With so many internal and external variables affecting our ability to achieve calm minds at bedtime, it’s no wonder we’re struggling to nod off into restful sleep. Here, a sleep expert explains how and why practising meditation is the key to better sleep.
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Governing health bodies including the NHS specify that the average adult is supposed to get between six and nine hours of sleep a night. But there are so many variables that keep us out of a restful state, it’s a wonder we manage to get any sleep at all. If it’s not the weather affecting our ability to get comfortable, it’s wandering thoughts leaving us with adrenaline-boosting anxiety.
According to Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, a sleep expert for 25 years and creator of Audible Meditations, this is because of our inability to build calm moments into our lives. Because our brains are constantly working up until bedtime, she explains, “During sleep the brain has got more work to do, to put all that information away. So it makes your sleep more noisy, more dream filled, it’s like a workout.”
Which is where meditation comes in. This ancient practice, which is believed to have originated in India, dates back millennia, and can induce a deep trance-like state of calm and relaxation. Meditation can help us achieve better sleep because it allows our minds to start taking a load off long before our heads hit the pillow. According to Dr Nerina, this practice, “enables us to get off the mental treadmill to power down, and just to go offline for a bit – it helps to unload the working memory in the brain.”
What happens when you meditate?
Your mind rests
The working memory is the part of the brain that retains information on a moment-by-moment basis. When we don’t take routine breaks to allow this part of the brain to process what it’s retained thus far, the only time it has to do so is at nighttime.
Dr Nerina explains: “A lot of people never take breaks during the day, or break from screens. And what this means is that when they go to bed at night, they have an increased need for filing. The brain has got more work to do to put all of the day’s information away.”
Taking a break to meditate with no distractions is a way of allowing the brain to process the day’s events rather than store them for later. Dr Nerina says meditating for as little as five to 20 minutes a day means “that there’s less work for your brain to do at night, and you have more access to deep sleep.”
You feel safer
Dr Nerina says the benefits of meditation go beyond relaxation saying, “In the East where it primarily evolved, it’s used as a way of connecting to some form of higher self or god.”
Whether you belong to a faith system or not, meditation can be a way of enhancing your sense of wellbeing. “It’s a way in which we can deepen our faith and find safety in times that can feel very chaotic and uncertain. Sleep and safety are very strongly connected, when you feel safe you sleep better,” she explains.
Best type of meditation to help you sleep
If you’re new to practising meditation you might be mistaken in thinking they all function the same, but some forms like breathing, visualisation and gratitude meditation work better than others to help you wind down.
Breathing meditation in particular is an easy practise. “That’s a really powerful way of bringing you out of the head and into the body to prepare you for deep sleep,” says Dr Nerina.
The best part about it is that it “doesn’t have to be something you need to look up or follow someone’s voice to do.” You can be your own guide through it.
The expert does, however, advise that you avoid more restorative, energising meditation methods such as transcendental meditation, explaining, “It’s so deeply replenishing that you might actually end up being more awake and therefore not able to get to sleep.”
How to meditate for better sleep
You don’t need to overhaul your entire sleep routine to reap the benefits of breathing meditation, you’ll feel the positive effects after a short five-minute session.
Start relaxing in the evening before bed
- Put your phone down in another part of your living space.
- Close your eyes and draw your awareness to your breathing.
- As you breathe in silently say the word ‘in’, and as you breathe out say the word ‘out’.
- Start to notice if you have tension anywhere in the body. We commonly store tension in the shoulders and face, pay attention to the spot between your eyebrows, and your jaw.
- To deepen your breaths, start by taking a deeper exhale, Dr Nerina explains: “gently prolonging the out-breath, which helps to deepen the in-breath.”
Try to relax back into asleep
Don’t do anything to further bring you into a state of wakefulness, so avoid looking at the time or picking up your phone.
- Close your eyes and bring your awareness into your breathing.
- Follow your in and out-breath to draw yourself back into your body and tap into its need for rest.
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Dr Nerina’s tips for making your meditation more successful
If you’re already struggling to maintain a consistent sleep hygiene routine, sitting with only your own thoughts for company might sound daunting. Dr Nerina suggests adding things that make you associate meditation with relaxation, such as:
- Light a candle.
- Bring an intention or prayer to your practice about what you want to achieve.
- Light incense or use aromatherapy oils.
- Practise at a dedicated spot like an altar, or a yoga mat every time.
Dr Nerina Ramlakhan
Dr Nerina Ramlakhan is a renowned physiologist and sleep expert and regularly hosts sleep programmes and workshops. She is the bestselling author of several books about sleep, including The Little Book of Sleep: The Art of Natural Sleep (Gaia, 2018).