The Science Behind Meditation for Sleep

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woman meditating for sleep

Meditation has a long history across cultures. Once deeply rooted in religion, the practice has made its way into the mainstream in a big way. Breaking free of its ties to only Buddhism and Hinduism, meditation has even become pretty buzzy as of late. Today, people lean into meditation to reduce stress, relieve anxiety, and achieve mental clarity — but did you know sleep and meditation make great bedfellows, too? 

Note: The content on Sleepopolis is meant to be informative in nature, but it shouldn’t be taken as medical advice, and it shouldn’t take the place of medical advice and supervision from a trained professional. If you feel you may be suffering from any sleep disorder or medical condition, please see your healthcare provider immediately. Additionally, if you have breathing problems, you may want to consult with your provider before instituting any new breathing or meditation practices.  

Long Story Short

  • Meditation can improve sleep by reducing stress, calming the mind, and promoting relaxation. 
  • There are many different types of meditation, so it may take some trial and error to find the one that works for you.
  • Sleep and meditation may go hand in hand, but meditation is not a substitution for sleep.

Does Meditation Help You Sleep? 

Theresa B. Skaar, a social psychologist who’s also certified in mind-body medicine, says that meditation helps with sleep because it helps regulate the nervous system. (1) By bringing your attention to the present moment through objects of attention such as the breath, body, and sounds, you are able to create space and allow the busyness of the mind to be redirected to the present moment. 

Radha Metro-Midkiff, a certified instructor of both Hatha Yoga and Raja Yoga and Executive Director at Integral Yoga Institute New York, adds, “Meditation can significantly improve sleep by reducing stress, calming the mind, and decreasing arousal, all of which can interfere with sleep.” (1)

And a review of the research also shows us just as much — meditation can indeed help improve sleep quality. One study showed that not only did meditation have an immediate positive impact on sleep quality, but the effects of improved sleep lasted over several weeks. Moreover, the researcher noted the positive impact across age categories. (2)

A 2021 study found that meditation and exercise improved sleep quality among 413 healthy adults with no known sleep problems. Incidentally, this study also suggested that mindfulness meditation could mitigate the effects of impaired daytime functioning that often results from poor-quality sleep. (3)

How to Meditate for Sleep

For those exploring the practice, getting started may be the hardest part. While there’s an abundance of information on the web, it can be quite a challenge to make sense of it all. 

Simplifying things a bit, Metro-Midkiff tells Sleepopolis, “Meditation for sleep involves techniques specifically aimed at relaxing the body and mind to prepare for sleep.” With so many techniques to choose from, beginners may have to try different styles of meditation to find the one that works for them. 

Ahead, we asked a few experts to walk us through different meditations. 

Radha Metro-Midkiff: Meditation for Sleep 

  • Ensure your space is quiet and comfortable.
  • Dim the lights and consider playing soft, ambient sounds.
  • Lie down or sit comfortably.
  • Take deep, slow breaths, and consciously relax different parts of your body, starting from your toes and moving up to your head.
  • Close your eyes and focus on the sensation of breathing.
  • Feel the air entering and leaving your nostrils or your belly rising and falling.
  • Picture a serene place or imagine a wave of relaxation sweeping through your body.

Jen Stavitsky Founder and CEO, Certified Meditation Coach at Cultivate Meditation and Wellness: Body Scan

“The body scan, which falls under the mindfulness umbrella, is one of my go-to’s in nearly all of my guided meditations with clients,” says Stavitsky. “It involves systematically scanning (and feeling into each part of) your body from your feet to your head.” 

To do Stavitsky’s recommended body scan: 

The Body Scan

  • Lay down and set yourself up for optimal comfort so as to encourage stillness.
  • Breathe in. Hold for a moment at the top. Breathe out. Hold for a moment at the bottom. Repeat three times.
  • Let your breath find and resume its own natural rhythm.
  • Gently notice where your awareness is in your body. Begin to envision this awareness as sand in an hourglass. With each inhale, envision those grains of sand pouring all the way into your feet.
  • Get curious about the sensations you encounter. Does the temperature shift as you feel from the heels, through the arches, into the toes? What does cold or warm actually feel like? Can you sense the textures of fabrics against your skin?
  • As thoughts arise — which they will! — gently redirect awareness back into the feet and continue this sensory process of discovery and exploration.
  • When you’re ready, gently shift your awareness through the ankles into your calves and repeat the sensory exploration here.
  • Spending a minute or so on each body part, gently continue the scan until you reach the top of your head.
  • When you are finished, invite your awareness to drift into any areas that feel relaxed or cozy. Savor the experience.

Alternatives To Meditation

Psychotherapist Suzette Bray says, “Focused breathing can be particularly beneficial for sleep because it helps shift the body’s balance from the stress-induced “fight or flight” response to a more relaxed “rest and digest” state, which is crucial for initiating and maintaining sleep.” (4) You can think of it as a sort of “entry level” meditation. 

Beyond activating the body’s parasympathetic nervous system, Bray adds that in addition to reducing stress and arousal states of the body, focused breathing also promotes sleep by improving oxygen flow, lowering your heart rate, and distracting your attention from racing thoughts, worries, or those dreaded bedtime shame spirals (“Oh god, did I really say that?!”).” (5)

Some breathing techniques to try include 4-7-8 breathing, paced breathing, or box breathing.

Ahead, Bray walks us through the 4-7-8 method and paced breathing. (6) (7)

4-7-8 Breathing Technique

  • Place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue just behind your upper front teeth (keep it there for the duration of the exercise.
  • Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.
  • Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
  • Hold your breath for a count of seven.
  • Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight. This is one breath.
  • Now, inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breaths.

Paced Breathing Technique

  • Inhale: Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose for about four seconds. Feel your chest and abdomen expand as your lungs fill with air.
  • Hold: Hold your breath for a short pause, about one second.
  • Exhale: Exhale slowly through your mouth or nose for about six seconds. Focus on getting all the air out of your lungs.
  • Pause: After exhaling, pause again for about one to two seconds before beginning your next breath.
  • Repeat: Continue this pattern of breathing — inhale for four seconds, hold for one to two seconds, exhale for six seconds, and pause for one to two seconds. Focus on the rhythm and sound of your breath.
  • As you continue with paced breathing, maintain your focus on the breath. If your mind wanders, gently redirect it back to the sensations of inhaling and exhaling.

What Time Of Day Should You Meditate For Better Sleep?

According to Kathy Carlson, a meditation lecturer at Franklin College, there are no hard and fast rules for meditation timing. “The most important thing is to have a daily practice,” she says — whatever that looks like for the individual. If 6 a.m. before the house comes alive works for you, that’s fine. And if listening to a meditation app at night helps you fall asleep, that’s okay, too. 

Carlson explains that practicing meditation can help you train your brain to become more mindful and to pay attention to the thoughts in your mind without necessarily engaging with them. With continued practice over time, she says meditation can help with sleep as it builds the skillset to deal with racing thoughts. 

How Long Should You Meditate Before Bed?

“If you’re looking to simply unwind and let go of your day before bed, you could incorporate a shorter 10-minute practice into your nighttime routine right before or right after you get into bed,” says Stavitsky. For those who typically have a hard time falling asleep (or falling back to sleep), she suggests “playing a longer guided meditation after you get into bed, with the volume on low.” 

Meditating before bed may be fine, but Stavitsky cautions anyone thinking about incorporating meditation into their sleep hygiene repertoire to be mindful of the timing. “Unless you’re meditating AT bedtime to encourage sleep, you should not meditate NEAR your bedtime, as it could give you a second wind,” she says. 

The Benefits of Meditation Before Bed 

As we outlined earlier, meditation can improve your overall sleep quality. Anna Passalacqua, a yoga therapist and co-founder of Breathing Deeply, says, “Meditation can enhance both sleep quality and quantity. It relaxes your body as well as your mind, better preparing you to fall asleep and stay asleep.” 

While she notes that meditation can also reduce known sleep disruptors like stress and anxiety, she adds that it can allow people who meditate to achieve a sense of calmness and inner peace that translates into their waking lives as well. (1)

Other Meditation Benefits

Tom McCook, an internationally recognized Pilates educator and founder of the Center of Balance in Mountain View, CA, tells us that meditation has a host of benefits beyond sleep relaxation. With continued practice, McCook says mediation can: (8) (9)

  • Help meditators be more responsive and present in their work and personal life.
  • Improve mental focus and memory.
  • Help reduce the risk of depression.
  • Cultivate self-compassion and empathy for others. 
  • Promote self-awareness, acceptance, and gratitude.

Potential Risks of Meditation  

While Stavitsky says meditation is generally considered safe, she notes that it’s not entirely without risk.

First, she says, “Meditating too late in the day can meddle with your sleep cycle the same way that taking a nap too close to bedtime could.” So, for those picking up the practice to help with sleep, she notes, “it’s best to avoid meditation near bedtime.”

Stavitsky goes on to say, “One of the many benefits of meditation is an increased sense of awareness, which can include an increased awareness of our own negative thoughts and feelings.” While she notes that one of the purposes of meditation is to better equip us for navigating both, she says new practitioners may want to consider having a support system in place to work through any challenges.

And finally, Stavitsky says that “although rare, meditation can exacerbate existing or trigger underlying mental health conditions. As such, those with concerns or a history of mental health issues should consult with their mental health professional to assess any risk and identify modifications that can be made so you can still benefit.” (10)

A Closing Note On Meditation and Shifting Your Awareness

Many people associate meditation with a pie-in-the-sky idea that a calm mind is a blank mind, but Metro-Midkiff tells us that’s not quite the case. “A common misconception about meditation is that it requires having a blank mind,” she says. “This isn’t true. Meditation is more about being present and aware, not eliminating thoughts entirely.” Ultimately, she clarifies, “The goal is to observe thoughts without getting caught up in them.” 

Metro-Midkiff says, “To move past the idea that you need a blank mind to meditate effectively, try focusing on your breath instead. This shifts attention from trying to empty the mind to simply being aware of the present moment. Practice acknowledging thoughts as they arise and gently redirecting attention back to your focus point.” And finally, she explains, “It’s natural for the mind to wander during meditation. When you notice this happening, gently bring your focus back to your breath or the chosen object of meditation without judgment. This return to focus is actually part of the training of the mind in meditation.” 


Is meditation as good as sleep?

“As a biological need, there is no true substitute for sleep,” says Stavitsky. “That said, meditation is a restorative practice, and it can serve as a gateway to sleep by activating the parasympathetic nervous system.” She adds, “On nights when we cannot fall asleep, getting wakeful rest by meditating far exceeds the effects of staying up all night worrying and staring at the clock.”

Is sleep meditation?

Sleep is not meditation. While Stavitsky notes that “it’s not uncommon to fall asleep during meditation, she says, “if you do, you are no longer meditating. Meditation is a practice of conscious awareness. While one may experience different states of consciousness during meditation, it is practiced awake.”

The Last Word From Sleepopolis 

For those who find that the nightly carousel of racing thoughts and stress make it increasingly difficult to sleep, meditation may prove helpful. Finding the right meditation technique that works for you may take some time, but with consistent practice, you might develop a new skill set that helps you stop overthinking long enough to get some shuteye. 


  1. Solanki, Ashok & Saiyad, Shaista. (2020). Comparative Study Of Effect Of Mediation On Autonomic Nervous System In Healthy Meditators And Non Meditators. 11. 
  2. Kanchibhotla, D., Parekh, S.G., Harsora, P. et al. Improvements in Sleep Quality and Duration Following a Meditation Retreat: an Open-Trial Pilot Study. Sleep Vigilance 5, 275–280 (2021).
  3. Barrett B, Harden CM, Brown RL, Coe CL, Irwin MR. Mindfulness meditation and exercise both improve sleep quality: Secondary analysis of a randomized controlled trial of community-dwelling adults. Sleep Health. 2020;6(6):804-813. doi:10.1016/j.sleh.2020.04.003
  4. Panjwani U, Dudani S, Wadhwa M. Sleep, Cognition, and Yoga. Int J Yoga. 2021;14(2):100-108. doi:10.4103/ijoy.IJOY_110_20
  5. Loren Toussaint, Quang Anh Nguyen, Claire Roettger, Kiara Dixon, Martin Offenbächer, Niko Kohls, Jameson Hirsch, Fuschia Sirois, “Effectiveness of Progressive Muscle Relaxation, Deep Breathing, and Guided Imagery in Promoting Psychological and Physiological States of Relaxation”, Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, vol. 2021, Article ID 5924040, 8 pages, 2021.
  6. Borges, U., Lobinger, B., Javelle, F., Watson, M., Mosley, E., & Laborde, S. (2021, April 13). Using slow-paced breathing to foster endurance, well-being, and sleep quality in athletes during the COVID-19 pandemic. Frontiers. 
  7. Vierra, J., Boonla, O., & Prasertsri, P. (2022). Effects of sleep deprivation and 4-7-8 breathing control on heart rate variability, blood pressure, blood glucose, and endothelial function in healthy young adults. Physiological Reports, 10(13), e15389.
  8. Basso, J. C., McHale, A., Ende, V., Oberlin, D. J., & Suzuki, W. A. (2019). Brief, daily meditation enhances attention, memory, mood, and emotional regulation in non-experienced meditators. Behavioural Brain Research, 356, 208-220.
  9. Parmentier FBR, García-Toro M, García-Campayo J, Yañez AM, Andrés P, Gili M. Mindfulness and Symptoms of Depression and Anxiety in the General Population: The Mediating Roles of Worry, Rumination, Reappraisal and Suppression. Front Psychol. 2019;10:506. Published 2019 Mar 8. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00506
  10. Britton, W. B., Lindahl, J. R., Cooper, D. J., Canby, N. K., & Palitsky, R. (2021). Defining and Measuring Meditation-Related Adverse Effects in Mindfulness-Based Programs. Clinical Psychological Science.

Bray, Suzette. Author Interview. April 29, 2024.

Carlson, Kathy. Author Interview with Josh Hurst. March 2023.

Metro-Midkiff, Radha. Author Interview. May 2, 2024.

McCook, Tom. Author Interview. May 2, 2024.

Saitz, Lori. Author Interview. May 2, 2024.

Skaar, Theresa B. Author Interview. April 29, 2024.

Stavitsky, Jen. Author Interview. May 2, 2024.

Sharon Brandwein

Sharon Brandwein

Sharon Brandwein is a Certified Sleep Science Coach and a freelance writer. She specializes in health and beauty, parenting, and of course, all things sleep. Sharon’s work has also appeared on ABC News, USAToday, and Forbes. When she’s not busy writing, you might find her somewhere curating a wardrobe for her puppy.