression symptoms.”
We were surprised to find that the effect of mindfulness meditation on sleep quality was large and above and beyond the effect of the sleep hygiene education program.”
The numbers are small, follow up short and generalizability from aging Southern Californian hippies to the real world may need to be shown,” said professor of sleep medicine Dr. Ron Grunstein who was not involved in the study. “How long will the effect last? Time for bigger numbers and longer trials. But this is a good start
Meditation Helps Younger Adults Sleep and Be Less Depressed
How about younger adults? An even smaller study also indicates that meditation can help alleviate insomnia. According to a 2009 research presented at the 23rd Annual Meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies, insomnia sufferers between 25 and 49 years of age reported improvements in sleep quality and other sleep diary criteria when they were practicing meditation. Factors such as sleep latency, total sleep time, total wake time, wake after sleep onset, sleep efficiency, sleep quality, and depression all got better.
Principal investigator Dr. Ramadevi Gourineni director of the insomnia program at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Evanston, Illinois, who taught the study participants kriya yoga, in which meditation helps to focus inner attention, concluded that the study shows that “teaching deep relaxation techniques during the daytime can help improve sleep at night.”
Teaching deep relaxation techniques during the daytime can help improve sleep at night.
Not All Kinds of Meditation Improve Sleep
Not all meditation is necessarily relaxing, however. A lot depends on its object. Often the explicit goal of meditation is mindful wakefulness and a sharpened mental focus. As part of the ReSource project, a one-year longitudinal mental training study, participants practiced various meditation exercises on a daily basis for three months. The practice involved three most commonly practiced types of meditation: breathing meditation, loving-kindness meditation, and observing-thoughts meditation. The authors found markers normally associated with wakefulness, such as higher heart rates and perceived effort, in the more demanding types of meditation—for example, the kind in which the aim is to increase loving-kindness or compassion or other meta-cognitive skills.
The takeaway? There are plenty of benefits to all kinds of meditation. But if it leaves you more focused than relaxed and nowhere near catching some z’s, you might want to stick to just observing yourself breathe.
The Best Types of Meditation for Sleep
There are many types of meditation. Some of them promote concentration and stimulate. The less cognitive effort an exercise requires, the more likely it is to promote sleep. For sleep, try progressive muscle relaxation, mindful breathing, counting, and guided meditation.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)
PMR is a method that helps to eliminate muscular tension by scanning and manipulating the body muscle by muscle—all with just your mind. Since stress and other negative, sleep-depriving emotions tend to take residence in our muscles, relaxing the muscles progressively can have a calming effect on the emotions. Invented by psychiatrist and internal medicine doctor Edmund Jacobson in the 1920s, the method involves first tensing and then completely relaxing various muscle groups sequentially while breathing deeply.
The ultimate goal of the workout is to get at an unseen muscle group:
“When we meditate, we are strengthening our ‘letting go’ muscles, which we are not frequently conditioned to train in our competitive, work-focused culture,” says Sharon Salzberg, meditation teacher and New York Times best-selling author. “That’s why I believe meditation is one of the most powerful sleep-aids.”
How to do it?
- Get ready for bed, turn off the lights in your bedroom, and follow other healthy sleep hygiene guidelines.
- Lie down.
- Breathe deeply. Observe your inhales and exhales.
- Starting with the top of your head or your feet and going in the direction away from it progressively, tense or contract each muscle group one at a time. Hold the contraction for at least five seconds, and then relax that muscle group for up to 30 seconds. It can help to inhale before tightening and exhale during the relaxation.
- Deliberately focus on the difference you feel between tension and relaxation.
- Repeat each tensing and relaxation twice if you wish.
- Feel yourself relax and the stress melt away.
When we meditate, we are strengthening our ‘letting go’ muscles, which we are not frequently conditioned to train in our competitive, work-focused culture.
Here are the muscle groups that you can focus on, one by one:
- Feet (tighten and curl your toes, hold, relax)
- Lower legs and feet (tighten your calf muscle, pull toes towards you, hold, relax)
- Entire legs (squeeze thigh muscles while doing above, hold, relax)
- Buttocks (tighten, hold, relax)
- Stomach (suck it in, hold, relax)
- Chest (tighten, inhale, hold breath, relax)
- Hands (clench your fists, hold, relax)
- Arms (tighten your muscles and make fists, hold, relax)
- Neck and shoulders (lift your shoulders up the ears, hold, relax)
- Mouth (open wide like a lion and contract, hold, relax)
- Eyes (close your eyelids tightly, hold, relax)
- Forehead (raise your eyebrows, hold, relax)
When you notice your limbs getting heavy, it’s a sign that the relaxation is working.
Breath grounds all meditation. Breathing meditation means paying attention to one’s breath and redirecting it constantly to simply breathing. The most basic method of mindfulness meditation is to direct your attention on your own breathing—the inhales and the exhales. Focus on the sensations accompanying breathing. This simple thing—paying attention to your breath—can be surprisingly hard, even for longtime practitioners. If the mind wanders away from your breath, expect it. Just gently bring it back each time.
How to do it?
Breathing meditation can be done in any setting, but since your goal is to fall asleep, your eyes should be closed. There are ways to energize with breathing meditation, and ways to calm down. The latter often means extending your exhales slightly longer than youinhales.
Here’s what the process looks like:
- Get ready for bed, turn off the lights, and make sure you follow other guidelines of healthy sleep hygiene.
- Lie down comfortably.
- Notice how relaxing your body feels—its weight, temperature, sense of comfort, connection to the bed.
- Relax any tense spots. Just breathe.
- Focus on your breath. Feel it flow through you—in and out. Follow it from your nostrils to your throat and chest and maybe your belly. Visualize it. Keep the flow natural at first.
- If your mind starts to wander, remember that it’s natural. Observe it, label it nonjudgmentally (for example, “thinking” if you are thinking something, no matter what it is). Then gently bring your attention back to your breath.
- See if you can keep your exhales slightly longer than your inhales.
- Feel yourself relax.
For a more structured sleep-inducing technique, check out Harvard trained medical doctor and holistic medicine guru Dr. Andrew Weil’s explanation of the 4-7-8 method. In it, you inhale through your nose to a count of four, hold the breath to a count of seven, and and exhale through your mouth to a count of eight.
“This breathing exercise is a natural tranquilizer for the nervous system,” Weil has said. “Unlike tranquilizing drugs, which are often effective when you first take them but then lose their power over time, this exercise is subtle when you first try it, but gains in power with repetition and practice.”
If the progressive muscle relaxation or breathing methods seem to take too much effort, there is an even easier way. Remember the old insomnia advice concerning counting sheep? The sheep are optional; the counting is key.
Since the idea behind sleep-inducing meditation is to shut out distractions and lull yourself into an unperturbed state, counting accomplishes this goal very well. It’s something reliable—no effort is required to recall the order of numbers—and something that can set our minds on autopilot.
“As you focus, your attention withdraws from the addictive stream of thought, conclusions, and opinions that your mind is usually fixed on,” writes meditation teacher and cofounder of AboutMeditation.com Morgan Dix. “By slowly bringing your mind back to the count, again and again, you start to train your awareness. That is the power of this practice.”
How to do it?
- Get ready for bed, turn off the lights, and follow the other guidelines of healthy sleep hygiene.
- Lie down comfortably.
- Start slowly counting.
- If your mind drifts to concerns of the past or the future, gently acknowledge the fact that you are thinking—maybe even label it in your mind with the word “thinking”—and invite your focus back to the count.
- Count to 100—or as far as you need to fall a….. zzzz.
By slowly bringing your mind back to the count, again and again, you start to train your awareness. That is the power of this practice.
Guided meditation is simply the act of meditating in response to being guided. Its content can be a counting exercise, a breathing meditation, a progressive muscle relaxation, or another mindfulness meditation exercise. The key thing about guided meditation is its passivity: you let someone else guide you in the exercise. The guide is a trained practitioner such as a psychologist or a meditation teacher. Since few of us can afford in-person visits from a meditation guru at bed time and eyes need to remain closed when guided meditation is used to induce sleep, it makes sense to opt for audio tapes over visits from in-persona guides, watching videos, or reading books.
How to do it?
Prepare for sleep. When sharing a bed with a partner, you might opt to use headphones that are comfortable enough to sleep with. Use an app ***(JUMP DOWN TO AUDIO LIST BELOW)*** or an audio file with a meditation track that you select ahead of time and find soothing. Your task then is simple: follow the prompts of the guide, often spoken to the tune of soothing music. You will be led through progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing, counting down, guided visualization, and other mindfulness exercises.
Happy meditating! And, goodnight.
Online Sleep Meditation Resources
The Best Soundtracks for Sleep Meditation
- Relaxation Downloads from Dartmouth University (free). The page includes guided imagery and deep breathing exercises, soothing instrumental music tracks composed by Dartmouth grads and professors as well as classical music selections.
- Raga – Jhinjhoti (Santoor & Flute) (free). Stunningly beautiful and peaceful instrumental Indian song, the traditional raga, for santoor, flute, tabla, and tanpura performed by Pt Shiv Kumar Sharma and Pt Hari Prasad Chaurasia.
- Sleep (the track on YouTube is free, and the entire Light & Gold that can be streamed free on Amazon Music app, which requires membership, or purchased as an MP3 for $8.99). Composer Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir 2.0 eight-part, 9.5-minutes-long choral piece.
- The simple tones of Japanese shakuhachi bamboo flute (free samples can be found here, and a $10 2-CD set can be found here). Grounding, centering, calming music.
- Relaxing Music for Sleeping (the one-hour YouTube version is free and the album available for sale). The celestial tunes are composed by Llewellyn.
- Putumayo’s World Yoga CD ($9.50, less if used). The album sounds both soothing and cosmopolitan. It draws on “contemplative sounds from Wales to Tibet and Armenia to Uganda,” and collection leads to deeper relaxation. “With an engaging balance of more traditional yoga sounds mantra-based pieces with Indian elements and unexpected acoustic gems from Africa and beyond, World Yoga reflects the practice and its planetary impact and grace.”
- Babbling Brook (free). A 60-minute recording of a mountain stream without distracting sounds.
- Beat Insomnia and Stress with Sounds of Nature (for Spotify members, the collection is free and for non-subscribers it is free, but after 30 minutes it is interrupted by ads—not a sleep-inducing reality to keep in mind.) An audio entry from The Mindfulness and Relaxation Institute on Spotify. It offers tracks such as “Flowing River for Sleeping” and “Light Steady Rain for Sleeping.”
- Biaural Beats Brain Waves Isochronic Tones (for Spotify members, the collection is free and for non-subscribers it is free, but after 30 minutes it is interrupted by ads.) The collection on Spotify offers five hours of peaceful music incorporating sounds of nature.
- “Chakra Chants” (available for unlimited streaming with a Music Unlimited account with a free Amazon Music app). Science does not confirm the existence of chakras, which are theorized by Eastern mystics. But even for those who believe that chakras are a figment of the imagination, the chakra sounds are a wonderfully soothing collection that can help assist progressive muscle relaxation, starting with the feet and ending at the crown of the head.
The Best Sleep Meditation Books
- The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh. One of the celebrated Zen master’s most popular offerings, the book offers an introduction to being consciously present in each moment and, by doing so, “reveal and heal.”
- Buddha’s Book of Sleep by Joseph Emet. This is the first to tackle sleep programs with mindfulness meditation. First part of the book talks about why mindfulness meditation can help us get to sleep. The second part of the book is about the how, offering seven exercises one can do when trying to fall asleep. The foreword is written by Thich Nhat Hanh.
- Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness by Jon Kabat-Zinn. This book is a landmark bestseller by a scientist and meditation teacher who introduced Western readers to using the mind-body connection to achieve healing. The mindfulness-based guide is based on the findings at The Program of the Stress Reduction Clinic at The University of Massachusetts Medical Center. Check out chapters 27, on sleep and stress, and 9 and 10, on setting up informal and formal meditation practices.
- Start Where You Are by Pema Chödrön. The Tibetan Buddhist nun, famous for her title When Things Fall Apart, provides a gently witty, compassionate, and approachable guide for how we can “meditate on whatever provokes resentment,” and other, easier, things.
The Best Sleep Meditation Videos
- How to Meditate: The No-Bullshit Guide to Mediation (free). A straightforward 35-minute YouTube-located guide on most effective mediation techniques, and how to avoid common mediation mistakes.
- Meditation for Beginners (used for $0.01, more if new). The DVD contains three 20-minute workouts guided by Maritza, a certified Iyengar yoga instructor who has been practicing insight meditation since 1982 and leads classes in meditation.
- Be Mindful ($38) is an inexpensive ten-week online course, with ten videos, five guided meditation audio downloads, and instruction by certified mindfulness trainers Ed Halliwell and Tessa Watt, that teaches mindfulness-based stress reduction and cognitive therapy. The course was developed by Wellmind Media in partnership the Mental Health Foundation, a UK mental health charity.
- How Mindfulness Empowers Us (free). An animated short offers the tale of two wolves fighting in our hearts and the narrator, meditation expert Sharon Salzberg, explains how meditation can help us to see feelings and thoughts as they are.
- Meditate for Sleep: Deep Breathing & Relaxation Techniques (free). Meditation and yoga teacher Brett Larkin walks the viewers through 15 minutes of deep breathing exercises for relaxation. The relaxation can be done in bed, ideally with sleeping headphones.
- How to Succeed? Get More Sleep (free). A TED Talk from Arianna Huffington, former editor-in-chief of Huffington Post, about sleeping our way into productivity and happiness.
- Mind Calm in Minutes Free Webinar (free). From Sandy C. Newbigging, who Yoga Magazine says is one of the best meditation teachers around, comes this 1 hour and 23 minutes on stillness and living in the now.
The Best Blogs and Websites for Sleep Meditation
- American Mindfulness Research Association. The website compiles a scientific database of over 4,000 academic publication references on mindfulness from a contemplative psychology and practice perspective.
- Headspace. The blog includes research, advice (for example, “How to Meditate Every Day”), sections such as “Relationships” and “Skillful Living” as well as the podcast Radio Headspace. The podcast’s offerings include an interview with UK’s first professor of sleep medicine, Dr. Adrian Williams, in which he explains how mindfulness meditation can help.
- Sharon Salzberg’s blog. The meditation teacher and best-selling author of Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation offers free podcasts on meditation and free guided meditations.
- AboutMeditation.com’s blog. Recent entries include “Meditation Without Practice and the Mystery of Awakening” and strategies on tackling a common problem—preventing yourself from falling asleep meditating when you actually don’t want to drift off to sleep.
- The Wheel. A meditation blog from Shambhala Publications.
- Tiny Buddha. The blog brims with helpful advice. Check out its Mindfulness and Peace section for entries such as “9 Ways to Get Better Sleep and Prevent Exhaustion” and “A Guide for Poor Sleepers with Overactive Minds.”
- Meditation: In Depth. Part of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, this National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website offers info on the latest science, NCCIH-sponsored research, and journal articles on the effectiveness of meditation.
- Art of Dharma. A free online mindfulness journal.
Best Audio and Apps for Sleep Meditation
- The One Mind meditation podcast (free). Brought to you by the meditation teachers at AboutMeditation.com, the podcast offers tips on the application of the practice to work, health, play, and relationships (healing emotional trauma and falling in love have been recent themes), as well as news from the world of science.
- UC Berkeley Greater Good in Action (free). Select “Mindfulness” and find guided meditations, including a body scan, available for download.
- UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center’s (free) meditations include a 13-minute body scan for sleep as well as guided meditations in Spanish.
- Relax Melodies: Oriental Meditation (free). This app includes the sounds of nature mixed with traditional Asian music.
- MIT Medical (fee). The audio downloads found here can help “overcome insomnia, reduce stress, and improve sleep quality.” They include a basic breathing meditation and sleep-time body scan.
- Relax & Sleep Well by Glenn Harrold: Relaxation, Self-Hypnosis, Mindfulness, Meditation (free, with options for in-app purchases). It’s a self-hypnosis and meditation app that consists of four hypnotherapy recordings. It also provides options covering insomnia, stress, anxiety, mindfulness, sleep, weight-loss, and confidence.
- Digipill: Sleep, Meditation, and Mindfulness (free, with options for in-app purchases). The app’s guided meditations (pills) include one to beat insomnia and others.