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Short-circuit stress: Mindful meditation may be key to better sleep

by Linda Carroll / / Source: TODAY

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Meditation might be a key to treating sleep problems in adults.

Scott Quinn Photography / Getty Images

Mindful meditation — sitting quietly while focusing on breathing and being "present"— improves sleep quality in older adults better than other relaxation techniques, according to a study published Monday in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.

Often people with sleep problems can’t turn off the anxiety and tension from a stressful day, says study coauthor Michael Irwin, the Cousins Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Their overall arousal is high and mindfulness short-circuits that,” Irwin says. “It allows them to pull back from the stress.”

"People are first taught to sit quietly and focus on their breathing and then to be present in the moment," says Irwin.

UCLA researchers randomly assigned a small group of 49 volunteers, aged 55 and older, who suffered from moderate sleep issues to receive training in mindfulness meditation or in improving basic sleep habits. The meditation didn't require a mantra.

At the end of the study, volunteers from the meditation group showed greater improvement in sleep quality compared to those who had learned other ways to improve sleep. Further, meditation seemed to improve sleep better than sleep medications, based on findings from previous research.

That doesn’t surprise Kathleen Ferraro. The 64-year-old from Pittsburgh says her sleep deteriorated when she started having knee problems.

“When I would turn the wrong way in bed, it would kind of jolt me awake,” Ferraro says. “And then I wouldn’t be able to get back to sleep.”

Ferraro took a mindfulness class and started meditating every day and at night when her knee would wake her up. “It made it easier to get back to sleep,” she says.

When Maureen Murray hit her 50s, sleep became almost impossible. She would lie awake at night tossing and turning, unable to relax enough to settle into a peaceful slumber and then when she would finally drop off, she’d awaken every hour or two. “It was very distressing,” the 56-year-old from Morris Plains, N.J., says. “It was hard to function during the day. It was just wearing me down.”

Then Murray found meditation. Within weeks of mastering techniques that allowed her to quiet her mind, everything started to improve.

That's exactly why meditation works — it quiets the mind, experts say.

“The essence of all types of meditation is they evoke the relaxation response,” says Dr. Herbert Benson, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and director emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute of Mind Body Medicine at the Massachusetts General Hospital. “All of these techniques, including mindful meditation, yoga, tai chi, and even repetitive prayer break the train of everyday thinking."

This is the first study to focus on meditation in older adults, who are at increased risk for insomnia, says Brant Hasler, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh.

“Insomnia is a risk factor for a host of other issues, such as cardiovascular problems, depression and substance abuse," says Hasler. "But also, it is a risk factor for all-cause mortality.”

One of the advantages to the meditation option is that there are more people who can provide instruction compared to the number who are certified in behavioral sleep medicine, Hasler says.

“There are only about 200, who are certified and maybe about 6 percent of the population qualifies for a diagnosis of insomnia,” he says. “Mindfulness training is much more accessible.”

Linda Carroll is a regular contributor to NBCNews.com and TODAY.com. She is co-author of "The Concussion Crisis: Anatomy of a Silent Epidemic” and the recently published “Duel for the Crown: Affirmed, Alydar, and Racing’s Greatest Rivalry."

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