KEY POINTS:

1. We learned in the Sleep Soundly module how important sleep is for recovery and regeneration, optimal performance, and overall health. However, in today's world, getting the optimal amount of sleep might not always be possible.

2. Recently, researchers have discovered that meditation shows similar rest, recovery, and regeneration qualities in the brain as sleep - and after a short practice people often report feeling energized. 

3. While it shouldn't be used instead of sleep, a short meditation practice can be used on those days you had to get up early, or if you were up all night with your kids. 

By Dr. Ellen Choi

In a time where we seem to be conflating a lack of sleep for work ethic, the importance of sleep can be easily undervalued. But, sleep is a critical function that underpins our ability to think clearly, be healthy, be happy, and to function, period. In the state of New Jersey, it is now illegal to drive after being awake for 24-hours because one’s mental state and reaction times are so impaired they are grouped into the same category as a drunk-driver. Insufficient, or even inconsistent sleep impacts judgement, productivity, health, safety, and how we connect with the people around us.

While sleep is an involuntary process, meaning we can’t force sleep to occur at will (a fact that any insomniac or parent can attest to), meditation is a fascinating alternative since we can choose to meditate anytime, anywhere, and for any length of time.

Meditation is a mental training technique that falls into the same category as sleep because they are both regenerative. While meditation and mindfulness practices have earned themselves a good reputation associated with stress reduction, a less well-known finding is that these practices can boost energy levels and mitigate burnout. In my own research, people often report feeling energized after a short practice of paying attention to one’s breath, mentally scanning the body, or simply allowing their minds to wander from something other than work. Recently researchers have discovered that meditation shows similar rest, recovery, and regeneration qualities in the brain as sleep. It also appears that meditation supports deeper sleep and can even alleviate insomnia. Along these lines, one study found that advanced meditators require less sleep at night to feel refreshed and that the benefits of meditation are similar to the cognitive and physical benefits of stage-IV deep sleep.

When my baby was just born I was barely sleeping and in the times that I was asleep, it was fragmented. In my waking hours, I could barely hold eye-contact with people let alone carry a conversation. While many advised me to “nap when the baby napped” it proved unrealistic for me so instead, I started micro-meditating. Any time I was sitting still, I would sit up straight, close my eyes, and connect to my breath or body’s sensations - even if it was just for 10 seconds. Instead of playing on my phone when I was nursing, I would stay present with my baby focusing entirely on her, or if it was dark, focusing on my breath. These brief but frequent moments were incredibly regenerative allowing me to feel more present with the people around me, more productive, and overall, much happier.

Today's Power Up: Meditate to Sleep Better

For those people that are looking to sleep better, investing in a meditation practice has much to offer. Micro-meditations can help.

Particularly if you feel daunted by the idea of meditating for an hour a day (or even 10 minutes a day), micro-meditations may be one way to begin integrating mindfulness into a busy or erratic schedule.

Here are three things to keep in mind for a very brief mindfulness check-in:

1. Set an intention. Be intentional about your practice such that you are consciously attuning yourself to the present for the next few seconds. This may seem obvious but setting the intention to be present is an important part of the process and is the difference between the practice being a micro-nap or a mental zone out.

2. Choose an anchor. An anchor is anything that you choose to be your point of focus that connects you to the present. Your anchor may be your breath, or body sensations like the feeling of your feet on the floor or the temperature of your hands.  It could also be a mantra you’re repeating in your mind, or even something in front of you that you lock your gaze on. Set your anchor and return to it anytime your mind wanders.

3. Close your practice. At the end of your micro-meditation, create a ritual that brings some closure to your practice. You might pause for one more second just to notice how you feel. Another option is to take a moment to think about something you’re grateful for, or to send a kind thought to someone in your life that needs it.  

You may discover that just a few short intentional moments can shift your entire state of mind.

The evidence suggests that sleep is a cornerstone of a healthy mind but if you can’t fit in more sleep cycles, try meditating instead!