Exercise and a well-balanced diet are the first two factors that come to mind when building your fitness level. However, there’s a critical element that’s often forgotten – sleep. Sleep is essential to improving almost all aspects of your physical and mental well-being including building muscle mass. Despite the importance of sleep, 35 percent of adults in the United States report getting less than the recommended seven to eight hours.
Sleep deprivation, which happens anytime you get less than seven hours of sleep, takes a heavy toll on most of your body’s functions. The neurons in the sleep-deprived brain fire more slowly. This slowdown affects everything from memory and recall to reasoning abilities and reaction times.
Emotions can also be influenced. The amygdala, the part of the brain where emotions are processed, becomes more sensitive to negative stimuli while the reasoning center of your brain becomes less active. You become far more susceptible to stress, sadness, anger, and other emotions that can get in the way of day to day activities.
Sleep deprivation also alters your appetite and metabolism. The body releases more of the hunger hormone, ghrelin, and less of the satiety hormone, leptin, during sleep deprivation. Not only do you become hungrier but you also crave high-fat sugary foods that could lead to unwanted weight gain.
You know you need sleep, but sometimes it can be elusive. That’s where meditation comes in. It is a way to calm the mind and body so that stress doesn’t interfere with your ability to fall and stay asleep. Meditation has been used for centuries and, today, it’s becoming a more mainstream way to manage pressure and stress.
Meditating works by helping bring your mental focus into the present, to sensations that are happening at the moment. Thoughts of the past or future are often where anxiety and stress begin. A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine compared the sleep results of a group of participants who learned mindfulness meditation and a group who completed a sleep education class that taught healthy sleep habits. After six weeks, those in the mindfulness group reduced symptoms of insomnia, fatigue, and depression. Mindfulness meditation helped trigger the participants’ relaxation response, wherein their blood pressure and heart rate both dropped.
Meditation also reduces pain perception. Researchers at the University of Manchester found that long-term meditation practitioners showed unusual activity in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for higher reasoning and concentration. Meditation teaches the mind to focus on the present, reducing the anticipation of pain. Consequently, when the participants felt pain, they rated it lower and were able to resist it longer.
Meditation can also act as sleep’s fountain of youth. As you age, you spend less and less time in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. This sleep stage is where the body is rejuvenated, muscles are repaired, and the immune system recharged. Studies have shown that meditation helps practitioners stay in REM sleep for longer periods of time, effectively returning their sleep quality to that experienced at a younger age.
You don’t need to spend an hour meditating each day to reap the sleep-enhancing benefits of meditation. Performing a few minutes before bed, or even while in bed, can help bring your mind into the present so you can drift off to sleep. However, the benefits of meditation increase as it is practiced consistently over a long period. A cozy, cost-effective bed may help motivate you to meditate each night as part of your bedtime routine.
By making meditating a part of your everyday routine, you can reduce stress and give your body the time it needs to perform at its best.