A study conducted by the University of Kentucky investigated claims that meditators have decreased sleep needs.
The strategy was to group and place participants in different conditions: Control, Nap, Meditation, and Sleep Deprivation plus Meditators. Then, they tested the different groups with a Psychomotor Vigilance Test (response-time test).
As one would expect, they found that when participants were sleep deprived, their reaction times suffered. However, novice meditators "improved their reaction times immediately following periods of meditation."
Ultimately, whether meditation can actually replace sleep or pay-off sleep debt is unknown, but the results of this study suggest that meditation provides immediate performance improvements for sleep-deprived people.
Meditation acutely improves psychomotor vigilance, and may decrease sleep need.
Kaul P, Passafiume J, Sargent CR, O’Hara BF. Behavioral and Brain Functions : BBF. 2010;6:47. doi:10.1186/1744-9081-6-47.
A number of benefits from meditation have been claimed by those who practice various traditions, but few have been well tested in scientifically controlled studies. Among these claims are improved performance and decreased sleep need. Therefore, in these studies we assess whether meditation leads to an immediate performance improvement on a well validated psychomotor vigilance task (PVT), and second, whether longer bouts of meditation may alter sleep need.
The primary study assessed PVT reaction times before and after 40 minute periods of mediation, nap, or a control activity using a within subject cross-over design.
This study utilized novice meditators who were current university students (n = 10). Novice meditators completed 40 minutes of meditation, nap, or control activities on six different days (two separate days for each condition), plus one night of total sleep deprivation on a different night, followed by 40 minutes of meditation.
A second study examined sleep times in long term experienced meditators (n = 7) vs. non-meditators (n = 23). Experienced meditators and controls were age and sex matched and living in the Delhi region of India at the time of the study. Both groups continued their normal activities while monitoring their sleep and meditation times.
Novice meditators were tested on the PVT before each activity, 10 minutes after each activity and one hour later. All ten novice meditators improved their PVT reaction times immediately following periods of meditation, and all but one got worse immediately following naps. Sleep deprivation produced a slower baseline reaction time (RT) on the PVT that still improved significantly following a period of meditation. In experiments with long-term experienced meditators, sleep duration was measured using both sleep journals and actigraphy. Sleep duration in these subjects was lower than control non-meditators and general population norms, with no apparent decrements in PVT scores.
These results suggest that meditation provides at least a short-term performance improvement even in novice meditators. In long term meditators, multiple hours spent in meditation are associated with a significant decrease in total sleep time when compared with age and sex matched controls who did not meditate. Whether meditation can actually replace a portion of sleep or pay-off sleep debt is under further investigation.