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Meditation And Sleep: How It Can Help And Where To Draw The Line

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Few health practices have received as much attention as meditation in recent years. It’s been hailed as a panacea for ills as diverse as addiction, depression, anxiety, attention deficit disorder, an insomnia. Indeed, the scientific research on meditation is largely positive, and there are good reasons to consider practicing it. However, as with any health craze, enthusiasts tend to jump the gun. Some advocates of meditation claim that it can actually replace a large portion of the time you need to sleep. It’s at this point that well-meaning advice can become dangerous.

First, it’s worth nothing that there are many different styles and schools of meditation. This makes it hard to do large-scale reviews of "meditation" as a whole, but researchers do what they can to differentiate between them. A popular style for therapeutic purposes is mindfulness meditation, meant to bring about a more "mindful" state of being by way of which we become more reflective, accepting, and overall healthier. A meta-analysis, or independent review of a large number of studies, confirmed that mindfulness-based therapy (MBT) helps treat a variety of psychological disorders, especially anxiety, depression, and stress. Mindfulness meditation combined with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) appears to be very effective in treating insomnia, which is fantastic news.

That’s all well and good, but what about the idea that deep meditation brings about a state similar to sleep, replacing hours you would otherwise spend snoozing? While there has been one preliminary study suggesting that meditation seems to improve alertness in the short-term for sleep deprived patients, its authors caution that much more research is needed to determine whether meditation can actually decrease our need for sleep. The rest of the evidence for this claim is anecdotal, and there have been no large-scale studies that come anywhere close to reaching this conclusion.

It may or may not be the case that regular meditation reduces the need for sleep, but given the myriad serious health problems associated with sleep deprivation (feel free to peruse our blog for examples), it is not wise to take the risk. Seven to nine hours of undisturbed sleep per night is a standard widely embraced by sleep scientists thanks to decades of research. Meditation has been around for thousands of years, but we’ve only just begun to study it with scientific rigour, so any attempt to treat a serious disorder with meditation should be done under the supervision of a health professional.

If you’re healthy and interested in experimenting with meditation to improve your stress or focus levels, by all means, but we would strongly advise erring on the side of caution when it comes to believing its proponents’ loftier claims.

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