Looking for a low-impact exercise routine with high returns for health and sleep? Try yoga.

The pleasures and benefits of yoga are widely understood: yoga can improve physical strength and flexibility, improve breathing, reduce stress and enhance mental focus. What may be less well known are the positive effects that yoga can have on sleep.

A new study indicates that yoga can help to improve sleep among people suffering from chronic insomnia. Researchers at Harvard Medical School investigated how a daily yoga practice might affect sleep for people with insomnia and found broad improvements to measurements of sleep quality and quantity. 

In this study, researchers included people with different types of insomnia, evaluating people with both primary and secondary insomnia. Primary insomnia is sleeplessness that develops on its own, independent of any other health problem or sleep disorder. Secondary insomnia develops as a symptom or consequence of another medical condition. Many illnesses and health problems are associated with insomnia, including cancer, chronic pain conditions such as arthritis and fibromyalgia, and depression. Medications taken for chronic or acute health conditions can also trigger insomnia, as can the use (and abuse) of substances such as alcohol.

Researchers in this study provided their subjects with basic yoga training, then asked them to maintain a daily yoga practice for eight weeks. The study participants kept sleep diaries for two weeks before the yoga regimen began, and for the duration of the eight-week study period. In the sleep diaries, they kept a record the amount of time spent asleep, number of times they awakened during the night, and the duration of time spent sleeping between periods of waking, in addition to other details about nightly sleep amounts and sleep quality. Twenty people completed the eight-week evaluation, and researchers analyzed the information in their sleep diaries to evaluate the influence of yoga on the disrupted sleep of chronic insomnia. They found improvements to several aspects of sleep, including: 

Sleep efficiency

Total sleep time

Total wake time

Sleep onset latency (the amount of time it takes to fall asleep)

Wake time after sleep onset

There isn’t a great deal of research into the effects of yoga on sleep and its potential value as a treatment for sleep problems and disorders. But we have seen other scientific evidence in recent years of yoga’s effectiveness in improving sleep: 

This study of 410 cancer survivors found that yoga was linked to improved sleep quality, reduced feelings of fatigue, reduced frequency of use of sleep medication, and an improved sense of quality of life among patients who practiced yoga twice a week for 75-minute sessions.

This research looked at the effects of yoga among post-menopausal women with insomnia, and found that yoga was linked to a reduction in symptoms and the severity of the sleep disorder. This study also found yoga linked to lower stress levels and an enhanced sense of quality of life.

In this study of women with osteo-arthritis and sleep problems, an evening yoga practice was linked to significant improvements in sleep efficiency and a decrease in the frequency of individual nights of insomnia.

Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder among American adults, with 10 to 15 percent of the population suffering from chronic insomnia. As many as 40 percent of adults in the U.S. experience some type of insomnia every year. Older people, women, and those with other health problems are at higher risk for insomnia. Despite its prevalence, insomnia, like many other sleep disorders, remains significantly under-diagnosed, according to recent research. This study showed that while 1 percent of the population surveyed had a clinical diagnosis of insomnia, 37 percent of those surveyed showed symptoms of insomnia.

Insomnia may be common, but if left untreated its health consequences can be anything but benign. Chronic insomnia is associated with a number of serious medical conditions.

Insomnia is associated with high blood pressure and other cardiovascular problems. This large-scale study found that people with insomnia had significantly elevated risk of heart attack. Insomnia is also associated with inflammation in the body, which is itself a risk factor for heart problems and other serious illnesses.

Research indicates that lack of sleep can have negative effects on cognition, and the brain. This study linked insomnia with destruction of gray matter in the brain. This group of four studies, conducted independently of one another, found evidence that poor and fragmented sleep may contribute to impaired cognition as we age.

Insomnia has been found linked to both anxiety and depression. The relationship between sleeplessness and these mental health disorders is still being understood, including whether one condition precipitates the other. But insomnia, depression and anxiety share a deep and difficult connection.

Lack of sleep, and disrupted sleep, is also associated with obesity. We’ve seen extensive research that shows under-sleeping is linked to weight gain and the diseases associated with obesity. 

With so much at stake, finding effective treatment for insomnia is an important endeavor. Sometimes medication can be an appropriate choice, but any treatment is best to begin with basic lifestyle changes. Yoga and other regular forms of exercise can help to form the basis of a long-term, sustainable lifestyle that helps you sleep more, and better.

Sweet Dreams,

Michael J. Breus, PhD

The Sleep Doctor™


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