Several yogis and meditators have reported sleeping just one hour per night as a result of their deep meditation practice. But whether meditation can actually replace sleep is a question that requires some scientific investigation.
While there are many anecdotes of people needing less sleep when they start meditating, science helps us understand whether meditation is a good substitute for sleep.
In this article, we’ll first cover how meditation can improve sleep quality and the extent to which it can replace sleep. Next, we’ll talk about how to meditate correctly to achieve optimal shut-eye, as well as discussing the best meditation app for sleep.
Meditation and Sleep
“In this fast-paced, information-overloaded modern world, one of the few times that we stop our persistent informational consumption and inwardly reflect is when our heads hit the pillow.” – Matthew Walker, Ph.D.
There are three main keys to restful sleep, and meditation can help with all of them.
Having a calm nervous system
Stress is one of the biggest enemies of sleep because it puts your body into a fight-or-flight state, activating your sympathetic nervous system. Most of us spend our days “revved up” because we get inundated with notifications, worries, plans, tight schedules, and many other factors.
The stress response is the same for worry as for physical events. This can make it very difficult to fall asleep when you want to because your brain thinks that a lion may be attacking while you’re lying in bed!
But meditation is a solution to this problem. It calms the body, putting you in a rest-and-digest (parasympathetic) state. As a result, you can feel tired when it’s time for bed and fall asleep quicker.
So while one person might be in bed by 8pm and not fall asleep until 10pm if they are in a fight-or-flight state, a meditator could go to bed at 10pm and fall asleep immediately. Since many people count their amount of sleep by what time they go to bed, in this case the meditator has “replaced” two hours of sleep with some meditation.
2. Maintaining a regular sleep-wake cycle
Melatonin is a key hormone that you produce naturally when it’s time to fall asleep.
But unfortunately, the modern world is throwing off production of this natural hormone with blue light (from screens), caffeine, and stress. This can completely throw off your sleep rhythm and make it difficult to fall asleep when you want to.
Furthermore, since melatonin helps you remain in a deep state of quality sleep throughout the night, people who produce less melatonin can wake up feeling like they didn’t get enough sleep.
Once again, meditation can help with this. One study found that meditation nearly doubles melatonin levels on average! So when it comes to establishing a regular sleep schedule and feeling ready for sleep when you lay down, meditation is a great way to activate your natural sleep rhythm and get a quality night’s sleep.
Quieting your “monkey mind”
Some scientists like Dr. Deepak Chopra posit that we have about 70,000 thoughts per day. It’s an unverifiable claim, but the point still stands: our minds love to think.
Thinking is fine, but it can pose a real problem when you’re trying to fall asleep. You know that feeling when the mind continues to chew on events from the previous day or anticipate the next day’s events? And even when you manage to fall asleep, the mind can still remain overactive leading to low-quality sleep.
When you meditate, the mind can relax into a restorative state even though you’re still awake. The brain goes from producing higher-frequency beta brain waves (how fast the neurons in your brain are firing) seen in awake, normal consciousness, to slower alpha and theta waves that allow the mind to relax (see below). Advanced meditators even show enhanced gamma waves, but that’s a topic for another article.
Since meditation may improve your quality as well as your quantity of sleep, in this sense it can also replace wasted time spent in a state of low-quality slumber. It’s important to note, however, that your brain also requires delta waves found in deep sleep and in Yoga Nidra, a particular type of meditation that we’ll talk about next.
Now that we’ve covered the science of sleep as it relates to meditation, I’ll briefly describe how you can use meditation to improve your sleep quality.
How to Sleep Less with Meditation
In the book The Relaxation Response, Harvard researcher Dr. Herbert Benson claim that an hour of meditation is equivalent to sleeping 3-4 hours. But Dr. Benson later admits: “Meditation is therefore not a form of sleep; nor can it be used as a substitute for sleep. Meditation evokes some of the physiologic changes that are found in sleep…”
While science is still studying the extent to which meditation can replace sleep, it certainly seems to be true that meditation can in some ways reduce the amount of sleep we need, or at least our feelings of tiredness.
What is the best type of meditation for sleep?
Here are the top techniques for getting to sleep quickly and achieving deeper states of mental restoration:
Yoga Nidra Meditation
At least 3,000 years old and originating in India, Yoga Nidra lies at the intersection of meditation and sleep.
The objective of Yoga Nidra is twofold: on one level, it can lead us into restorative states of sleep, and on a deeper level we can use it to explore and reprogram the subconscious mind.
Yoga Nidra can produce deep delta waves, the same as deep sleep, even while you remain consciously aware. Importantly, no other meditation technique will have these effects, and so Yoga Nidra is the best tool for replacing sleep if you are going to go that route.
2. Tranquil Breathing Meditation
This technique uses a deceptively straightforward concept, the breath, to calm your nervous system and bring your brain into a state of coherence.
The first aspect of Tranquil Breathing involves using your full diaphragm by breathing into your belly. This will activate your rest-and-digest system, removing stale air in the lower lungs and giving you maximum energy from the breath.
Next, you establish a regular rhythm and smoothen the breath until you feel your mind begin to relax. To learn more about this technique, here’s an article explaining the science and method of meditation for breathing.
3. Mindfulness Meditation
Mindfulness meditation has been shown by research to improve sleep quality.
While you may spend most of our day identified with thoughts, this causes a lot of trouble when you’re trying to fall asleep. Mindfulness Meditation involves noticing thoughts, feelings, and sensations without getting wrapped up in the content. You simply notice whatever appears in your mind in each moment, and then let it go like a cloud drifting harmlessly through the open sky.
If you want to learn and practice all three of these techniques, there’s a meditation app called FitMind developed with the help of monks and neuroscientists that teaches them step-by-step with expert instruction.
The Best Meditation App for Sleep
When it comes to using guided meditation for getting a great night’s sleep, some apps are better than others.
While certain apps may claim to lull you off with “sleep stories” or calming music, there are more effective, science-based techniques for falling into a deep sleep very quickly. Yoga Nidra, Tranquil Breathing, and Mindfulness Meditation have been practiced for thousands of years in the Far East, but so far only the latter method is taught on most apps.
FitMind teaches all three of these techniques so that you can use them for the rest of your life whenever you have trouble sleeping. FitMind was created with input from monks and neuroscientists and was ranked #1 best meditation app for better sleep by CNET.
There’s solid scientific evidence to suggest that meditation can significantly improve sleep quality. And if you’re serious about finding out whether meditation can replace sleep or are looking to master highly effective bedtime meditations, we recommend checking out FitMind, which is the best meditation app for sleep currently available.
About the Author: Liam McClintock is an RYS Certified Meditation Teacher with a B.A. from Yale University. He is currently completing a Master of Science (M.Sc.) in Applied Neuroscience at King’s College London.