What is sleep quality and why is it important?
Most adults need 7-9 hours of sleep a night. Everyone has trouble falling or staying asleep occasionally, but regularly missing out on sleep can affect your life through extreme tiredness, as well as having knock-on effects for your mental health and physical health.
Sleep quality is how well a person is sleeping, so it incorporates many elements of sleep, such as whether it is sufficient in quantity, unbroken, restful, refreshing, restorative, and non-stressful. On the other hand, sleep disturbance is when someone has difficulty with some aspect of sleep, like falling asleep, staying asleep, entering deep sleep, oversleeping, or feeling rested.
Can mindfulness improve sleep?
There are several studies suggesting that mindfulness-based interventions can help with sleep disturbance and improve sleep quality, including in people with insomnia and cancer patients, and when delivered via an App. Typically these interventions will involve learning formal meditation techniques with the goal of improving attention, increasing presentness, and reducing rumination and obsessive thinking.
However, there are few randomised controlled trials (“RCTs”), which are the gold-standard way of scientifically testing the effectiveness of an intervention. This kind of study is the least biased because people are randomly put into two groups, an intervention group and a “control group”. This means that any differences in improvement are likely to be due to the treatment (if you measure sleep before and after treatment in the same group, you don’t know that those people would not have naturally improved over time anyway). Ideally, the control group receives a ‘placebo’ therapy which is similar to treatment but without the key component being tested, which here would be mindfulness (e.g. self monitoring or a support group).
Although the existing research does support its effectiveness, there is a need for more rigorous research to say for certain that sleep is improved by mindfulness. For insomnia or other sleep difficulties which are disabling or disruptive to your life, these practices should not be used as a replacement for a doctor’s recommendations. Instead, they should be seen as a practice which can form part of a self-care routine, created by the individual to suit their needs and preferences. You should always consult a clinician if you are worried about the state of your health.
Neuropsychological research suggests that these practices could improve sleep through a variety of mechanisms. Here are some of the ways this might work:
- Mindfulness can reduce physical stress responses and stress hormones, calming down the body and helping one to fall asleep.
- Distorted perceptions of sleep (e.g. “If I don’t get to sleep now, my day will be ruined!”, “I barely slept a wink last night”), can add to anxiety and physical arousal, making it harder to fall asleep. Acceptance and self-awareness practices might help individuals to challenge or not be so affected by such thoughts.
- Increased experiential awareness can help a person to identify unhelpful behaviours and triggers, and attention control can help people to focus on helpful thoughts and feelings, e.g. their breath or a calming exercise.
- Mindfulness may reduce rumination and worry about issues other than sleep, which can keep you up at night
- Experienced meditators in one study had higher levels of gamma band activity when sleeping, which is a kind of electrical activity in the brain thought to be associated with stronger cognitive control.
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