An acquaintance of mine said she’s often “just too wound up, too hyped up” to sleep.
I know the feeling. It‘s like my body’s stuck in overdrive, and I can’t find the brakes. The best solution for me is physical exercise.
But Sat Bir Khalsa, a professor and researcher at Harvard Medical School, thinks that among alternative treatments for insomnia, yoga may also be a viable solution for people who feel too aroused to sleep. I attended Khalsa’s presentation at a conference a while back, and later I contacted him for more information.
“Yoga works on inducing the relaxation response,” Khalsa said, producing “a reduction in stress system activation. Yoga and meditation practice also changes the perception of stress … creating a positive change in stress tolerance.”
Sounds good to me. But is there proof?
A small number of studies attest to the benefits of yoga as a strategy for managing insomnia, and some of them are randomized controlled trials (RCTs). In RCTs, the results of subjects who undergo a treatment are compared to the results of control subjects who do not, a protocol considered by scientists to meet the highest standard of proof.
- An RCT conducted in an Indian home for the aged produced spectacular results: subjects who practiced an hour of yoga six days a week for six months increased their total sleep time by a whopping 60 minutes a night! They also reported greater ease in falling asleep and feeling more rested in the morning.*
- In an RCT published last year, postmenopausal women in Brazil experienced a significant reduction of insomnia symptoms and increased stress resistance following four months of yoga practice.**
- Khalsa’s RCT, which he discussed at the conference, showed that the sleep of subjects who practiced 45 minutes of yoga before bedtime every day for eight weeks improved substantially more than the sleep of control subjects, who received information about sleep hygiene. Yoga subjects reported increases in total sleep time that were two and three times as great as the increases made by controls. (Again, we’re talking in the neighborhood of 60 minutes’ more sleep a night.)
Yoga may achieve its calming effects in a paradoxical way, Khalsa told me, by increasing levels of the stress hormone cortisol while at the same time improving stress tolerance. The overall effect is to decrease feelings of arousal.
This is why insomniacs – particularly those who tend to feel wound up at night – may want to try it out.