Meditation has been much vaunted recently. Big names like Katy Perry, Madonna, and Hugh Jackman all sing its praises, as do the millions of active users of meditation apps like Headspace and Calm. The NHS even recommends it as a as treatment for many mental health conditions.
The benefits of meditation for mental health and stress reduction are well-documented, but could it really be a replacement for sleep? Headspace’s founder, Andy Puddicombe, suggests it could.
In a Headspace blog post, a user asked Puddicombe if it is worth sacrificing sleep to meditate. Puddicombe’s answer? “Yes, absolutely.” How seriously should we take this claim? The Headspace founder has a vested interest in getting people to meditate, after all. He doesn’t make money when people sleep. It’s possible, however, that what he’s saying is true. As it happens, the idea of meditation replacing sleep does have a historical precedent.
Meditation helps some Buddhists sleep for four hours a night
Care2 Healthy Living, which describes itself as “the world’s largest community for good,” points to some Buddhist texts which suggest expert meditators need only four hours of sleep per night.
Buddhist monks have taken this advice to heart. In 2009 a group monks emerged from a Scottish retreat where they had been sleeping each night for as little as five hours. In an upright position, no less.
Those with firsthand experience report various ways meditation has reduced their need for sleep. One claims meditating can “decrease the metabolic rate” by four times the amount deep sleep can. One suggests a meditator’s sleep is more restful and restorative, which is why they need less of it to feel replenished.
As the meditation blog run by Buddhist teacher Burgs points out, there is no way meditation could replace sleep completely. Burgs brings a sober counterpoint to the subject of meditation and sleep: “It is a fact that if you didn’t go to sleep you would die,” he says. Nonetheless, it seems nearly every expert meditator agrees that meditation can reduce the necessary amount of sleep. And these findings are increasingly backed up by scientific studies.
Back on the Headspace blog, Dr Adrian Williams, a professor of sleep, penned a guest article about sleep and meditation. His research supports the idea that since the state of meditation is similar to the sleep state, meditation can decrease the need for sleep. “As you meditate more often,” he writes, “a reduced need for sleep might become more apparent.”
Hard science supports these claims. Reporting on a study published by the American Psychological Association, sleep publication Van Winkle’s said this: “Here’s the dirty secret: If you get good at meditating, you need less sleep at night.” According to MRI scans, the brain patterns of deep sleep are the same as the brain patterns in deep meditation. Skilled meditators, therefore, need less sleep to have had the same amount of restorative brain activity.
Meditation can replace some sleep, but not all of it
The founder of Golden Bristle, a mindful management training company, says despite scientific findings, sleep is too important to be completely replaced by meditation. But that its effect on sleep should come as no surprise. Meditation is proven to reduce stress, and “if your body is no longer pumping out stress hormones on a regular basis, you won’t need as much rest or repair. It’s logical.”
It’s important not to get too carried away with the idea that meditation can replace sleep. Research and testimony supports the idea that it is absolutely worth waking up earlier to fit meditation into your schedule, but no amount of meditation can completely replace your nightly sleep cycle.