Nowadays, it is rare to meet a person who is not practicing, has not tried, or at least heard of meditation or mindfulness. According to social media and various gurus, it would seem that these practices can solve all of the problems of the modern world: stress, obesity, financial difficulty, insomnia, and anxiety, and cure various diseases, such as depression or cancer.
Mindfulness practices and meditation might improve insomnia symptoms.
Mindfulness-based interventions are better at improving sleep quality than nonspecific active controls but not as other evidenced-based sleep treatments.
Mindfulness meditation can serve as an additional treatment to medication for sleep disturbances.
Some meditation practitioners experience less sleep need, decreased sleep, insomnia, or even parasomnias, such as nightmares and vivid or lucid dreams.
At the same time, meditation and mindfulness are still considered by many to be very esoteric practices associated with shamanism, chakra opening, or some other voodoo pseudoscience practice. Meditation and mindfulness are seen as something that is very 'unscientific.'
Mindfulness meditation may alleviate insomnia
One of the biggest enemies of a good night's sleep is stress, while mindfulness exercises and meditation are some of the best tools to combat stress. Therefore, one could expect that mindfulness practices and meditation would improve sleep by reducing one’s stress levels.
A 2016 meta-analysis, which included a total of 330 participants with insomnia from 6 different randomized controlled trials, investigated how mindfulness meditation affected various sleep parameters.
It showed how much time awake one spends in the night, sleep quality, how long people sleep in the night, how long it takes to fall asleep and how long people slept compared to how long they spent in bed, a parameter known as sleep efficiency.
The researchers found that mindfulness meditation significantly improved sleep quality and led to people spending less time awake at night in a population of patients with insomnia.
However, mindfulness meditation did not affect sleep efficiency, how long time it took to fall asleep, or how long people slept in total.
The authors concluded that mindfulness meditation may mildly improve some sleep parameters in patients with insomnia and that it can serve as an additional treatment to medication for sleep disturbances.
Another meta-analysis from 2015 investigated the association between mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) on sleep disturbance in the general population with insomnia.
The study was quite broad and included 575 individuals from 16 different studies with ages ranging between 8-87 years, and 82.09% of participants were female.
This meta-analysis found that people practicing MBIs had better sleep efficiency, longer total sleep time, spent less time awake at night, and fell asleep faster, as assessed by subjective sleep logging.
It is important to mention that no statistically significant effects on sleep were detected when sleep was measured objectively by polysomnography and actigraphy. The observed sleep improvements, as assessed by the sleep log, continued for 2-6 months following the MBI start.
The authors conclude that their results suggest that MBIs might be a promising tool for improving sleep, as assessed by subjective sleep logs but not by objective measures.
That interpretation is limited due to the small number of studies and that more research is needed to explore whether mindfulness-based exercises are effective in alleviating insomnia symptoms for adults and adolescents with insomnia.
A recent 2018 systematic review and meta-analysis evaluated the effect of mindfulness meditation interventions on sleep quality in people with clinically significant sleep disturbance.
The strength of this study was that they compared the effects of mindfulness meditation interventions to specific active controls and nonspecific active controls, which were analyzed separately. The study included 18 trials with a total of 1,654 participants.
The results showed that when compared with evidenced-based sleep treatments, mindfulness meditation did not affect sleep quality immediately after treatment or at a 5- to 12-month follow-up.
Yet the strength of evidence was low and further studies are needed to elaborate on these findings. However, when compared with nonspecific active controls mindfulness, meditation significantly improved sleep quality both immediately after the intervention and also at a 5- to 12-month follow-up.
Lastly, the results did not correlate with how much participants meditated and their sleep quality scores. These preliminary findings suggest that mindfulness meditation may be effective in treating some aspects of sleep disturbance, but as usual, more studies are needed.
Mindfulness meditation might disrupt sleep in some people
Interestingly, there is some evidence that in some people, mindfulness-based techniques and meditation might do the opposite and even disturb sleep.
For example, in the recent 2018 systematic review and meta-analysis, two trials reported that 3% and 7% of people from the mindfulness meditation groups experienced a worsening sleep quality.
The authors mention that it is not uncommon for sleep parameters to worsen, especially in the early weeks of the intervention. This might be because mindfulness meditation enhances our awareness of the present moment, and this can highlight emotions and feelings, such as anger, sadness, or fear.
Also, if there is a history of trauma, mental instability, addiction, or major life changes, mindfulness meditation may bring past experiences to the present moment, and in this case, this intervention might require additional clinical monitoring.
Another article from 2017 reported that some meditation practitioners experience less sleep need, decreased sleep, insomnia, or even parasomnias, such as nightmares and vivid or lucid dreams.
A 2019 review article elaborated more on such a relationship between mindfulness practices and sleep problems and reported that short mindfulness practice durations increased sleep duration.
As practice duration approached 30 min per day, sleep duration and depth began to decrease, and nightly awakenings and microarousals began to increase. Interestingly, long-term meditators have also been found to have worse sleep and more awakenings and microarousals than non-meditators.
According to research, mindfulness practices and meditation seems like promising intervention to alleviate insomnia symptoms. However, for improving sleep in the general population without sleep disturbances, the results are not so clear.
As often seen in life, everything is best consumed in moderation. If one seeks to improve sleep through mindfulness meditation, regular short practice might be more beneficial than long practice sessions.