The seventh variable that I will be manipulating across a two week period to examine its impact on sleep is meditation. I will be seeing if regular meditation can improve our sleep, and if doing a lot of meditation is better than a little or none at all.
I will discuss what my data shows, how easy or difficult I found this strategy to implement, and what previous research says. These three factors will be combined for an overall score and grade on how effective meditation is at improving our quality of sleep.
How Would You Cope?
Back in January I decided to sign up for a Vipassana meditation retreat. I’d seen the Australian comedian Judith Lucy go there in her 2011 TV series ‘Judith Lucy’s Spiritual Journey’ and thought that looks like a fun challenge.
Ten days. No technology. No reading. No writing. No hobbies. No exercise apart from walking. Complete celibacy and abstinence from any drugs (herbal, prescription or other), caffeine, alcohol, meat and sugar. Only 2 pieces of fruit for dinner. No socialising. No speaking. No eye contact. Not even head nods or gestures.
Just a lot of meditation. And sitting. And looking out onto the horizon. And lying down. And worrying about being attacked by the spiders that we weren’t allowed to kill. And bad sleep!
By removing all external pleasures and temptations and distractions, the aim of Vipassana meditation is to help you to tune in to the knowledge and wisdom within (I think). Through meditating up to 15 hours a day whilst observing noble silence, you are also meant to develop insights about yourself and the universal laws and truths that exist in our world (I think). In his book ‘Waking Up’, Sam Harris said that it is the most reliable method to reach an experience of transcendence, followed closely by taking LSD.
Before the retreat, the longest I had ever meditated for was 45 minutes, and that was a guided body scan meditation by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Even that has felt too long at times, but for some reason I thought that 10 days of it wouldn’t be too bad.
I was bored. Like really bored. Time has not gone that slowly since I was in primary (elementary) school. Sure, I developed some really good insights, such as I want meditation to help me live my life more mindfully, not take me away from it. I was able to rest and relax a lot. I also did get to strengthen my meditation skills, including noticing more subtle sensations in different parts of my body and reducing my reactivity.
I was even able to meditate for an entire hour with my legs crossed and arms in my lap without moving at all on four or five occasions. Learning and observing that I didn’t have to scratch an itch or move in response to strong back pain was pretty cool. However, so was leaving early after eight days to go and spend Easter with my family.
For the first week, I was on the Vipassana meditation retreat for the first four nights. For the three nights after that I did a 15-20 minute meditation before going to bed using the app ‘Calm’.
For the second week, I did no formal meditation at all, and tried to see if I could get back into a better sleep pattern after spending too long in bed whilst at the meditation retreat.
Comparison 1: Meditation vs No Meditation
Subjectively, I had a slightly better sleep quality in the first week (3.57/5) when I was meditating in comparison to the second week (3.42/5) when I wasn’t, but both were bad. Partly because I was going to bed too early, and partly because I was spending too long in bed and hadn’t been active during the day, my sleep efficiency (percentage of time in bed asleep) was less than 90% for the first time all year.
I did manage to sleep an extra 22 minutes per night on the week when I meditated, and 7 hours and 26 minutes per night on average. However, I also spent 18 minutes getting to sleep each night, woke up 2 times per night, and spent over 30 minutes awake during the night for the first time this year.
Without meditating at all, I woke up less, fell asleep quicker, spent less time awake during the night, and had a sleep efficiency that was 2.5% better than the meditation week. Not exactly what I had expected before doing this experiment.
Comparison 2: Meditation retreat (10+ hours of meditation) vs Calm meditation app before bed (15-20 minutes of meditation)
My sleep quality rose from a 3.25/5 during the retreat to a 4/5 once I left it and started doing only 15-20 minutes per night before bed. My time taken to get to sleep dropped from 24 minutes down to only 10 minutes. Instead of waking up 2.5 times per night it was only 1.33 times, and my time awake during the night decreased from 43 minutes to 18 minutes.
I went to bed a lot later and woke up later too once I left the retreat, but still got 7 hours and 10 minutes of sleep per night and increased my sleep efficiency to 93.82%. Essentially, adding 15-20 minutes of mindfulness to my normal day and routine without all of the other restrictions was better for my sleep in every possible way to the sleep that I had in the second half of my time at the silent meditation retreat.
Objectively, the depth of my sleep was the best after 15-20 minutes of meditation before bed (Apr 15 – 14/4/17 on the sleep diary). The next best was when I was at the meditation retreat (Apr 11 (10/4/17 on the sleep diary). The worst was when I did no meditation during the day or before bed at night.
Based on the objective data, meditation is good for depth or quality of sleep. However, 10 hours of meditating a day was actually worse for my sleep than only 15-20 minutes before bed.
IS PRACTICING MEDITATION A GOOD SLEEP STRATEGY?
IS IT EFFECTIVE?
A little bit. I do not recommend going on a 10-day silent meditation retreat if you are wanting to improve your sleep. It negatively impacted my sleep and reduced my sleep quality to as low as it was the week where I was consuming alcohol every night before bed. That means just meditation was not an effective sleep strategy. It also needs to be combined with the other strategies for effective sleep. Only 15-20 minutes per night of meditation in the last hour before bed was good however, and better than no meditation. I therefore give the effectiveness of this strategy a 15/25.
CAN IT BE APPLIED?
For me, the flexibility of a meditation retreat gets a score of 2/25. It required giving up essentially everything, and could not really be replicated at home. Switching off from technology and multitasking at night is a bit easier and more effective too.
Doing 10-20 minutes of meditation using an app such as headspace, calm, smiling mind or buddhify in the last hour before bed is pretty non taxing however. I therefore give the applicability of this strategy a 22/25. All you have to do is have a smart phone, download an app, set a reminder for yourself each night, and follow what it says. Meditating without the use of an app is even easier to apply, and with a little bit of practice using the apps you may prefer to just do a body scan or mindfulness of the breath exercise by yourself rather than being guided by someone else.
IS IT SCIENTIFIC?
This article summarises the 30 Evidence-Based Health Benefits of Meditation. As they state, meditation has been shown to boost the immune system and heart health, lower blood pressure, help manage chronic pain and headaches, improve energy, decrease stress and anxiety, improve emotional intelligence, reactivity and resiliency, reduce depression and addiction relapse rates, relieve symptoms of PTSD, BPD and binge eating, and improve relationships, concentration and overall well-being.
These benefits alone should have a positive impact on sleep and insomnia, but other studies have found that meditation can directly improve sleep too. Two early studies found modest improvements when meditation is used by itself as an intervention for sleep (Britton, Shapiro, Penn, & Bootzin, 2003; Heidenreich, Tuin, Pflug, Michal, & Michalak, 2006). Brown and colleagues (2015) also found that a 6-week meditation intervention was significantly better than a sleep hygiene education intervention at improving sleep quality in older adults.
When meditation is combined with other sleep interventions such as CBT-I it has been shown to be especially effective (Ong et al., 2008; Ong, Shapiro, & Manber, 2009). Another study also found that meditation improved self-regulation of sleep by allowing it to occur more naturally (Howell, Digdon, & Buro, 2010).
I therefore give the science of this strategy a 40/50.
Overall, meditating for 10-20 minutes before bed as a way to sleep better gets a score of 15/25 + 22/25 + 40/50 =
WHAT I RECOMMEND
The silent meditation retreat experience really did teach me once again about the importance of balance. It showed me that even something that has an impressive amount of scientific evidence backing it can be harmful if we do too much of it at the expense of all the other things in our life that we get a sense of joy, engagement, purpose, connection and achievement from.
Social connection, relationship warmth and a sense of belonging really are important to well-being, and social isolation and loneliness really can be harmful to our long-term health and happiness. Freedom, independence and autonomy are also really important to me, as I am sure they are to others, and it’s important for people to be able to choose what they can and cannot do each day.
If mindfulness or any other form of meditation gives you the skills to live a better life with less suffering then that is awesome. Just make sure that however much you are doing is the right amount for you. For me it is 15-20 minutes in the last hour before sleep. A lot of other people prefer to do it first thing in the morning. Find what works for you, and then stick to it for a month or so if you can to get a true sense of what benefits it may bring for you.
Dr Damon Ashworth