Alex Whybrow delves in to the world of sleep and meditation and looks to find an answer to an increasingly popular question – can meditation replace sleep? Read on to find out the answer…
Getting your full 8 hours of sleep can be difficult in the modern world. Combining your work life with family responsibilities, hobbies, life-admin and scrolling through those little electronic devices that never seem to be out of reach is tricky – being able to switch off sufficiently to get enough sleep is difficult.
In this article we are going to be looking at what can happen if you don’t get enough sleep, before taking a deep-dive into meditation to see if that can make up for our sleep short-falls.
What happens when you don’t get enough sleep?
We all know that when we don’t get enough sleep we end up suffering, but why is that and what exactly will it do to us?
How much sleep do we need?
As adults, we need between 7-9 hours of sleep a night, which is increased from 8-10 hours for teenagers and 9-11 hours for school aged children. This will vary slightly depending on how much we do on any given day, our physical condition and even our genetic makeup, but as a general rule we need a minimum of 7 hours every night.
How important is getting enough sleep?
Some doctors see this as a priority equal to eating well and exercising when it comes to maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Sleep has an effect on every part of our health – physically and mentally.
Sleep is an opportunity to recharge our minds and our bodies – enabling both to function at full capacity the following day.
Short-term problems when you don’t get enough sleep
We have probably all experienced a lack of sleep, so we are well aware of the short-term problems that we can face, these include:
- Impaired memory: Our brains are not functioning at full capacity, so we don’t process information effectively.
- Low mood: When we are tired we don’t have the same pep or buzz as we do on a better day. This can impact our relationships both at work and at home.
- Drowsiness: Our bodies and minds are craving sleep, so we feel very tired.
- Poor concentration: This is frustrating at work and with the people close to us, and can become genuinely life-threatening when driving a car or operating machinery.
- Over-eating: Our bodies need energy and as a result we tend to crave more food when we are tired, and don’t have the willpower to resist.
Long-term problems when you don’t get enough sleep
The short-term risks when you don’t sleep well are annoying and frustrating, but the risks in the long-term when you don’t get enough sleep are more serious. They include:
- Weight Gain: If you are eating more when you are tired, then before long it will start to have a major impact on your weight.
- High Blood Pressure: Sleep helps to regulate the hormones in our body that cause stress – when we don’t get enough rest, we get stressed more, which will increase blood pressure.
- Diabetes: When we don’t get enough sleep we can disrupt the way our bodies process glucose, which greatly increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
- Decreased Fertility: A lack of sleep can decrease our libido and also impact the part of our brain that regulates reproductive hormones – making conception more difficult.
- Impaired Brain Function: Prolonged sleep deprivation can lead to prolonged brain fog – affecting our mood, problem-solving, memory and decision making.
In summary – sleep is vital! But are we getting enough?
How much sleep does the average American get a night?
According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), on average Americans get less than 7 hours of sleep a night – an hour a night less than adults did in 1942. They estimate that between 50 to 70 million Americans have chronic sleep disorders, with around 40% of adults falling asleep during the day.
In a survey taken by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, 88% of American adults said that they lose sleep because of binge-watching.
As a nation, we are not getting enough sleep.
Can Meditation Replace Sleep?
Why are we sleep deprived these days? Well, we work longer hours, and as a result our ‘free time’ runs into the time we should be asleep – plus there is so much to do in that time now, so many ways to have fun, unwind, socialize etc, that it can be a struggle to fit it all in.
However, there may be a solution to the problem of sleep that doesn’t require wholesale lifestyle changes. Meditation.
What is meditation?
It seems like a dumb question, I know, but meditation is more than what a lot of people think – it is not just sitting down quietly. It is a skill that needs to be practiced and then experienced.
Meditation is a way of achieving a heightened state of focus and awareness – a set of skills that you use for clarity of thought and concentration. It is not a case of not thinking at all, it is the exact opposite – it is letting your mind wander before bringing it back to focus on your breathing. It is calming, and it helps you declutter your mind.
Why do people think that meditation can replace sleep?
What is it about meditation, then, that makes people think that it can reduce the need for sleep? Well, it comes down to one of the main reasons we need sleep – to relax and recharge our brains.
When we meditate, certain hormones are released from our brain – these include
- Serotonin – the chemical that helps to regulate our mood
- GABA – which helps us to keep calm
- Melatonin – the ‘sleep hormone’ which helps us get restful sleep
As you can see, all of these chemicals help to combat some of the problems associated with lack of sleep. Melatonin is even prescribed to people with sleep problems, so by meditating we are creating a natural remedy in our brains for poor sleep.
It also gives our brain a rest – by slowing down and bringing our focus to our breathing, we are helping our brain relax, in a similar way to when we are asleep.
Who thinks that meditation can replace sleep?
Meditation is strongly linked to Buddhism, and Buddhist texts suggest that masters of meditation only need to sleep for around 4 hours a night. There are cases of people on intense meditation routines, in silent retreats, that sleep for no more than 3 hours a night.
Many people believe that rather than replacing sleep, meditation can just improve the quality of your sleep – perhaps 7 hours of great sleep is much better for you than 9 hours of poor sleep. It all leads to the same result though – more meditation means less time sleeping.
Is there any science to back this up?
Has it been proven that meditation can replace sleep?
In this study published by the NIH, they put this theory to the test. They compared the reaction times of ‘novice meditators’ across six different days – two where they completed a 40 minute meditation, two when they napped and two with control (normal) activities – plus one night of total sleep deprivation. Their reactions were tested before each activity, 10 minutes after and an hour after.
The results were pretty conclusive – every ‘novice meditator’ improved their reaction scores following a session of meditation, whereas all but one got worse after a nap. The scores were obviously lower after the night of sleep deprivation, but saw significant improvement following meditation.
The study concluded that there were significant short term gains for novice meditators in the face of sleep deprivation. They did another test alongside this one in which they discovered that ‘long term meditators’ saw a significant decrease in sleep time – but they agreed that more investigation is needed to fully determine whether and how much meditation can replace sleep.
The trend is clear though – the more you meditate, the less sleep you seem to need. Furthermore, if you are suffering from a lack of sleep, meditating will do much more for you, even as a novice, than a nap will.
How can I start meditating?
There are literally thousands, if not millions, of people out there that can teach you how to meditate – in blogs, books, YouTube videos, Instagram posts – you name it, there is someone there that can help you meditate.
If you want to get started right away, however, there are a few pointers that I can give you to help you on your way that you can do right now:
- Find a comfortable place to sit – somewhere quiet
- Set a timer for how long you want to meditate – I would recommend 5-10 minutes
- Spend time focusing on your breath – slowly going in….. and out
- Every time you find your mind wandering, gently bring it back to focus on your breathing. In….. and out.
- Keep doing this over and over again
Conclusion – Can meditation replace sleep?
It seems clear to us that meditation is a great way to compensate for not getting enough sleep – a condition that so many Americans suffer from. The exact amount of meditation that you need will differ from person to person, of course, but one thing is clear to us:
If you find yourself struggling to concentrate or feeling drowsy often, a session of meditation can work wonders for you. Try it today – you will notice a difference very soon.
This article was written by: Alex Whybrow – Full Time Writer, Coffee Connoisseur & Nootropic Fan
Alex spends a lot of his time writing. He is a creative soul who loves to express himself through his written word. When focus or concentration becomes an issue he turns to nootropics. Aside from the world of nootropic supplementation and writing, Alex is a huge fan of coffee and can regularly be found consuming it and writing about it.