My 'Birkenstocks on the Ground' Research on Better Sleep

During this time of year, and at strange times of the day, I find it difficult to keep my eyes open.

I'm not sure if it's the changes in daylight, the drops in temperature, or my increased number of cross-country trips during the busy "crush" season of harvesting grapes at my California winery.

But more often than not, I find myself nodding off mid-afternoon.

Longtime readers know I've shared many secrets of getting better sleep over the years. If you have followed these tips and still find yourself exhausted – or even just sleepy – at midday like me, then this essay is for you.

That's because one of my favorite exercises can crush exhaustion... and even help you get more of the type of sleep you need to feel rested and restored.

The exercise? Meditation.

I've written dozens of times about meditation. Longtime subscribers know it's a great way to:

  • Increase your longevity
  • Reduce the number of visits to your doctor
  • Reduce the likelihood of hospital admission
  • Reduce insomnia
  • Reduce inflammation
  • Boost the immune system
  • Lower blood pressure 

Meditation triggers the "relaxation response," which helps our bodies naturally let go of anxiety and stress.

As it turns out, if you still can't get enough quality sleep, meditating during the day can take the edge off. It will also help you sleep deeper and better with practice.

A pair of new studies out of Oregon State University earlier this year found that hardworking folks who practice mindfulness exercises like meditation had lower levels of exhaustion. Although both were small studies, they focused specifically on entrepreneurs who worked at least 50 hours a week and slept for less than six hours a night. Researchers found that those folks who also made time for meditation reported less exhaustion.

So although meditation can't replace sleep entirely, it's an excellent way to restore your energy when you're exhausted. It's like a natural energy boost.

Another study in the journal Behavioral and Brain Functions showed that meditators performed just as well on cognitive tasks with less sleep than non-meditators. So despite experiencing sleep deprivation, meditating actually made them just as sharp as those who slept a full night. The task specifically looked at psychomotor vigilance, which measures reaction times. (The more well-rested you are, the better your score.)

How exactly does meditation help us feel more well-rested?

It comes down to brainwaves.

How Meditation Changes Our Brainwaves

Brainwaves are a measure of the activity in our brains. Different areas of the brain will work and produce different brainwave frequencies. We experience five types of these frequencies as different brainwaves.

Gamma waves are the fastest. They happen when we're intensely focused and concentrating on something.

Beta waves are our "typical" brainwaves, as they relate to alertness and cognitive thinking. Some theorize that an imbalance of beta waves contributes to depression and anxiety.

Alpha waves occur when our brains are idle (which is rare these days). It's complete relaxation. When we meditate, we increase our alpha waves. That means on a brain scan, you can actually see the changes in the meditating brain's activity.

Some folks who practice for a long time can even produce theta waves. These occur during drowsiness and sleep.

Meditation can't produce delta waves, as these only happen during your deep (non-dreaming) sleep. This deep sleep is important because it's when the body restores itself. But we often don't sleep long enough – or well enough – to get much deep sleep.

Here's the thing... regular meditation rebalances your brain waves. And doing that can help your brain boost those delta waves during sleep. That's why some studies have found meditators sleep deeper and better than non-meditators. They can get those delta waves far more easily than non-meditators.

Adding a meditation practice to your routine won't just give you an energy boost during the day... It will train your brain to sleep deeper and better throughout the night.

That said, there are many types of meditation. Here's the one I recommend the most: Transcendental Meditation ("TM").

When I was a freshman at Carleton College in Minnesota, my roommate introduced me to TM. He swore by it. So one day, I took a bus up to the Twin Cities for a weekend class. I came away with the basics: A mantra (a phrase I say to myself to help me focus), and an appreciation for how meditation affects my physiology. I consider it my first "boots on the ground" research for improving my health... or in this case, my "Birkenstocks on the ground" research.

TM involves focusing on your breath and a mantra. Your mind may wander to other thoughts, but you acknowledge them and return your attention to your mantra. It's soothing and peaceful. With enough practice, you'll experience physical changes in addition to feeling happier and more rested.

This is just one type of meditation. I wrote about a few others in my monthly letter, Retirement Millionaire. Subscribers can access it here. And if you aren't yet a subscriber, you can click here to subscribe and get instant access to this issue and much more.

What We're Reading...

Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
November 21, 2019