The human body needs sleep — we’re programmed for it.

But in a hurry-up world where days are shorter than our to-do lists, a growing number of medical experts are pointing to meditation as an alternative way to enjoy the benefits of sleep in less time.

Does science back up their claims? Let’s take a closer look at the latest research.

What happens to the body when you sleep?

The science of sleep is evolving. Once thought to be a passive state of unconsciousness, doctors now know it’s a dynamic, restorative process during which the mind and body are active but not alert.

Sleep occurs in five stages — including the REM cycle — during which the body processes toxins, repairs tissue and rejuvenates the immune system at the cellular level. The brain releases hormones that support homeostasis and organ function while storing memories and processing the day’s emotions. Muscles relax as energy is restored and when you wake, both your body and mind are refreshed. It’s a holistic process.

The benefits of sleep include:

  • Enhanced memory and problem-solving capability

  • Better physical and cognitive performance

  • Reduced levels of fight or flight hormones

  • Reduced blood pressure

  • Lower rates of chronic disease

  • Mood stability and more

How much sleep does the average person need? Most medical professionals say six to eight hours is good a goal for adults, but whether it’s because of a hungry newborn, a busy schedule, or a sleep disorder, at least 40-percent of Americans regularly get less than they need. Half of those surveyed believe they would feel better and be more productive if they got more sleep.

What happens to the body when you meditate?

Mediation is intentional — it’s training for the mind. Practitioners use techniques from mindfulness to focus to achieve mental clarity and emotional calm without the altered consciousness sleep requires — the brain remains alert. It’s a time-honored wellness practice dating back to 5000 BCE in cultures around the world.

There are six popular types of meditation among dozens, including:

  • Spiritual

  • Mindful

  • Focused

  • Movement

  • Mantra

  • Transcendental

Practices for each vary, but all have proven wellness perks such as:

  • Improved self-awareness

  • Better mood

  • A longer attention span

  • Sharper focus

  • Less anxiety

  • Reduced stress and more

Meditation has been linked to longer life spans, decreased pain, and a greater sense of well-being — benefits science tells us we derive from sleep. But can it be a substitute for logging enough hours in bed? The medical research is clear — it can’t. Sleep is a necessary physiological process required for survival.

But if the sandman won’t come, and you’re feeling physically and mentally exhausted, here’s how a few minutes of mediation can help you feel more rested. Hint: it’s better than a nap.

Sleep Versus Meditation

Sleep produces a hypometabolic state — a type of deep relaxation that allows the body and mind to regenerate. Blood flow to the regions of the brain responsible for higher-order functions, including planning, memory and focus, is enhanced. If you’ve ever “slept” on a problem and woken with the solution, it’s because your brain continued to work on it even while your body was asleep.

Experiments show that when persons are sleep-deprived, their mental acuity and physical responses suffer. The effects of 24 hours without sleep are similar to being legally drunk.

How can meditation help? Electroencephalograms show that mediation produces Theta waves in the brain, similar to non-REM sleep. Associated with deep relaxation and restoration, they boost subconscious processing, reducing mental fatigue. They’re also present when the body releases the feel-good hormones that support general wellness.

Because we move in and out of the five sleep stages throughout the night, mediation can’t replace the benefits we get from each. But thirty minutes of practicing mindfulness or other meditative techniques can improve cognitive and physical prowess as much as sleep for up to two hours — twice as long as a power nap and enough to get through a busy afternoon — while boosting the production of melatonin, the hormone that regulates the sleep-wake cycle.

Meditation reduces wake time in up to 50-percent of people with insomnia. Done before bed, it reduces stress and frees the mind from the intrusive thoughts that make it tough to fall asleep. By lowering levels of hormones that promote wakefulness, it helps ease the body and brain toward a naturally peaceful slumber.

Final Thoughts

Sleep deprivation is tied to serious wellness issues from obesity and hypertension to diabetes and automobile accidents, but the answer isn’t always as simple as climbing into bed. But while it’s no substitute for sleep, meditation offers hope for renewed energy today and with practice, better sleep for a lifetime.