Dr. Michael Ruscio, DC is a clinician, Naturopathic Practitioner, clinical researcher, author, and adjunct professor at the University of Bridgeport. His work has been published in peer-reviewed medical journals and he speaks at conferences around the globe.
Mindfulness meditation has been studied for its beneficial effects on sleep, as it can help rebalance your nervous system to promote calm and relaxation.
Start with short, guided meditations as you begin your practice to help you stick with it.
Types of meditation for sleep include body scan, progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery, and mindfulness meditation.
Good sleep hygiene, such as going to sleep and waking up at the same time every day and avoiding screens before bed, is an important part of addressing sleep challenges.
Sleep disorders are incredibly prevalent — the CDC reports that about 70 million Americanssuffer from some sort of chronic sleep issue. Suffice it to say that if you’re having trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or getting solid, restful sleep at night, you’re not alone.
While the potential causes for sleep disturbances or disorders vary widely, the best and most common solutions may be helpful for a broad swath of people. Mindfulness meditation for sleep is one of the strategies most helpful for those who suffer from insomnia due to anxiety, stress, emotional or physical pain, or other mental health challenges.
Let’s take a deep dive into the best ways to start meditating and look at a few different types of meditation practices for sleep. We’ll also touch on general sleep hygiene and how to set yourself up for success.
Meditation for Sleep
Before you defer to the voice in your head that says, “I’m not good at meditation,” believe me when I say that no one is asking you to sit cross-legged for an hour in absolute silence. Even seasoned meditators work up to this type of practice, and many never choose to practice that way. Also, the goal isn’t to be “good at meditation.” The goal is to help you connect your mind and body to get a good night’s sleep .
Meditation, especially mindfulness meditation, is about connection and noticing without judgment. It’s about relaxing into being and staying in the present moment. By connecting to your body and breath, whether for five seconds, five minutes, or five hours (for the aspiring monks out there), you’re focusing on the here and now rather than future anxieties or past regrets. Letting go of these consuming feelings through meditation will help you more easily fall asleep at night .
If you’re a person whose brain floods with all of tomorrow’s to-do’s as your eyes begin to shut, this practice is for you. If you’re a person who goes over all the mistakes you made today and beats yourself up for them when your head hits the pillow, this is for you. And if you just lay there with your eyes open and have no idea why, this is also for you.
Meditation helps relax and balance the nervous system, quieting the part of your nervous system that keeps you alert (sympathetic) and strengthening the part that helps you relax . Creating a meditation practice can help equip you with the skills you need to fall asleep fast.
The Practice of Meditation
Meditation is called a practice because no one masters it on the first try. Much like playing a new instrument, you start with the elementary basics, usually with a teacher or guide to help you get started, and you begin simply. Eventually you might want to venture out on your own or try a new or more complex song or method to add to your tool kit.
Let’s stretch the music metaphor a bit more. When you’re learning guitar, for example, you practice before you perform, right? You wouldn’t start your first guitar lesson on stage at a concert, in front of a paying audience. You’d start in your music teacher’s studio or in your own room at home with a YouTube teacher before performing on stage for a paying audience.
With meditation, the “performance” is the use of meditation when you need it most. In other words, if you’re in an acutely anxious state as you’re trying to get to sleep, that’s not the ideal time to start your meditation practice — that would be like walking onto an auditorium stage with your brand-new guitar and no actual skill.
Rather, building up your meditation techniques in a different state of mind and possibly at a different time of day (at first) will help prepare you to employ your practiced skills in an acute moment of insomnia. Ideally, you’ll then move your practice to the evenings and incorporate it into your bedtime routine (or add a second evening meditation to your day). Make sense?
How to Start Practicing Meditation
No matter which type of meditation you choose, start by setting the scene. You’ll want to be in a quiet place, away from distractions. If you can dim the lights, great. Find a comfortable place to lie on your back or sit with good posture. Most beginners will start with a three- to five-minute guided meditation, and as you get more practiced, you can choose to increase the time of your meditation sessions. Here are a few types of guided meditations to consider:
1. Body Scan
In a guided body scan, your meditation teacher will usually have you take a few deep breaths, then ask you to focus your awareness at the top of your head. They’ll walk you through each body part, possibly asking you to notice any sensations, pain, or feelings in each part of your body, all the way down to your toes. The goal of this activity is to help you develop a mind-body connection and increase awareness of your body in the present moment.
2. Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Similar to a body scan, you may also try a progressive relaxation meditation, in which, as you focus on each body part, you tighten and tense that body part and then completely let it go with a deep exhale. Again, strengthening the mind-body connection, this type of meditation brings consciousness to the act of relaxing and letting go, body part by body part. Oftentimes when doing this type of work, you find that you’ve been holding tension in parts of your body you weren’t conscious of, and using this type of meditation for sleep allows you to consciously let it go.
3. Guided Imagery
Guided imagery (also called guided visualization) is a form of guided meditation in which your teacher walks you through a scene or story and asks you to close your eyes and go to that place. The place you go to is ideally a relaxing, peaceful place, such as a coastline or quiet forest.
Meditation apps often include sound effects for this type of meditation to enhance the immersive experience (frogs or bugs chirping, water flowing, waves gently crashing, etc.). Most apps offer guided meditation for sleep specifically, which usually include this type of imagery. Visualization is also a tool used in cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I), which is a type of therapy with a licensed practitioner.
4. Mindfulness Meditation
Each of the types we’ve already named can be forms of mindfulness meditation, but there are also many other forms of mindfulness meditations. A simple way to practice mindfulness is to focus on the breath through breathing exercises. Start by counting the seconds on the inhale and the exhale, then extend it out. Try to inhale for 10 seconds, then out for 10 more. Consider holding for 10 between ins and outs.
Notice how your body feels on the inhale and exhale. Notice how the air feels flowing into your nostrils. Does your nose hair move? Are you congested at all? Notice how your chest rises and falls. Notice if your belly expands and contracts. Move the breath in your body and consider sending it to various body parts in your mind’s eye.
You can then extend this practice to your daily life. Mindful movement activities like walking meditation are a great way to move your body while still practicing staying in the present moment.
Bring it Back
With each of these practices, you’ll likely experience “monkey mind,” the part of your brain that doesn’t want to be still or connect with the present moment. As your mind wanders away from what you’re doing, simply notice that it has wandered, and bring your awareness back to your practice. Try to avoid berating yourself or judging. Simply notice, and bring it back.
As you get used to these types of meditation, you might find that you’d rather do them without a guide. That’s totally up to you. I just suggest that if you’re using a virtual guide on your phone via YouTube or a meditation app, make sure all your notifications are silenced so you can give your practice your undivided attention.
How to Set Yourself Up for Better Sleep
Good sleep hygiene is all about setting yourself up for success. Essentially, sleep hygiene is your bedtime routine plus habits you can develop every day to improve your chances of getting quality sleep.
What you do in the hour-plus before sleep will have a huge impact on how quickly you fall asleep and your sleep quality. Here are a few quick tips to be consistent and get you in the right headspace for sleep:
Avoid watching anything too agitating or stressful in the few hours before sleep.
Go to bed at the same time every night.
Wake up at the same time every morning (yes, even on weekends).
Avoid exposure to blue light (from cell phones and other devices) and other bright lights at night .
Keep your bedroom on the cooler side and give yourself options like a thin sheet under a blanket .
Use blackout curtains or eye covers to help shield your eyes from any light source .
Keep only necessary lights on in your home starting at least one hour before bed, and dim lights where possible.
Keep a quiet bedroom, and consider ear plugs if you live on a loud or busy street .
Consider creating a Spotify or other playlist of relaxing ambient noises or sleep music if total silence increases your anxiety.
Avoid caffeine after 1 p.m. and excessive alcohol .
Avoid heavy or greasy foods in the evening.
Start your meditation for sleep around 30 minutes before you want to be asleep.
In addition to practicing good sleep hygiene, it’s also helpful to check in with your gut health. Studies have shown that taking probiotics can help reduce sleep problems for both healthy people and those who suffer from depression, insomnia, and work-related stress [9, 10, 11].
There’s also a documented correlation between poor sleep quality and gut permeability, although it’s unknown if one causes the other . Likely, it’s a feedback loop in which poor sleep causes gut challenges and gut challenges impair sleep.
Meditation As a Sleep Aid
Now that I’ve given you the training wheels to start your journey, it’s time to get started using meditation for sleep. Start with a very small commitment of three to five minutes in order to begin exercising the meditation muscle. Remember, no one starts off as a meditation expert. We all deal with monkey minds, so notice yours, then let it go. Sometimes noticing and letting go takes the full five minutes. That’s ok!
Meditation is an excellent way to strengthen your mind-body connection and balance your nervous system toward greater relaxation.
If you’re struggling with insomnia or other sleep problems, reach out to our clinic at the Ruscio Institute for Functional Medicine to become a patient. We’d love to help you.
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