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How to Use Meditation for Better Sleep

Getting healthy sleep is something far too many of us struggle with. Read on to learn how to improve your sleep quality and experience the vast benefits of a good night’s rest with mindfulness meditation.

Disclaimer: This article is not intended to offer medical treatment or advice. If you struggle with chronic insomnia or other difficulty sleeping, you may consider consulting with your physician or with a sleep specialist.

We all know how good it feels to get a good night’s rest: You’re able to stay focused, have enough energy to get through your day, and experience a general sense of well-being.

In fact, everything from your mood and your waistline to your ability to fight a virus and to learn is actually dependent on your body’s ability to sleep.

Adults need 7 or more hours of restful sleep per night for optimal health and functioning. But for many people, that goal proves elusive. Worldwide 30-50 percent of people report occasional insomnia, or having periodic difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep.

Both conditions may signal poor sleep quality, which perhaps matters more than the number of hours you spend sleeping. Signs of not getting enough deep, restful sleep include feeling lethargic and groggy during the day; difficulty concentrating; bags or circles under your eyes; weight gain and cravings for junk food; and feeling irritable or depressed.

Meanwhile chronic insomnia, where sleep disturbances go on for three months or more, haunts up to 10 percent of the population, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Over time, poor quality sleep increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, depression, obesity, and lowered immunity.

The Centers for Disease Control report that as many as 9 million Americans take prescription medication to help them sleep through the night. Yet according to a recent study, medication doesn’t address the underlying causes of sleep disorders like insomnia, which are more common among women.

Getting healthy sleep is something far too many of us struggle with. Read on to learn how to improve your sleep quality and experience the vast benefits of a good night’s rest.

Why Do I Have Problems Falling or Staying Asleep?

Before you can improve your sleep, it’s helpful to understand what’s causing poor sleep to begin with.

Sometimes problems sleeping have a physical cause—if you suffer from chronic pain, for example, it might be difficult to get comfortable enough to fall asleep. Breathing problems, such as sleep apnea or snoring, can impact air flow and wake you up. Certain medications can interfere with sleep; so can substances, such as sugar, caffeine, or alcohol.

Of course, noise, light, or another external disturbance can keep us from sleeping at all. And overstimulation from things like personal technology can keep us in a hyper-aroused state where sleep is unlikely.

Sometimes sleep disorders can also be attributed to stress. Even low-grade stress has physiological effects that interfere with our ability to sleep: elevated heart rate, tense muscles, and the release of hormones like adrenaline.

Meanwhile anxiety and depression—which are closely correlated with stress—also can keep you from falling asleep and staying asleep.

Whatever the cause or your sleepless night, the result is the same: Hours spent lying awake in the dark trying to force sleep, tossing and turning and feeling restless, with racing thoughts and worry about the daytime fatigue that awaits you the next day.

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How Meditation for Sleep Can Help

Whether you're looking for help to fall asleep, trying to get back to sleep after waking up, or if you suffer from more frequent bouts of insomnia, there’s one necessary ingredient to getting the sleep you need: relaxation. Both body and mind must be relaxed enough for the autonomic nervous system to take over and bring you into slumber.

This is why meditation for sleep is so promising.

Meditation and mindfulness trigger the relaxation response, physiological changes that occur when the brain perceives that you are safe from harm. The opposite of a stress reaction, the relaxation response allows your nervous system to come down from a state of high-alert as you experience reductions in heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol level, leaving you feeling at ease. Your muscles relax and your breathing deepens. This also correlates with increased levels of serotonin, the precursor to melatonin, the so-called “sleep hormone.”

By bringing our awareness into the present moment through meditation, we’re able to calm a racing mind or worried thoughts, and gain a greater sense of inner peace. Through mindfulness practices like the body scan meditation, we can identify areas where we’re holding tension and gently release it.

And guided sleep meditations can help both mind and body to more deeply relax for improved sleep.

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When we make meditation a daily practice, we grow our ability to navigate and manage stressors in our lives that might otherwise keep us awake at night. We prime our body to recognize the relaxation response. This is true no matter what kind of meditation you practice: mindfulness meditation, sitting meditation, walking meditation, body scan meditation, loving kindness meditation, transcendental meditation, or something else.

Learning how to focus your attention in the present moment, noticing when your mind wanders and gently guiding it back, and cultivating a curious, nonjudgmental awareness of your own thoughts and experience, it turns out, is a powerful antidote to any underlying stress that may keep us up at night.

Regular meditation also appears to improve some physiological conditions that can interfere with sleep, including pain sensitivity. Studies suggest that mindfulness meditation may be a helpful treatment for chronic insomnia.

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The Benefits of Sleep Meditation

  • Less disrupted sleep
  • Less time to fall asleep
  • Deeper, more restful sleep
  • Overall sense of well-being
  • Improved mood and outlook
  • Greater wakefulness during the day
  • Reduced stress that can interfere with sleep
  • May counter age-related decreases in sleep quality

What to Do Before Bed

Engaging in a healthy lifestyle—eating a nutritious, balanced diet; getting regular exercise and fresh air; caring for your mental health—are all crucial for healthy sleep. But if you still struggle to go to sleep, creating a pre-bedtime routine that encourages relaxation can help signal to the mind and body that it’s time to wind down.

Here are some helpful tips:

  • Journal for a few minutes
  • Turn down the heat or open a window a crack
  • Practice a brief mindfulness meditation or a body scan
  • Avoid eating large meals or having caffeine late in the day
  • An hour before bedtime, dim lights, turn off any screens, and engage in quiet activities
  • To release any tension from your day, do slow and quiet mindful movement, such as yoga or tai chi

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How to Meditate to Sleep

  1. With your eyes closed, inhale for a count of 4 and then exhale for a count of 5.
  2. Inhale for a count of 4 and then exhale for a count of 6.
  3. Do this again, but exhale for a count of 7 and then for 8. If at any time the extended exhalation makes you feel breathless, you can go back to the previous count.
  4. Repeat your longest-exhalation breathing a few times.
  5. Now, drop the long exhalation and simply breathe naturally. Inhale and exhale. Rest your attention on the rhythm of your breathing, following the air as it comes into your body and then as it leaves your body. You might even silently note “inhaling” and “exhaling” with each action.
  6. When your mind wanders, gently guide it back to your breathing.

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Can Meditation Replace Sleep?

No, meditation is not a substitute for quality sleep. The body requires sleep to survive. It’s during deep sleep that vital physiological functions occur, including tissue growth and repair, the removal of cellular waste, and the rebalancing of important neurochemicals, as well as important cognitive functions, such as learning and memory consolidation.

While meditation can help create the conditions necessary for better sleep to occur, particularly when poor sleep is caused by stress, and has powerful benefits on its own, it can’t replicate the biological functions that happen when we sleep.

However, there is some evidence that certain meditation techniques, including mindfulness meditation, can provide restful support for the body and a beneficial reset for the mind that, in addition to getting regular, quality sleep, promotes overall health and well-being. Here are some others:

Napping: Research finds that for most people, short daytime naps are widely beneficial: they can help you learn, regulate emotions, boost mood and outlook, improve performance, and can keep you alert.

Non-Sleep Deep Rest (NSDR) is a term used to describe self-directed states of calm achieved through mental focus, and includes Yoga Nidra, sometimes called “yogic sleep,” a guided practice that puts the mind and body into a conscious sleep state. Research suggests that NSDR can reduce anxiety and promote relaxation. It may also improve sleep.

Biphasic or Polyphasic Sleep, or splitting sleep into two shorter sessions instead of one longer one, has become a popular notion for a sleep “hack.” Shift workers often follow this sleep pattern by necessity. Only a few studies have looked at the impacts of polyphasic sleep, and the results are inconclusive.

Meditation & Mindfulness Tips for Better Sleep Anytime

It’s well worth your while to learn how to meditate and to practice mindfulness for the many physical and mental health benefits they provide. And if you struggle with getting enough good sleep, they can be game-changing.

The great news is that you don’t need to sit cross-legged or in lotus position somewhere serene in order to experience the sleep-enhancing benefits of mindfulness or meditation. Both can be easily incorporated into your daily routine in order to help you sleep better at night. Here are a few ways to do just that.

  • Schedule mindfulness breaks throughout the day.
    • The 1-minute Mini-Meditation. Come to a comfortable position, and with your eyes open or closed, take a deep breath … a full inhale and a full exhale. Do this again, and begin following the air with your awareness as it moves into your body on the inhalation, and as it leaves on the exhalation. Continue like this, breathing in and out with awareness, until your minute is up. Go back to your day with a greater sense of inner peace.
    • Right-Where-You-Are Body Scan. Wherever you are, bring your awareness to your feet, and simply notice how they feel. Continue to mentally scan your body—your legs, hips, abdomen, chest, shoulders, arms, hands, face, head—lingering briefly at each area and simply noticing what’s there. If you notice tension or tightness, try breathing into that area and see what happens. When you’ve scanned your entire body, take one more deep breath in and out. If your eyes are closed, open them, and go about your day.
    • Try one of the many 5-minute mindfulness meditation practices here.
  • When you’re on foot, try doing a brief walking meditation.
  • If you’re new to meditation, consider finding a meditation teacher or a meditation for beginners class.
  • Try a free guided meditation. Sometimes having an audio element makes it easier to sink more deeply into your meditation.

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