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How to Use Meditation and Yoga for Better Sleep

September 15, 2020 7 min read

Welcome to our series on the benefits of yoga and meditation for comprehensive wellness. In the first of our four-part series, we discuss how yoga and meditation can be used together to help promote more rejuvenating sleep. Later in the series, we move into its myriad benefits for digestion, chronic pain and mental health. 

It’s estimated that 50 to 70 million people in the United States experience sleep disturbances of some kind. Fatigue from chronic sleep disorders can extend to all areas of life, affecting interpersonal relationships, career and mental health. People who struggle to sleep well are also at higher risk of certain conditions that diminish overall well-being(1).

Despite the many sleep medications on the market today, relaxation and stress-relief techniques continue to rank among the most effective treatments for insomnia and other disorders. Specifically, yoga and meditation are potent practices for those who struggle with sleep(2).

Here’s a look at the most current research on sleep disorders, and how to use yoga for sleep.

The importance of sleep

We all know that a good night’s sleep is important for getting through the day ahead. But sleep isn’t just important for warding off tiredness; it’s also key for preventing chronic illness and disease.

Recent research demonstrates that lack of sleep is correlated with increased instances of serious disease, including obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, weakened immunity and type two diabetes. Failing to get enough sleep can also disturb the regulation of metabolism, hormones and gene expression(3).

People who struggle to get adequate sleep are at higher risk of developing a mental health condition. Mood disorders and loneliness have been shown to result from sleep deprivation. Disruptions to a person’s circadian rhythm, or natural sleep-wake cycle, have also been linked to increased instances of depression and bipolar disorder (4).

Chronic sleep deprivation can be a significant detriment to memory, too. One study proved that just a single night of sleep deprivation led to elevated levels of beta-amyloid — the brain plaques associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Moreover, researchers believe that increases in beta-amyloid brain plaques can also disrupt sleep, creating a harmful cycle that impairs both memory and rest(5).

Lastly, sleep is important for ensuring optimum functioning in society. Sleep-deprived individuals are 70 percent more likely to be involved in an accident. Sleep deprivation is believed to have played a role in some of the greatest disasters in history, including the accidents at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, Chernobyl and the Exxon Valdez oil spill(6).

This shows that fatigue isn’t just significant to the person it affects, but that it can have a tremendous social and economic impact on our environment and society.

White bed with journal and mug

Understanding sleep disorders

Despite the overwhelming research on the importance of sleep, many people fail to get adequate rest each night. While this is oftentimes due to lifestyle choices, many people also experience sleep deprivation due to sleep disorders.

Sleep disorders are a group of chronic conditions that interfere with a person’s ability to get ample sleep on a regular basis.

Insomnia

Insomnia is a widespread condition that can be caused by physical ailments, psychological challenges or a combination of both. Insomnia is a general term that describes when a person is unable to fall asleep or stay asleep during regular nighttime hours. 

Acute insomnia, meaning it happens once in a while, is normal. Chronic insomnia, however, is when someone struggles to fall and stay asleep at least three nights per week for a consistent period of three months(7).

The most common causes of insomnia include:

  • allergies
  • gastrointestinal problems
  • depression and anxiety
  • overconsumption of alcohol and caffeine
  • chronic pain
  • endocrine problems
  • eating heavy meals before bed
  • having an irregular sleep schedule 

Lifestyle habits can cause acute insomnia to manifest into chronic insomnia. For example, a person may decide to drink excessive caffeine to combat tiredness from a sleepless night. In turn, this may result in another sleepless night, which may make a person turn to more caffeine the next day. 

Sleeplessness also compounds anxiety, as someone may feel anxious about their tiredness or ability to sleep. Experiencing anxious thoughts can contribute to an irregular sleep-wake cycle that furthersstress and anxiety (8).

Restless leg syndrome

Willis-Ekbom Disease, most commonly called restless leg syndrome (RLS) is a sleep disorder that makes it hard for a person to remain still throughout the night. People with restless leg syndrome are often disturbed by uncomfortable feelings in their legs, including sensations like throbbing, itching, aching or crawling. 

These sensations make a person want to move their legs to find relief; however, moving doesn’t eliminate the sensations. Since these sensations can keep a person awake throughout the night, restless leg syndrome can cause excessive sleepiness and difficulty concentrating throughout the day. 

Factors that contribute to, or are correlated with restless leg syndrome, include:

  • pregnancy (specifically in the third trimester)
  • use of tobacco, alcohol or caffeine
  • renal disease
  • certain medications, such as antihistamines, antidepressants or anti-nausea drugs
  • neuropathy(9)

People with restless leg syndrome may be more likely to experience cardiovascular disease. Specifically, research shows that the frequent limb movements of restless leg syndrome can greatly increase heart rate and blood pressure, which are key markers of cardiovascular disease. 

Restless leg syndrome is also correlated with sleep deprivation and iron deficiency, both of which play a role in cardiovascular disease(10).

Sleep apnea

Experienced by an estimated 30 million adults in the United States, sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder that’s often undiagnosed.

Sleep apnea is when a person’s airway is blocked during sleep. Airway obstruction leads to a number of unpleasant and sometimes dangerous symptoms, such as:

  • loud snoring
  • irregularities and pauses in breathing
  • excessive daytime sleepiness
  • waking up often during the night
  • headaches and dry mouth upon waking
  • decreased attention, memory and cognitive processing

Since sleep apnea obstructs breathing, it can lead to a host of additional conditions and ailments. These include:

  • heart and blood diseases
  • asthma
  • learning disabilities
  • cancer
  • kidney disease 
  • eye disorders
  • diabetes

Sleep apnea is most commonly diagnosed through loud snoring, so it can be especially difficult to pinpoint in people who live alone (11).

Person sleeping by a window

Yoga for sleep

Despite the prevalence of sleep disorders, yoga, meditation and breathing techniques all provide hope for finding relief from sleep deprivation. 

Yoga can improve sleep in people of all ages. In one study, it was shown that a regular yoga program can help elderly people achieve higher sleep quality. This is particularly important, given the fact that 67 percent of elderly individuals struggle with sleep — and that sleep deprivation has been directly linked to cognitive decline(12)

Physical and mental benefits 

Many people turn to yoga purely for physical exercise. However, those looking to use yoga for better sleep should consider both the psychological and psychological benefits of the practice.

The physical aspect of yoga helps with sleep because it is a form of exercise. Physical activity has been shown to have a positive relationship with sleep; the more activity an individual engages in, the more rest they get at night(13).

These benefits are furthered even more with yoga, which also promotes relaxation. Numerous studies show that stress-relief is essential for achieving adequate rest. Yoga is apt for sleep improvement because it’s an effective way to exercise the physical body while promoting mental clarity. 

Studies have shown that yoga programs that combine physical postures, meditation and breathing techniques are highly effective at improving both the duration of sleep and the feeling of restfulness upon waking(14).

In another study, it was shown that 55 percent of people who practice yoga do so to achieve better sleep. And, 85 percent of these respondents agreed that yoga reduced their stress levels(15).

Here’s a look at the science and research behind how to use yoga for sleep.

Meditation

Meditation is a vital part of any yoga class, and it has been proven to ward off insomnia and improve sleep. In a study on older adults experiencing sleep disturbances, a mindfulness program was compared with a sleep education program to see which was more effective at improving sleep. 

Results showed that the people who cultivated mindful awareness of thoughts, feelings and emotions achieved greater relief from insomnia. Depression and fatigue also decreased in the mindfulness group(16).

The benefits of sleep are clear. The following resources can help you incorporate meditation into your yoga program for better sleep:

  • Headspace, an app with guided meditations to promote restful sleep
  • Yoga nidra, a conscious, guided relaxation practice
  • Nothing Much Happens, a storytelling podcast to increase mindfulness and calm

Meditation and yoga nidra shouldn’t be used to replace sleep, as some yoga practitioners may claim. However, they are powerful practices to increase relaxation and promote deeper, more restful sleep.

Woman meditating at home

Mindful breathing

Stress and anxiety are a core contributor to insomnia, in part due to a hyperactivated autonomic nervous system. Breathing techniques, known as pranayama in yoga, helps calm the autonomic nervous system to reduce stress and promote a state of calm. 

Research shows that conscious, self-regulated breathing techniques may be more helpful for combating insomnia than hypnosis or sleep medication, especially when practiced in combination with relaxation techniques and sleep hygiene(17).

Breathing techniques have also been shown to help with sleep apnea. In particular, conscious breathing techniques were shown to improve critical breathing muscles, including the diagram. Participants also saw a reduction in blood pressure that was more significant than that obtained through aerobic exercise(18).

Pranayama involves the conscious modulation of inhales and exhales. Most yoga classes draw attention to one’s breath to cultivate mindfulness and promote calm.

The following resources can help you get started with pranayama:

Not all forms of breathwork are suited for all individuals, so be sure to seek advice from a yoga or breathwork teacher to understand precautions before getting started.

In summary

Adequate nightly rest also helps ward off disease, prevents accidents and elevates a person’s life experience. Still, the prevalence of sleep disorders, including insomnia, restless leg syndrome and sleep apnea, prevents many individuals from receiving the adequate sleep they need. 

Overwhelming research points to yoga as a beneficial practice for improving sleep and sleep impairments. The mindfulness and breathwork practices of yoga have proven to be especially useful. Anyone who struggles with insomnia could benefit from trying yoga for sleep, which can result in more restful nights and more energized days.

To learn more about yoga and its restorative properties, check back for the next article of the series where we talk about its benefits for easing chronic pain.

Michelle Polizzi, Contributing Writer, Physician’s Choice