We spend one-quarter—if we’re lucky, one-third—of our lives sleeping. While we might consider this passive time, time spent not “producing,” magnificent things are happening to our bodies while we sleep: hormones are released and flood our system in an effort to grow and repair itself, our brain processes information into long-term memories, the immune system releases small inflammation-fighting proteins called cytokines, the sympathetic nervous system—which controls your fight or flight response—decreases in activity, and levels of the stress hormone cortisol are reduced. Establishing regular sleeping patterns is essential to well-being.
Our day starts and ends with stress
With all the calming benefits of a good night’s sleep, it might be surprising to know that the body’s level of cortisol—stress—peaks first thing in the morning. For most people, stress levels are at their highest around 7:00 a.m. The body triggers these hormones to make you wake up and switch on your appetite. However, in today’s society, where we’re constantly at steady pace of activated and fluctuating fight-or-flight response, and with an overabundance of stimulation flooding our brains, our cortisol levels have a harder time leveling off throughout the day. To make things more challenging, if our sleep schedule is out of sync, our day schedule will likely be out of sync as well.
We all feel it — steady levels of stress, which can wreak havoc on our bodies over time. Stress is a major endocrine disruptor, a silent killer. It’s critical to quell the disturbance to achieve a healthy lifestyle. Having good sleep patterns is the number one thing a person can do in reducing accumulated stress in one’s life no matter your age, gender, environment, or lifestyle.
Reduce stress by tapping into the mind-body connection
A key component to healthy sleep is balancing and reducing stress throughout the day —consciously and regularly bringing our bodies back to homeostasis. Meditation is one very powerful method that can help, and you don’t have to spend hours in lotus position focused on your third chakra to feel the benefits — although there is that.
Ideally, it’s recommended to practice sitting up or lying down for 20 minutes of meditation twice a day, preferably once in the morning and once before bed. However, Dr. Richard Davidson, founder of the Center for Healthy Minds, says even just eight minutes of meditation a day will offer tremendous health benefits. And while some meditators claim early morning meditation is best—because the mind is inherently more still in the early hours of the day—others will say any time is a good time to practice meditation.
Even though the practice of mind-body medicine intervention is still somewhat of a mystery, research supports its efficacy. JAMA Internal Medicine published a study a few years ago on mindfulness and improved sleep quality. Over the course of six weeks, participants who engaged in 10 to 30 minutes of mindful mediation a day all saw improvements in their sleep habits through techniques evoking the relaxation response. The “relaxation response,” a term coined in the 1970s, is a deep shift in the body through physiological techniques. The idea is to shift the body’s reflex from a stress response to a sense of calm, awareness, safety and presence. Even when practiced first thing in the morning, it promotes a calming effect throughout the day and carries over into positive sleep hygiene at night. And unlike treating sleep disorders through pharmacotherapy—which are often only temporary remediations and might come with side effects—nonpharmacological mindful-based practices have only positive side effects, improving sleep both in the short and long term. And when sleep is improved over time, mindfulness improves. Adults who report having regular sleep patterns and sleep eight hours or more a night are said to feel less stress in their lives, are more alert, more creative, more productive, and, simply, feel happier!
Everyone benefits from meditation—even beginners
Meditation sounds too good to be true, but you don’t know where to begin? Guided meditation for beginners is most helpful, and there are many apps and videos online that can help. Sleep Cycle offers a free Sleep Aid program aimed at improving sleep, that includes a wide array of content, such as music and sound effects, poetry, relaxation guides and stories. The meditation content in the program helps users relax and wind down to promote healthy sleep.
If you think you might not be the meditative type, but it sounds intriguing, remember: there’s a low bar for entry into this practice. All you need to do is breathe.
Here are some meditation tips for beginners:
- Find a quiet, comfortable place to sit or lie down. Give yourself at least 10 minutes to be still without interruption.
- Close your eyes and breathe naturally.
- Focus your attention on your breathing.
- For two minutes, inhale deeply then hold, followed by a slow exhale.
- Return to natural breathing.
- As you breathe do a body scan, starting with the top of your head all the way to your feet. In your scan, relax each part of your body that you’re focused on. This will release tension.
- It is okay and natural for your mind to wander from time to time. When it does, return to your breathing.
- When you are ready, slowly return to the sights and sounds around you and notice how present and rested you feel.