Mind-Body Therapies to Ease Insomnia


Insomnia can be a frustrating cycle of sleeplessness to break. For many people, insomnia leads not only to daytime fatigue, sleepiness and irritability, but also to anxiety about sleep itself. Feeling stress about one’s ability to sleep can make falling asleep even more difficult. This kind of negative thinking about sleep is common among people with insomnia and is a part of the cycle that can feel most debilitating.

Recent research shows that mind-body practice can be an effective way to treat insomnia and some of its symptoms.

One group of researchers studied the effects of the meditative exercise practice tai chi in treating insomnia and found improvements to several insomnia symptoms, including overall sleep quality. Another recent study evaluated the effects of mindfulness meditation therapies on chronic insomnia. Researchers concluded that meditation can be successful in relieving insomnia that has become chronic. Both studies suggest that mind-body practices may have an important place in the constellation of therapies used to treat this common sleep disorder.

Before we look more closely at that research, let’s get clear on what we mean when we talk about insomnia. Often people think insomnia is equivalent to a general difficulty sleeping. In fact, insomnia is a sleep disorder with specific characteristics that include trouble with one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Difficulty staying asleep throughout the night
  • Waking very early in the morning
  • Experiencing un-refreshing and non-restorative sleep

One or more of these symptoms may be present in an episode of insomnia. But insomnia also takes on different forms. Sometimes insomnia can come on suddenly and lasts for a short period of time. Acute insomnia is often associated with stress or life changes and may go away once the stress is gone.

In other cases, episodes of acute insomnia can recur throughout a person’s life. Insomnia that comes on and persists for longer periods of time is called chronic insomnia. The diagnosis is made when a person’s insomnia continues for several nights a week for three months or more.

Insomnia is an extremely common sleep problem. Research indicates that most U.S. adults experience an episode of insomnia at least once in their lives. For approximately 10% or more of the adult population, insomnia may be chronic. Finding ways to alleviate insomnia and reduce the impact of its symptoms is an important goal for sleep science because it impacts so many people.

In one new study, researchers evaluated the effects of two different therapies for insomnia in a group of older adults. Among a group of 54 participants with insomnia, researchers compared tai chi as a treatment to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a standard treatment for the sleep disorder. Researchers divided participants into three groups, each to receive a different form of treatment for their insomnia. One group received CBT for insomnia, and a second group practiced tai chi as an insomnia treatment. The third group functioned as a control group for the study and participated in regular sleep education sessions.

Treatment lasted four months. Researchers evaluated participants’ sleep at the beginning, at seven months and at 16 months. Results of their analysis showed CBT most effective at alleviating insomnia and its symptoms. But tai chi also demonstrated effectiveness in improving some symptoms of insomnia. Participants who practiced tai chi saw improvements in sleep quality, diminished fatigue and relief from depressive symptoms.

CBT is known to be one of the most effective treatments for the sleep disorder, so it’s encouraging to see tai chi show a similarly positive impact on insomnia symptoms. A proven stress reducer, tai chi is a gentle and meditative form of exercise that incorporates slow, deliberate movements and deep breathing. Other research has demonstrated that tai chi  may help improve sleep quality and increase total sleep time. Studies have also shown tai chi may improve daytime function, improving concentration and reducing fatigue.

In another study, researchers examined the effects of meditation treatment for chronic insomnia. Adults with chronic insomnia received either different forms of meditation therapy or participated in a self-monitoring program. They kept sleep diaries and researchers measured sleep using polysomnography and wrist sensors. Mediation therapy had a positive effect on relieving chronic insomnia by improving sleep quality often for six months or more.

This study adds to the compelling body of scientific research indicating that meditation can play a role in improving sleep. Other recent studies show that meditation may stimulate nighttime levels of the sleep hormone melatonin, and may increase time spent in deep sleep and REM sleep, which are critically important to mental and physical rejuvenation.

Mind-body therapies including tai chi and meditation should be considered as a treatment option for insomnia. Science is increasingly showing that these gentle, restorative practices help alleviate the frustrating cycle of insomnia.