DR RAJA AMARNATH and CHITRA RAJAN explore the importance of sleep in our daily lives, and how meditation helps us to create that stillness in the mind and relaxation in the body that allow us to get a good night’s sleep.
Our physical life is held together by four necessities: eating, drinking, breathing and sleeping. Sleep serves as critical a role in our health and well-being as the other three. Why do we sleep? Scientists have explored this question from different perspectives:
Evolutionary theory suggests that sleep has an adaptive purpose and sleeping patterns have evolved naturally to promote survival by dormancy during vulnerable periods.
Hibernation theory proposes that the primary function of sleep is to conserve the energy of organisms and the amount of time they sleep fits their ecological needs or serves their ecological niche.
Restorative theory puts forward the long-held belief that sleep restores and revitalizes the physiological processes in the body. Sleep provides an opportunity for the body to repair and rejuvenate itself.
Scientific research reveals that many of the major restorative functions in the body, like muscle growth, tissue repair, protein synthesis, and growth hormone release occur mostly during sleep.
Patterns The time we spend sleeping and waking is governed by our internal circadian biological clock. Circadian rhythms, or the 24-hour sleep-wake cycle, occur in almost all species and control vital aspects of our physiology, and disruption of the circadian cycle is strongly connected with metabolic imbalance. Yet the flexibility to work, eat, sleep, socialize and exercise around the clock is ingrained in our modern lifestyle. Urban populations in particular take sleep deprivation in their stride, without realizing the impact.
Daily healthy sleep is important, especially when we consider the long hours that we put in at work during the week, causing anxiety, impatience and stress. Sleep needs also vary according to age; for example, children sleep for 12 hours a day while adults need around 8 hours of sleep.
The National Institutes of Health have estimated that the most common sleep disorder in the world, insomnia, affects a sizeable 6% of the world’s population across all age groups. Stress, depression, injury, illness, long working hours, excessive consumption of caffeine or alcohol, overstimulation by technology, irregular sleep hours – the causes are multiple and often inexplicable.
Cycles of Sleep
Sleep progresses in a series of cycles of rapid eye movement (REM), and slow wave sleep or non-rapid eye movement (NREM) stages through the night. We first experience NREM sleep, followed by a shorter period of REM sleep, and then the cycle starts over again. Dreams typically happen during REM sleep.
There are 3 stages of slow wave or NREM sleep:
Your eyes are closed, but it’s easy to wake you up. This phase may last for 5 to 10 minutes.
You are in light sleep. Your heart rate slows down and your body temperature drops. Your body is getting ready for deep sleep.
This is the deep sleep stage. It’s harder to rouse you during this stage, and if someone wakes you up you will feel disoriented for a few minutes.
During the deep stages of NREM sleep, the body repairs and regrows tissues, builds bone and muscle, detoxifies the central nervous system and strengthens the immune system.
Sleep deprivation may result from both a shorter duration of sleep as well as a reduced depth of sleep. Repeated interruptions result in incomplete NREM and longer REM phases. As a result, the depth of NREM phase to achieve quality sleep is not touched.
It is not only a question of how long we sleep; the depth matters to a great extent. Without depth you may end up feeling sleep-starved.
Chronic sleep deprivation carries with it a host of health problems, such as stress and anxiety, depression, obesity, diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease, impaired immune system, loss of productivity, early aging and premature death.
Another area that researchers study is the impact on learning and memory. When we are sleep deprived, our focus, attention and vigilance drift, making it more difficult to receive information. Lack of adequate sleep affects mood, motivation, judgment and our perception of events. A good night’s sleep brings emotional stability, helping with anxiety and moodiness.
Meditative practices help to integrate brain functions,
influencing cognitive behavior and emotional aspects in patients.
Removal of tangled thoughts in meditation brings about a stillness,
which produces a calming effect.
Better sleep Through Meditation
It is believed that our minds generate 50,000 thoughts per day. Most of these thoughts are repetitive and limiting, consisting of a spiral of anxieties and worries about the past and future. This is the fundamental cause of stress leading to sleep problems. Training our minds to meditate by ignoring thoughts brings us to the awareness of the present and creates a balanced state within, and in doing so removes stress. As a result, healthy sleep can be instantaneous, deep and undisturbed for a balanced mind trained through regular meditation, especially with Transmission. The practice of retaining the meditative state throughout the day, as we go about with our activities, further inhibits the development of stress.
Sleep is induced when the conscious mind is relaxed and when we dive into the unconscious mind. It goes without saying that meditation induces the same response as the Sleep Relaxation Response, where our breathing and heart rate are likely to become balanced as our brainwaves alter and we begin to feel peaceful and blissful.
Melatonin, a hormone produced by the brain, also known as ‘the miracle drug from within’, regulates the circadian rhythms and is believed to be essential to feelings of happiness and wellbeing. Insomniacs have a problem getting enough of this highly vital chemical, which is responsible for a normalized sleep cycle. And guess what? Meditation augments the synthesis of melatonin.
Diseases that cause sleep disturbances are treated through meditation; the list includes prevention, treatment and rehabilitation in the case of heart disease, bronchial asthma, and anxiety neurosis, COPD, depression, cancer, and certain degenerative diseases and chronic pain conditions.
Meditative practices help to integrate brain functions, influencing cognitive behavior and emotional aspects in patients. Removal of tangled thoughts in meditation brings about a stillness, which produces a calming effect.
After regular practice of Heartfulness meditation, people have reported a better quality of sleep as well as needing less sleep. 99% of people suffering from insomnia make some effort to sleep. Effort makes us alert and tense, while sleep is a no-effort phenomenon.When we have to make an effort, sleep will be disturbed.
Patanjali, author of the Yoga Sutras, said that sleep and Samadhi have something in common: sleep comes and Samadhi also comes, whereas when we try hard we miss it.
Meditation produces the energy of awareness. Practice the ‘art of being’ or effortless awareness through meditation during the day. This is a sure guarantee to healthy sound sleep.
Amarnath, R., et al. 2017. Improving Sleep Quality Through Heartfulness Meditation — Technical Aspects and Benefits. IJHSR,7(5):368–381.
Article by DR RAJA AMARNATH and CHITRA RAJAN