Everyone sleeps better when they are calmer and less stressed. This was borne out by a group of at-risk elementary school children who showed a huge increase in sleep after they took part in a mindfulness curriculum at school.
Researchers from the Stanford University Life Stress and Resilience Program were not anticipating the dramatic results they observed. The had merely wanted to see if stress reduction techniques would help children achieve better quality sleep.
Children who participated in the curriculum gained an average of 74 minutes of sleep per night and got nearly half an hour more of restorative rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. “That’s a huge change,” Ruth O’Hara, the senior study investigator, said in a statement.
Kids in the control group who did not receive mindfulness training saw their sleep drop an average of 63 minutes of sleep per night, so that by the end of the study those children in the mindfulness training group were sleeping about two hours more on average than their peers.
By the end of the study those children who received the mindfulness training were sleeping about two hours more on average than their peers.
This study used polysomnography, a sleep study technique that measures brain activity as someone sleeps or tries to sleep. This imaging technique was paired with interviews to assess the impact of the intervention. What is most striking about these findings is that sleep techniques were not an explicit part of the mindfulness training that students received.
So what was included in the curriculum? The program was taught in schools twice a week for two years and introduced students to mindful breathing techniques and yoga-based movement designed to help them relax and reduce stress. It also educated students about the negative health effects of stress and how to identify stressors in their lives. The results were tracked by the study team.
The students in the study came from two lower-income communities in the San Francisco Bay Area. Kids in these neighborhoods had high levels of environmental stress including crime, food insecurity, housing instability and community violence. Each of these factors alone can affect the quality of sleep in children and adults, and when they are combined, the potential for poor sleep is even greater.
Just how does something like mindful breathing or yoga-based movement decrease stress? “We think the breath work changes the physiological environment, perhaps increasing parasympathetic nervous system activity, and that actually results in improved sleep,” explained the study’s lead author, Christina Chick, in a statement. The parasympathetic nervous system, sometimes referred to as the “rest and digest” nervous system, is responsible for digestion and healing processes, and can only be accessed if stress hormones like cortisol are low enough.
The benefits of quality sleep can have positive effects in all areas of life from concentration and learning to emotional regulation.
As a result of the curriculum, even children who reported increases in life stress eventually were sleeping more. Researchers noted that this could have been because part of the program’s goal was to teach kids to identify stress, thus increasing their ability to perceive and label it.
Even with the increase in sleep observed in the experimental group, it was still true that none of the students in the study were getting the recommended nine hours of sleep per night. This finding troubled the researchers, given the primacy of sleep for overall health and quality of life.
Programs like these can ultimately help at-risk kids manage the effects of living in a stressful environment, the researchers believe. The benefits of quality sleep can have positive effects in all areas of life — from concentration and learning to emotional regulation. A good night's sleep helps kids cope at school, at home and in their communities.
Introducing simple breathing and moving techniques and educating kids about what stress is may offer a protective effect that not only increases quality sleep but prevents stress-related chronic health conditions such as heart disease, anxiety and addiction throughout the course of their lives.
The study is published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.