the lady in deep sleep after meditation

How does meditation affect sleep?

Feeling well-rested, with a clear head, and in a good mood – that’s how we would all like to wake up every single morning. But it just so happens that sometimes (or even regularly) we get out of the bed on the wrong foot. 

What if there was an easy practice that could improve your night’s sleep so that when you open your eyes, you feel ready to conquer the day?

Meditation can positively affect our sleep in many ways, from improved quality to needing fewer hours of forty winks. Nevertheless, since meditation is a deep cleansing process, it can also bring about some unsettling dreams representing past experiences.

If you’re new to meditation and wondering how meditation practice can affect your sleep – this article is for you.    

Importance of sleep in our lives

Sleep is important for brain health in general. If you don’t get enough sleep, you can see negative effects on attention and emotional regulation.

Alice Ann Holland, Ph.D

From the moment we are born, sleep plays a crucial part in our lives. During sleep, different bodily systems develop, renew, rest, reset, and process and store information.

The hours of sleep our body needs depends on two main factors: age and health. 

  • For example, newborns require up to 17 hours of sleep per day. For a baby, the connections between the right and left brain’s hemispheres are formed, memories are stored, and synapses are created during sleep. 
  • For children and adolescents, it is advised to have up to 12 hours per sleep, during which the information they learned at school is processed and mental energy restored.
  • Depending on work commitments and lifestyle, an average of 8 hours sleep is recommended for adults. 

Even though the hours of sleep decrease when we age, sleep quality remains extremely important throughout our lives. Lack of sleep can cause a decline in focus, evoke mood swings, and increase vulnerability and sensitivity. 

Let’s not forget that good quality sleep is also needed for our physical body. Illness is a clear example of how vital sleep is for our bodies. Whether a simple cold or a more severe infection, we need much more rest when we are sick. This is because sleep allows our immune system to fight the virus. 

A lot of energy is consumed during the healing process, so doctors recommend staying in bed and resting. Therefore, if you want to recover quickly from an illness, it’s best to avoid engaging in many brain activities and sleep more.

Meditation’s effect on sleep

There are many different types of meditation available, all of which share similar benefits, including those related to sleep. Whether you practice guided, loving-kindness, or singing bowl meditation, as long as this practice is regular, it will reveal the following positive effects on sleep.

Meditation reduces the amount of sleep needed

Some sources quote that 20 minutes of meditation equals 2 hours of sleep. This statement refers to the mental rest our mind receives during 20 minutes of deep meditation. 

It is essential to understand that meditation cannot replace sleep, so you cannot replace an 8-hour night’s sleep with 80 minutes of meditation! Furthermore, deliberately using meditation to stay awake and avoid sleep can negatively affect your emotional state and even cause hallucinations.

Even so, according to science, regular meditation can reduce sleep duration, as its effects on the brain decrease the amount of sleep needed. However, this is much more likely to be the case for long-term meditators rather than beginners.

A 2010 study tracked two groups’ PVT reaction times (fatigue-related changes in alertness). The first group was university students with little to no meditation experience. The second group was long-term experienced meditators. 

The study saw a short-term performance improvement in the non-meditators after 40 minutes of daily meditation. However, the results for the experienced meditators were impressive, finding a significant decrease in their total sleep time.  

The study also compared the average sleep times between the non-meditators and the long-term meditators. It found the latter required around 2.5 hours less sleep than the former. 

The non meditating students needed an average of 7.8 hours of sleep each night. However, experienced meditators (who typically spent 2 to 3 hours a day in meditation) only required 5.2 hours.

Therefore, research shows that by meditating every day, over time, you may require less sleep. It’s unlikely that you could ever get to the stage of needing no sleep. However, say you previously required 8 hours of sleep to feel refreshed; after years of daily meditation, you could find that 6 hours is now sufficient.   

Meditation increases the quality of sleep 

Responsibilities at work, commitments for the family, approaching deadlines – the mind is constantly juggling from one task to another. As a result, it becomes nearly impossible to fall asleep with a calm and quiet mind.

When we fall asleep with chatter in our minds, we wake up tired the following day. Scientists confirm that during sleep, the activity in the brain is still active, and when we fall asleep with too many thoughts in our head, the mind does not get enough rest. In addition, we can experience a restless night when we move a lot, have heavy dreams, and even bruxism.

Meditation helps slow activity in the brain, reducing the brainwaves from an active and alert beta state to the calm and relaxed theta and alpha states. This reduces the number of thoughts we have, meaning the mind feels more peaceful. 

Besides calming and stilling the mind, meditation teaches us how to recognize the sensations in our bodies. For example, perhaps you usually go to bed with a busy mind. But after practicing meditation for some time, you will be able to recognize bothersome thoughts and make a mindful decision to meditate before bed. 

Falling asleep when the mind is clear and free from excessive thoughts is proven to increase sleep quality. A 1997 study showed that experienced meditators spend more time in slow-wave sleep (SWS), which is considered deep sleep and is  important in cerebral restoration and recovery

The research also found that long-term meditators have enhanced rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. This sleep stage stimulates the areas of the brain associated with memory and learning. Therefore, regular meditation increases the level of restoration in your body and brain during sleep. 

Can meditation cause nightmares? 

When was the last dream you had? Last night? The night before? The truth is we spend about two hours dreaming every night, but we don’t necessarily remember them. 

We process emotions and experiences through dreams. Dreaming also allows us to store things we’ve learned and clear out unimportant memories. So if we don’t remember those dreams in the morning, that’s okay; it means that the mind and body processed them in a “soft way.”

Nightmares are dreams that evoke fear and sadness, usually intense and vivid. People suffering from stress, trauma, or anxiety typically have more frightening dreams. This is because they have more or bigger events and experiences to process, and those events are more likely to invade their thoughts during sleep. 

However, some people find that the more they meditate, the more vivid and intense their dreams become. This could be due to the enhanced REM sleep that regular meditation results in. Since the brain is more active during REM sleep, vivid, fantastical, or bizarre dreams are common; thus, if this sleep stage is enhanced, so is the intensity of the dreams. 

In addition to the enhanced REM sleep state, meditation is a cleaning process. Profound meditations can bring to the surface past memories we had been suppressing. This often happens if the events were too traumatic to experience at the time, but as meditation helps us let go and open up, the memories arise to be released.

These memories can disturb the mind, and as a result, some nightmares can appear. So it depends on how you look at it. You can say that meditation can cause nightmares, but in reality, meditation evokes a deep process of releasing what is no longer serving you. 

Why can’t you sleep after meditation? 

There is nothing to worry about if you can’t fall asleep after meditation one time. In this case, you most likely had a more profound meditation than you realize, indicating that you are mastering this practice

However, if you regularly can’t fall asleep after meditating, it could be due to one of the following reasons:

Meditating too close to bedtime

Meditation is a practice with a long list of excellent benefits. Although meditation can help you sleep better, it can also be compared to a power nap. After just 15-30 minutes of meditation, we feel rested and more focused, just like after a nap. However, this is not a feeling you want before bedtime. 

Luckily, though, not all types of meditation have this effect. So if you find meditation wakes you up too much, consider choosing a different style that is more relaxing. Alternatively, opt for Yoga Nidra, a practice similar to guided meditation.   

Using breathing techniques

Some meditations have breathing techniques incorporated into the practice, some of which can be calming and others energizing. For example, the breathing technique Bhastrika is popular because it increases mental focus and helps you stay alert while ensuring an excellent post-meditation experience. However, it is an energizing breathing technique that will wake you up, so it works best in morning meditations.

If you use Bhastrika or another energizing breathing technique to enhance focus in your evening meditation, replace it with alternate nostril breathing (Nadi Shodhan Pranayama). This style of breathwork also requires focus, so it is excellent for reducing your thoughts. However, the difference is it rebalances the nervous system, creating a calming effect on the body and mind.

Practicing dynamic meditation

Active meditation was designed to move the energy in the body while using chaotic breathing and uncontrolled movements. As a result, this meditation will make you feel more alert and energized. Needless to say, this is not what you need before bedtime. Osho, the founder of active meditation, suggests practicing dynamic meditation in the morning. Still, if that is not possible, ensure you practice it at least 3-4 hours before bedtime.

Evening food

What if it is not meditation but a cup of black tea and delicious tiramisu that keeps you awake at night? Caffeinated drinks and acidic foods are the things most likely to keep you awake, according to Dr. Aris Iatridis, the sleep specialist at Piedmont. Therefore, before blaming meditation for your sleepless nights, think about whether your pre-bedtime treats could be what is stopping you from dozing off to dreamland. 

Final thoughts

Sleep is vital for healing and restoring the body and mind. Meditation improves the quality of our sleep, which over time could mean we do not require so much of it. However, you should also note that as meditation is a cleansing process, past trauma can come up and affect our sleep negatively in the form of nightmares. 

However, this is only temporary. If you regularly struggle to sleep after meditating, try more calming meditation and pranayama practices or move your meditation to earlier in the day.