Is mindfulness the key to a good night's sleep?


Marianna Kilburn
@MariannaKilburn


07 March 2018

What is the practice of mindfulness?

Originating in Hinduism and Buddhism, mindfulness is often described as a ‘mind-body’ approach and is widely considered to be a form of meditation that encourages you to be fully present and aware in each moment, conscious of what is going on inside and outside yourself.

It places a great emphasis on acknowledging thoughts and feelings, without judgement or criticism. Instead, compassion and acceptance are at the heart of mindfulness as well as proper breathing techniques to help you relax and focus. If you’re interested in learning more about mindfulness, please have a look at the video below.

However, for a while most of the benefits of mindfulness went unrecognised. Now though, research is starting to catch up and illustrate just how helpful mindfulness can be for our mental and physical health.

For example, in 2015 one study published in the Journal of Neuroscience found that, compared to the placebo group, participants that practiced mindful meditation found that their pain intensity fell by 27% and the emotional aspect of pain, by nearly 50%!1  It’s believed that mindfulness achieve these overwhelmingly positive results by activating the orbitofrontal and anterior cingulate cortex brain regions – the parts of your brain involved with the self-control of pain!

More research is still needed but so far, the results of most studies concerning mindfulness do seem optimistic, especially concerning our stress levels and mood which can have positive repercussions for our sleep pattern as I shall explore!

1https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/302620.php

How does being mindful help your sleep?

In order to understand how mindfulness can benefit our sleep, we first need to understand the role that our mood can play in influencing our sleep patterns.

Stress and your sleep

I’m sure you have all spent more than one night tossing and turning, unable to relax or calm those worrying thoughts buzzing through your brain.

Stress and anxiety are perfectly normal and essential to your survival; however, your body’s response to it can sometimes be a bit overdramatic. This is mainly because your body cannot distinguish between stress triggered by a life-or-death scenario and you worrying about whether or not you’ll be able to pay your next internet bill.

Your sympathetic nervous system will be triggered and a wave of inflammatory stress hormones, such as cortisol, will be released, accelerating your pulse, dilating your blood vessels and redirecting nutrients to your heart, lungs and muscles – the organs you need to survive. You may also notice that you experience some digestive upsets as breaking down your food is no longer your body’s priority.

You will naturally feel more alert and awake – cortisol and melatonin, the sleep hormone, exist in a delicate balance so too much cortisol will impact your levels of melatonin. Hence the tossing and turning – the more you worry, the more you find it difficult to relax and drift off.

How does mindfulness help you to sleep?

As I mentioned earlier, mindfulness is all about existing in the moment – it helps you to regulate your thoughts, forcing yourself to be present and aware of your body. This, in combination with the breathing techniques, naturally helps you to become more self-referential and aware of your own thoughts and feelings.

This ability to ‘tame your emotions’ can be very beneficial for tackling the adverse symptoms of stress. One study even found that high and low levels of natural mindfulness can help your brain to control negative emotions in the same way2, but arguably the most impressive pieces of research concerning the practice relates to its impact on cortisol.

The Department of Psychiatry at Srinakharinwirot University in Thailand examined 30 medical students between the ages of 18-20 years old. Each day their blood was drawn to measure their cortisol levels, before and after a four day mindfulness meditation programme. The results found that the level of cortisol present in the participant’s blood was significantly lower after the mindfulness meditation.3

This benefit is impressive but isn’t just limited to your stress levels. Lower cortisol levels means that your body isn’t producing the same inflammatory reaction that may upset other areas of your body, such as your muscles and joints and your digestion, which can both also influence your sleep!

2https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/313216.php

3https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23724462

How do you learn mindfulness?

So how do you go about learning mindfulness? Well, luckily, it’s easier than ever before and completely free. Mindfulness apps such as Headpsace and Calm are easy to download and provide simple basic lessons for beginners that only last for a few minutes at a time. You could also try mindful stretching, which can help to improve your physical fitness whilst teaching you similar deep breathing techniques.

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