Too Wired to Sleep? Try Meditation

By Dr. Gregg D. Jacobs

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Insomnia is becoming increasingly prevalent in our high-stress, fast-paced world. Recent polls by the National Sleep Foundation in the United States found that 35% of adults experience insomnia every night and almost 60% of adults experience insomnia at least a few nights per week. Although prescription and over–the-counter sleep aids are the most common treatments for insomnia, non-drug therapies for insomnia are becoming increasingly popular due to the many side effects of sleep aids and increasing scientific evidence that non-drug treatments are effective for insomnia.

One popular non-drug treatment for insomnia is meditation and relaxation techniques. The use of these techniques for insomnia is based on the fact that individuals who suffer from insomnia exhibit elevated brain arousal that is associated with excessive mental activity during the night. This is often described by insomniacs as “racing thoughts.” Researchers have consistently documented this excessive mental arousal as measured by increased fast brain wave patterns called beta activity. Beta activity, an alertness brain wave, is elevated both at sleep-onset and during the night, particularly in dream sleep, in insomniacs. This may explain why insomniacs overestimate how long they are awake during the night, since beta activity may alter the usual sense of time. As a result of these findings, insomnia is now conceptualized as a disorder of excessive brain arousal, and interventions designed to reduce insomnia exert their clinical effects by reducing this excessive arousal.

Although meditation and relaxation techniques are widely used to treat a variety of health problems (including hypertension, headaches, anxiety and irritable bowel syndrome) and have also been used successfully to treat insomnia, it has been presumed that these techniques work by altering brain wave activity and reducing brain arousal. However, few well-controlled studies have actually measured the effects of meditation and relaxation techniques on brain activity.

In a study in the current issue of Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, Dr. Gregg D. Jacobs and Dr. Richard Friedman measured the effects of meditation-based relaxation techniques on brain wave activity at Harvard Medical School. They compared a group of subjects who practiced a meditation-based relaxation technique daily for six weeks to a control group who listened to relaxing music for the same length of time. After six weeks of practice, the researchers measured each group’s brain waves while they practiced their mediation-based relaxation or listened to music. Jacobs and Friedman found that the group who practiced the meditation-based relaxation techniques produced greater reductions in brain arousal as measured by increase in theta brain wave activity in multiple brain regions. Theta is a slow brain wave pattern that is produced during the transition from waking to sleep.

Because an increase in theta activity is associated with the onset of sleep, the Jacobs and Friedman study suggest that mediation and relaxation techniques may be similar to the early stage of sleep, called stage-1 sleep. Stage-1 is the transitional state between wakefulness and sleep and is characterized by a gradual transition from a predominant alpha pattern (a “relaxed wakefulness” brain wave) to a predominant theta frequency.

The findings suggest that insomniacs can reduce elevated brain arousal by practicing meditation or relaxation techniques at bedtime or after awakening during the night. By quieting the “racing mind” and excessive mental activity during the night, insomniacs will find it easier to fall asleep at bedtime or during the night.


1. G. Jacobs; Friedman, R., “EEG spectral analysis of relaxation techniques,” Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, (2004) 29: 245-254.

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