Can Meditation Substitute for Sleep?

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Issue 10, Volume 113

By Elma Khan 

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It is 12:01 a.m. on a weeknight and your brain is buzzing from the onslaught of work on your to-do list. Despite coming home from your extracurriculars and doing homework for five hours (maybe with a bit of procrastination), the prospect of sleep is nowhere in sight. As Stuyvesant students, it is difficult for us to balance our academics and personal lives, resulting in sleepless nights. Teenagers require eight to 10 hours of sleep each night, but often end up with five to six hours because of the plethora of tests, projects, and homework. Instead of napping on the train to school, a much more effective way to make up for a lack of sleep is meditation.

There are many types of meditation, each with a different practice and purpose. In breathing-based meditation, one simply focuses on inhaling and exhaling for five to seven minutes. In visualization meditation, one visualizes a place in nature by imagining sensory details. In mantra meditation, one repeats an empowering message to one’s self to build confidence and calm. Despite the numerous variations, each of these methods has the same goal: improving one’s mental state through mindfulness training. Some benefits include heightened awareness, stress relief, and invigoration of the body and mind. Sleeping has very similar effects, as it decreases stress and repairs brain damage by removing toxic waste byproducts, as well as regenerating tissue to repair bodily damage. Like meditation, sufficient sleep leads to increased dopamine—a hormone that induces feelings of pleasure—and improved fitness and cognitive functions.

New research has shown that every 10 minutes of meditation can substitute for 44 minutes of sleep. Meditation releases serotonin, gamma-aminobutyric acid, and melatonin, chemicals that regulate moods and allow for restful sleep. Meditation is able to naturally mimic the results of melatonin supplements, which are sometimes used to treat insomnia. Essentially, meditation trains the brain to initiate the same processes that occur during sleep—breathing slows and deepens, awareness sharpens, and the subconscious and conscious minds intermingle.

Meditation improves the quality of sleep so that we do not need as much of it. Anecdotal evidence from Buddhist texts suggests that proficient meditators only need three to four hours of sleep daily to cover for a full night’s sleep. According to a study conducted by the New York Academy of Sciences, meditation beginners initially require a bit more sleep, as it takes some time to learn to rest the mind while awake. Over the course of eight weeks, however, a participant in one of the experiments stated that her sleep began to diminish to 1.5 to 3 hours per night. Similar trends were found in other participants, who noted that daily meditation, though initially unable to supplement a full night’s sleep, led to increased wakefulness during the day after eight weeks. Generally, when meditation is first practiced, required sleep decreases by 30 minutes and continues to fall as practice continues.

Neuroimaging studies have shown that increased wakefulness and lower sleep propensity occur with consistent meditation. Therefore, before tests and other stress-inducing tasks, the awareness and anxiety relief that comes with meditating can be beneficial for students. Meditation has the potential to counteract the problems resulting from sleep deprivation, both short-term (impaired memory and concentration, drowsiness, overeating, dimmed mood) and long-term (weight gain, high blood pressure, diabetes, overall impaired brain function).

The value of meditation is its convenience and accessibility; anyone can start meditating at any time, unlocking immense mental and physical health benefits. Students can begin their meditation journey by practicing 10 minutes of breathing concentration in a quiet space during a free period. If they progress to meditating one to two times a week, it can slowly decrease the necessary sleeping time until they need one to two hours less. However, nothing can replace good old-fashioned sleep. While meditation can supplement sleep in small quantities, it is dangerous to rely on purely these methods because sleep is absolutely essential to physical and mental health. Though there seems to be a stigma around meditation because it is viewed as something for hippies and YouTube yoga gurus, it offers a plethora of benefits.