How Yoga Helps You Sleep: The Research
This post is part of an ongoing public discussion relating to the scientific research of yoga and sleep. It follows a two-part online webinar, Scientific Research on Sleep and Yoga, which can be found on our events archive here. Comments are welcome in the comment field provided below this post. All comments are moderated for content and may or may not be published.
Sleep is a biological need and many in society don’t get enough of it, which could lead to disease.
Sleep is a complex process, and yoga appears to have a way of smoothing out some of our difficulties with it. Yoga Alliance’s Director of Yoga Research and Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School Dr. Sat Bir Singh Khalsa presented “The Scientific Research on Yoga and Sleep” Parts 1 and 2 this year calling sleep “both a biological need and a two-sided coin,” with wakefulness on one side and sleep on the other. He also said our society faces an “epidemic of self-imposed sleep restriction” because so many regularly deny themselves a good night’s sleep.
In Part 1, Dr. Khalsa defined sleep and addressed its rhythms and complexities. He used this groundwork in Part 2 to discuss insomnia, a sleep disorder from which nearly ¼ of the population suffers. In both talks, he provided evidence showing what so many with a regular yoga practice experience: Yoga helps you sleep better.
Defining sleep: what it is, how it works, and what happens when you’re in deficit
Sleep is an active and intricate process, important not just with regard to its quality, depth, and duration, but also in its relationship to what happens in our bodies the other 16-17 hours we are awake. Though the amount of sleep we need according to science is measured on a bell curve (which is used in all of science, Dr. Khalsa said), the average amount of sleep you need per night is a minimum of seven hours. Children from young childhood to teenage years need more sleep, upwards of 10 hours and sometimes even more.
The sleep cycle is timed by the alignment of a biological clock in our brain, which is based on an approximate-24-hour cycle. This is called the circadian rhythm, and it is sensitive to light exposure. The quality of our sleep within this cycle is important and influenced by many factors: How long we’ve been awake; whether or not we have accumulated “sleep debt;” internal and external stressors (such as disease, menopause, or poverty); and—particularly important in the online, homebound COVID world—the timing of our exposure to blue light exposure.
Dr. Khalsa spoke to the fact that self-imposed sleep restriction is likely a contributing factor to non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in the developed and developing world. He shared a study charting Americans’ sleep habits since 1985, which have decreased nightly so much that now nearly 30% of the population averages sleeping the dangerously low amount of less than 6.5 hours a night. NCDs include heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes, and chronic lack of sleep contributes to the development of these diseases.
“Sleep deprivation also increases the odds of your contracting an infectious disease like a coronavirus,” Dr. Khalsa said, pointing to a study in which military recruits over a six month period who slept less than six hours a night showed a significantly increased rate of developing upper respiratory tract infections.
We’re now learning from science that sleep habits can be changed through yoga and mindfulness practices, primarily via studies on those struggling with insomnia. Insomnia is defined as 1) difficulty falling asleep, 2) waking frequently at night, and/or 3) poor quality sleep.
Science is yet unable to understand the underlying difference between these three characteristics, and normally those with insomnia usually have a combination of all three. Insomnia is clinically considered to be chronic after it occurs for longer than one month at three or more times a week and causes “waking impairment.” Many people with Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) suffer from insomnia.
“Sleeping less than seven hours per night on a regular basis is associated with adverse health outcomes, including weight gain and obesity, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and stroke, depression, and increased risk of death…also associated with impaired immune function, increased pain, impaired performance, increased errors; and greater risk of accidents.”
—Joint Consensus Statement from The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and Sleep Research Society
Getting a good night’s sleep is important for every way that body functions; chronic insomnia, therefore, is associated with imbalances in nearly all the body’s systems. One of these is a “hyperarousal state” in which the sympathetic, or fight-or-flight system, is constantly “on.” Of the non-pharmacological, “behavior treatments” used to mitigate insomnia, yoga and its practices fall into the “relaxation therapy” category in this chart.
Three citation highlights
In a systematic review, published in Sleep Medicine Reviews and designed to study evidence related to the efficacy of meditative movement—including yoga—on sleep quality, researchers considered randomized control trials (RCTs), the “gold standard of research,” using both English and Chinese databases. While noting “significant methodological limitations” in some studies analyzed, the authors concluded that sleep quality improvement occurred “in the majority of studies and was often accompanied by improvements in quality of life, physical performance, and depression.”
A systematic review and meta analysis titled “The effect of yoga on sleep quality and insomnia in women with sleep problems: a systematic review and meta-analysis,” found in 19 studies with more than 1,800 participants that yoga has benefits for managing sleep problems in women. While the study did not determine if those with breast cancer or in peri/postmenopause experienced as much benefit as those without cancer or experiencing menopause, the study did find that “the longer total length of class time, the more beneficial these practices were.”
A study published in The American Journal of Medicine, titled “Perceived benefits in a behavioral-medicine insomnia program: A clinical report,” suggests that “patients spontaneously seeking treatment for insomnia, including sleep medication users and those with psychological comorbidity, derive significant benefit from a group multifactor behavioral intervention.” The intervention included the contemplative practices of yoga, i.e., meditative exercises, combined with Mind Body Stress Regulation (MBSR) practices, and found that “all patients reported improved sleep at posttreatment.”
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About the Author
Certified Iyengar Yoga Teacher and wellness expert, and founder of a wellness consulting and education company called Weeks Well, whose mission is to foster transformation in work and life.
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