The Sleep Secret That's Better Than Drugs

Written by Shannon Harvey

I was about to take the biggest step of my career. For three years I had been working on a feature film. I had endured countless long days and even longer nights, months and years of research, preproduction, production, postproduction, pick ups, more postproduction, more picks ups, more postproduction, and finally release and distribution preparation. At times it felt like no audience would ever see the film.

I'd invested the profit I’d made from my small production company into the film, and borrowed more money to make it happen. I had traveled the world while seven months pregnant for one of our shoots, and when our son was a newborn I used the hours he slept to research and write scripts.

I had asked huge favors from colleagues who worked on the film in good faith. My husband had provided an income for our little family while I worked full time for no salary.

My mother-in-law had filled my fridge with homemade food, and cared for our son so that I could pursue my dream of making the film. My mother had provided her constant support for whatever I needed to get to the finish line. My best friend had endured hours of listening to my uncertainty and fear about what I was doing.

My distribution team of eight people were working around the clock, giving up their weekends, late evenings and early mornings. There was a lot riding on the film. But the night before our world premiere, I slept like a baby. The reason is because I practice mindfulness and I meditate.

My film is about how the latest science shows there’s a direct connection between your mind and your body when it comes to your health. I made the film after I got a chronic illness and discovered that researchers from some of the world’s most reputable universities are starting to link the state of our mind to health outcomes.

One of the ways I’ve discovered that the mind affects our health is through insomnia, which affects an estimated 1 in 5 adults. I’m one of them. I would lie in bed awake worrying over things that had happened in my past or may happen in my future. I’d stress about my to-do list and fret about meeting deadlines.

Sometimes I would lie in bed listening to the morning chorus of birds, having not slept a wink. And the consequences the following day would be devastating. I would have trouble concentrating. I’d be super sensitive, stressed and generally ineffective.

Chronic insomnia is associated with increased risk for depression, hypertension and heart disease. Insomnia also affects our quality of life, and has a profoundly negative impact on the economy through lost productivity and increased health care costs. Our overactive minds and heightened emotions circle around in our heads and we cannot rest. The more we tell ourselves we should be sleeping, the harder it becomes to actually sleep.

Through mindfulness and meditation I’ve learned that it’s less about trying to control my mind and telling it to go to sleep and more about stepping back from my thoughts and becoming less reactive. There is no longer judgment and in that moment I feel the intensity come out of my thoughts and a deep sense of relaxation. If I meditate before bed, I fall asleep straight away. Every time. Without fail.

Scientific research looking at the effects of meditation on sleep is fascinating. There’s particularly been a lot of work done on the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD. The research overwhelmingly indicates that the program can significantly help insomnia.

A recent study from the University of Minnesota shows that MBSR and pharmacological drugs have comparable results in helping people recover from insomnia. Moreover, half of the patients randomized to MBSR met stringent criteria for recovery from insomnia at the end of the study, and average treatment satisfaction scores were high. While patients in the drug group obtained similar benefits to sleep outcomes, their treatment satisfactions scores were low and several patients reported adverse events.

Studies like this have lead me to believe that mindfulness and mediation are as essential as daily habits of drinking water and brushing teeth. And like the daily necessities, I notice a huge difference if I go without them.

So on the night before the world premiere of my feature film, with so much riding on the success of the project, I sat comfortably, concentrated on my breath, closed my eyes and focused my awareness inward. I stepped back from my rushing mind and observed my thoughts with no judgment as they floated by. My body relaxed and I cleared my mind. And that is why, on the night before the biggest moment in my career I quickly drifted off into a deep, restful sleep.

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