We have all experienced a night or two of inadequate sleep, and that might not have any long-term impact on our health. However, when we routinely experience inadequate sleep, it can lead to increased risk of cancer (Fortner et al., 1995), Alzheimer’s disease (Kowgier et al., 2013), diabetes (Knutson, 2008), cardiovascular disease (Gupta & Arnedt, 2012), psychological disorders such as depression and anxiety (Ohayon & Place, 2003), lower life span caused by accidents (Le’ger et al., 2014), and even higher rates of suicide (Turvey et al., 2002).
Since the average person spends about 25-30 years of their life asleep, it’s not surprising that the lack of this time-consuming function can have a dramatic impact on our health and well-being (Shallcross et al., 2018). Despite the well-known risks to a lack of sleep, many people take their sleeplessness as an unavoidable consequence of today’s world and do not seek help. And, many who do look for a solution often resort to over-the counter or prescription sleep aids. Unfortunately, research has found these types of sleep aids to be of no objective benefit as compared to a placebo (Huedo-Medina et al., 2012).
Many sleep researchers are not surprised by the lack of effectiveness of pharmacological solutions, because they do not target the underlying psycho-behavioral causes such as irregular bed and wake times, excessive caffeine and/or alcohol consumption, and worry and rumination (Espie, 2002). Most sleep disturbances are thought to be initiated and perpetuated by (a) excessive daytime and night-time rumination, (b) worrying about the negative consequences of not sleeping, (c) self-criticism and blaming about the inability to sleep, (d) excessive attention to body sensations or external sensations, such as watching the clock, and (e) regularly overestimating the impact of sleep loss (Shallcross et al., 2018).
Many of these sleep experts are now taking note that an effective tool for improving both the quality and amount of sleep is mindfulness. For example, in a large study of middle-aged participants, the researchers found that mindfulness practices significantly reduced the impact of emotional distress that causes sleep disturbances (Wassing et al., 2016). Other researchers have found that mindfulness is effective for insomnia (Gong et al., 2016) and to improve sleep quality across different populations (Black et al., 2015). Furthermore, a recent meta-analysis found that individuals with chronic insomnia or other sleep issues can see improvement in as little as 6 weeks of mindfulness practice (Gong et al., 2016).
For those of you who are experiencing sleep issues, there are small steps you can take that will make a big difference. You might simply start by examining your evening routine and figuring out the types of changes that will help you wind down from your crazy, busy day. Or, it might be developing a simple breathing exercise that you can use when you have trouble falling or staying asleep. To get you started, see below for one of our exercises designed to help you develop your bedtime routine. It may take you a while to figure out what’s causing your sleep issues, but don’t give up. Literally, your life might depend on it.