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Can meditation make up for lost sleep?

by Dr. Adrian Williams

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“There aren’t enough hours in the day.” Have you ever heard those words? Uttered them yourself? Wondered how much more you could accomplish if you needed, say, four hours of sleep instead of your typical eight?

We all know that sleep—and enough sleep—is essential. In the words of sleep scientist Allen Rechtschaffen, “If the many hours of sleep accomplished mean nothing, it is the greatest mistake nature ever made.”

Meditate more, sleep less?

Interestingly, anecdotal evidence suggests that long-term expert meditators need significantly less sleep. In fact, according to some Buddhist texts, a full night’s sleep totals approximately four hours among proficient meditators. Studies outside of a retreat context also support this idea (although findings are a bit less profound). One that involved long-term meditators and using traditional laboratory sleep studies showed an average of 30 minutes less sleep needed per night.

But why? We know that a regular meditation practice can lead to changes in the body that are similar to changes that occur in sleep. The restful alertness you might experience with meditation is associated with decreased heart rate, reduced metabolism, and changes to the nervous system that reduce arousal that occurs during sleep.

Neuroimaging studies are beginning to support the idea that a meditation practice promotes greater wakefulness and lower sleep propensity as it progresses in intensity. So in the early stages of a practice, if you meditate one to two times per week, you might experience relaxing and sleep-promoting effects (which are great in and of themselves). But as you meditate more often, a reduced need for sleep might become more apparent. Of course, the length of time spent meditating, the type of meditation practiced and the quality of sleep experienced all factor into this explanation.

If the time you save not sleeping is spent in a mindful state, how will that impact your day? Perhaps some of the other benefits of a meditation practice—better health, wellbeing, and quality of life—will be better achieved in those new wakeful moments

Dr. Adrian Williams

Dr. Adrian Williams is the UK's first Professor of Sleep Medicine with a lifetime of experience in the field. This began at Harvard, followed by many productive years at UCLA, and now London. His clinical experience is extensive; his research has encompassed most areas of sleep, with his current interest focused on meditation as a way of improving sleep and, as a natural consequence, health.

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