21st-century living is no walk in the park; like a swarm of mosquitoes buzzing in our ears, little numbered red dots relentlessly force themselves into our lives. And like a mosquito dipping into our flesh and depositing its saliva, social media profitably reminds us of our inadequacies, one nip at a time.
Amidst all of this, mindfulness encourages us to remain, at least for a moment, detached from all the trials of modernity. Instead, it promotes a period of respite, free from our critical self-judgment, free from our obsessive planning for the future, free from ruminations on the past. Mindfulness is about simply remaining present, passively attentive to the thoughts, feelings, and perceptions that comprise our momentary conscious experience.
Over the past couple hundred years, the practice has migrated from eastern philosophy and religion into the western world as an educational tool promoting student focus, a corporate strategy fostering employee welfare, and even into the medical community as a stress-reducing, blood-pressure normalizing, weight-loss promoting, health panacea (Abbott, 2014; Ruffault, 2017).
Wouldn’t it be nice if mindfulness promoted sleep? And wouldn’t it make sense? If we think that some of our struggle to tamp down the stochasticity of our EEG trace has something to do with excessive mind-wandering, self-critical rumination, and planning for the future, why not develop our mental capacity to stay focused on the present?
In people who regularly practice mindful meditation, there are visible brain structural changes in areas associated with perception, memory, and emotion (Fox, 2014). There are also clear functional differences in brain connectivity when meditators and non-meditators are instructed to lie still in an MRI scanner (Hasenkamp, 2012). And when it comes to psychology and mental health, it’s pretty clear that practicing mindfulness is good for our moods (Khoury, 2015). At the same time, mindfulness is a relatively new field, and scientists are still trying to parse out the details.
When it comes to the relationship between mindfulness and sleep, there’s been a lot of research. According to the science search engine Web of Science, almost 600 published peer-reviewed articles. While some studies have found positive outcomes, the value of mindfulness for sleep is not universally accepted. To begin clearing up some of the confusion, a group of scientists attempted to systematically integrate the data from a collection of well-controlled sleep studies (Rusch, 2018). Their goal – the most up-to-date scientific evidence on whether mindfulness can improve sleep.
The Data – Mindfulness Helps People Sleep
Scientists were interested in two questions, first whether mindfulness can effectively promote sleep, and second, whether mindfulness is better than other evidence-based sleep practices.
To their first question, does mindfulness work at all, the answer seems that yes, it does. Not only is it effective, but the sleep benefits seemed to be long-term; five to twelve months after completing the study people were still reporting better sleep.
This group of studies all relied on comparing mindfulness to what’s called an “attention matched control”. For example, in one study, subjects were instructed to listen to a podcast (Radiolab) for the same amount of time as they would have practiced mindfulness. In each case, the control condition had no known relationship with sleep. While there was some variability, from 11 studies and 900 participants, on average, the authors found “moderate strength evidence” that mindfulness improves sleep.
Then came the real test, is mindfulness is better than existing sleep treatments? In this case, scientists looked at studies that compared mindfulness to things like exercise, interpersonal talk therapy, or instruction on good sleep habits (like no screens before bed, how many Tasty videos do you really have to watch anyways?) – in other words, evidence-based recommendations that on average, improve sleep. Looking at seven studies with over 700 participants, researchers couldn’t come to a strong conclusion but found no reason to believe that mindfulness is any better or worse than existing treatment recommendations.
Mindfulness as an Alternative Sleep Remedy
It is important to keep in mind that there’s a range of interventions that are already known to have a positive impact on sleep. Melatonin, exercise, and interpersonal talk therapy are all thoroughly supported by scientific evidence. But not everything’s for everyone. Some people are (sometimes rightly) suspicious of chemical pharmaceuticals, some are physically limited and therefore can’t exercise, some lack the time or resources for interpersonal therapy, and, for some people, the existing interventions just haven’t worked for them.
This study provides the strongest evidence to date that mindfulness meditation can also improve sleep quality. While the practice doesn’t seem to be especially powerful, it does provide people suffering from sleep disturbances another option to try out on their own, which could make it an important evidence-based complement to the existing range of sleep treatments.
About the Author: Andrew Neff completed his Ph.D. in neuroscience and currently lectures psychology at Rochester University. He founded the company Golgi Productions which runs the blog Neuroscience From Underground – find more on Twitter.
Abbott, Rebecca A., et al. “Effectiveness of mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness based cognitive therapy in vascular disease: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials.” Journal of psychosomatic research 76.5 (2014): 341-351.
Fox, Kieran CR, et al. “Is meditation associated with altered brain structure? A systematic review and meta-analysis of morphometric neuroimaging in meditation practitioners.” Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews 43 (2014): 48-73.
Hasenkamp, Wendy, and Lawrence W. Barsalou. “Effects of meditation experience on functional connectivity of distributed brain networks.” Frontiers in human neuroscience 6 (2012): 38.
Khoury, Bassam, et al. “Mindfulness-based stress reduction for healthy individuals: A meta-analysis.” Journal of psychosomatic research 78.6 (2015): 519-528.
Rusch, Heather L., et al. “The effect of mindfulness meditation on sleep quality: a systematic review and meta‐analysis of randomized controlled trials.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences (2018).
Ruffault, Alexis, et al. “The effects of mindfulness training on weight-loss and health-related behaviours in adults with overweight and obesity: A systematic review and meta-analysis.” Obesity research & clinical practice 11.5 (2017): 90-111.