Mindfulness Could Be a Cheap, Easy Sleep Aid

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Man stretching in bed, (B&W),
Photo: George Marks/Getty Images

Mindfulness training is everywhere these days, and as more and more celebrities adopt the practice it would be easy to dismiss as a fad. But there’s a pretty good pile of research suggesting that it can improve people’s quality of life — one meta-analysis showed it to be at least as effective, and in some cases more so, than several kinds of traditional therapy and commonly prescribed pharmaceuticals when it came to “reducing anxiety, depression, and stress.” Now, according to a new paper in JAMA Internal Medicine, there’s also some early evidence it could help people sleep better.

The study, led by Dr. David Black of the Keck School of Medicine at USC, recruited two groups of older adults (55 and up) to participate in a study about sleep. One group was assigned to take a pre-established mindfulness course designed to provide all the basics of “attending to moment-by-moment experiences, thoughts, and emotions from a non-judgmental perspective.” The other group was assigned to a class geared at sleep hygiene education (SHE), “which targets the modification of day-to-day behavioral and environmental factors that contribute to poor sleep” (SHE programs often focus on training people to go to bed at the same time every night, avoid certain kinds of light late in the day, and so on). The SHE class was designed to match the mindfulness class “for time, attention, group interaction, and expectancy of benefit effects.”

Overall, the mindfulness training outperformed the SHE training: Those in the mindfulness group reported greater improvements in sleep quality, fatigue reduction, and depression reduction as compared to those in the SHE group. There were no statistically significant differences between the group for changes in anxiety levels, stress levels, or an inflammation marker associated with insomnia.

This was a yearlong study, so the researchers note that more research is needed to figure out whether mindfulness has longer-term sleep benefits. Plus, there could be aspects of mindfulness and/or SHE that make them more or less likely to work among an older population — another reason to do more research. But given all the past research suggesting that mindfulness works, this is far from a shocking study.