Cultivating Mindfulness to Help Sleep

03/15/2015 10:34 am ET | Updated May 15, 2015

Talk of mindfulness -- and its capacity to improve health and well being -- seems to be everywhere these days. From stress reduction, to exercise, to eating and weight management, mindfulness practices are increasingly being recognized for their therapeutic benefits. Another benefit to mindfulness? Practicing mindfulness can also improve sleep.

First things first: what, exactly, is mindfulness? Mindfulness is a practice of gently focusing one's attention and awareness on the present moment. In a mindful state, we allow ourselves to be aware of any thoughts, feelings, and physical experiences that occur, as well as to be aware of the environment that surrounds us. This moment-to-moment awareness is accompanied by a non-judgmental acknowledgement of any and all thoughts and feelings. When we practice mindfulness, we accept all thoughts and feelings as they come and go, assigning no judgment or criticism to them -- or to ourselves for having them. In a mindful state, with our focus on the present moment, we look neither forward to backward. We don't anticipate what is to come in the future, and we don't re-live the past.

The origins of mindfulness trace back thousands of years within Eastern philosophy and religious practice. Mindfulness meditation is a core element of Buddhism. Over the past several decades, we've seen widespread acceptance and enthusiasm for many ideas and practices of Eastern traditions into Western culture. Yoga is one such practice. Mindfulness is another.

Mindfulness as a therapy for physical and mental health has been increasingly used by clinicians and studied by scientists. A significant body of research shows that mindfulness can have significant benefits for mental and physical health, as well as daily functioning and performance. Studies have demonstrated that mindfulness may improve immune system function, can reduce stress, and can be effective in treating depression -- perhaps even as effective as anti-depressant medications. Mindfulness has been shown to help spur weight loss, and may increase the likelihood of sticking with an exercise program.

Mindfulness has also been shown effective in helping to improve sleep, including reducing symptoms of insomnia and other sleep disturbances, as well as reducing daytime tiredness and fatigue. Mindfulness, according to research, also can help alleviate one of the prime obstacles to sleep: worry.

Anyone who has experienced the frustration of insomnia -- or even the occasional night of trouble falling asleep -- knows that a worried, racing mind can make sleep incredibly difficult to achieve. Worried thoughts can interfere with your ability to fall asleep and also to stay asleep, leading you to wake often during the night or to wake very early in the morning. These are also hallmark symptoms of insomnia. Difficulty sleeping can also bring about worries that are about sleep itself. Adding to the anxieties of daily life are sleep-related worries, such as how long will it take me to fall asleep? how much sleep will -- or won't -- I get tonight? how am I going to feel the next day? Mindfulness therapy has been shown effective in improving sleep problems that occur in combination with anxiety.

Mindfulness therapy to improve sleep and alleviate symptoms of insomnia or other sleep problems can involve a number of different techniques, including meditation, movement and breathing exercises, sleep restriction and sensory deprivation. Broadly speaking, using mindfulness to improve sleep involves developing in-the-moment mental and physical awareness, which in turn can help adjust behaviors and emotional responses in ways that make sleep easier and more restful.

A new study highlights some of the benefits that mindfulness can have for sleep, both in improving sleep quality and reducing some of the negative effects of poor sleep. Scientists at USC and UCLA investigated the effectiveness of mindfulness therapy to treat disrupted sleep in older adults. With age often comes less sound, more disrupted sleep. Older adults are more likely to experience insomnia and other sleep disturbances, as well as the daytime tiredness and fatigue that often accompany sleep problems.

The study included 49 men and women over the age of 55. The group's average age was just over 66 years. All the participants were experiencing moderate levels of sleep disturbance. Researchers divided the participants randomly into two groups. Each group spent six weeks receiving treatment and education directed at improving their sleep problems. One group attended weekly a course in mindfulness awareness practices, including meditation, movement, and other daily mindfulness practices. The other group attended a weekly class in sleep hygiene education, which included education about sleep problems as well as stress reduction and relaxation techniques.

After six weeks, researchers re-evaluated all the participants' sleep quality. The mindfulness group showed significant improvement compared to the sleep hygiene group, improving their sleep quality scores by nearly twice as much, on average. The people who received mindfulness training also saw greater improvements to their insomnia symptoms, as well as to symptoms of depression and to levels of daytime fatigue.

This was a small study, but one that aligns with other research that supports the effectiveness of mindfulness -- on its own and in conjunction with other treatments including cognitive-behavior therapy -- in treating insomnia and other sleep difficulties. As a form of sleep therapy, there's a great deal to like about this option. Mindfulness practices are generally easy to learn, and can be shared at a relatively low cost. Mindfulness takes a gentle and natural approach to managing and improving sleep, making it feasible for people in most cases regardless of age or physical condition. And as the research indicates, there are whole-health benefits to the practice of mindfulness, wherein every aspect of health stands to gain. A healthier you is likely to sleep better, and a better-sleeping you is likely to be healthier.

Exploring the practice of mindfulness requires no religious affiliation or philosophical belief. It's a gentle, simple, practical method of paying attention -- one that may deliver profound benefits for our waking and sleeping lives.

Sweet Dreams,

Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep Doctor