“Sleep is the best meditation."
– His Holiness the Dalai Lama
One, two, three, four…one hundred. Have you ever spent a night counting sheep with the hopes of finally falling asleep? Do you sometimes get that much yearned for shut-eye but still wake up feeling unsatisfied or not well-rested? Are you finding it hard to stay awake during hours that people do not typically spend sleeping?
If you answered “yes” to one or more of these questions, know that you are not alone. Amongst Canadian adults, it is estimated that 1 in 2 face difficulties falling or staying asleep, 1 in 5 do not report that their sleep is refreshing, and 1 in 3 have a hard time staying awake during waking hours (1). Not getting good quality sleep can be detrimental to our health and well-being. Take, for example, older adults. In this population, poor sleep quality has the potential to increase the risk of developing anxiety, depression, suicidal behaviours, cognitive issues, physical impairments, heart disease, diabetes, and immune disorders (2-6).
Drug-based strategies, including those that alter mood, thinking, and behaviour, are often the first-line of treatment for sleep-related issues (2;7-9). Despite the heavy use of “sleeping pills,” due to the safety implications associated with their use, non-drug treatment options—such as yoga and light therapy—are also available and under further exploration (2;7;9-13). Here, safety refers to the increased risk of illness/injury and death, as well as considerations around medication tolerance and the potential for becoming dependent on medication (2;9). One common side effect of “sleeping pills” that especially impacts older adults is disorientation (7).
Knowing the importance of sleep and the need for complementary or alternative non-drug treatment options, let’s examine music as a possible strategy. You heard that right, music, something that we turn on in times celebration, when we need comfort, and for the purpose healing. But can music help improve sleep quality in older adults? A recent systematic review provides some answers (2).
What the research tells us
The review looked at studies that had participants generally just listening to music around bedtime/night time, although some engaged in music making as well. The music used varied, but a few examples include meditative music, western music (e.g., modern jazz and classical), and Chinese music (e.g., classical). Participants were compared to those not using music-based strategies or medications, but instead engaging in other activities—such as maintaining a sleep log or receiving sleep promotion or sleep hygiene education sessions.
The review found that overall, sleep quality in older adults may be enhanced through the use of music-based strategies. Additionally, other components of sleep that may see improvements include sleep latency, sleep duration, sleep efficiency, and daytime dysfunction. Breaking down some of the lesser known terms, sleep latency refers to the time it takes to go from being fully awake to fully asleep, sleep efficiency is the percentage of sleep time attained while in bed, and daytime dysfunction relates to one’s perception of experiencing troubles with staying awake while completing daytime activities (e.g., driving) and maintaining enough enthusiasm to complete tasks. Although music-based strategies are generally considered to be safe, the majority of the studies included in the review did not investigate safety. The only study that assessed safety reported no side effects or instances of discomfort.
With music emerging as a potentially promising non-drug strategy, it should be noted that many of the results presented in the review were based on a small number of studies. As such, more large high quality studies are needed to further explore the benefits and any adverse effects, as well as the optimal prescription for music-based strategies (e.g., type, duration, etc.) (2).
If you are interested in trying out a music-based treatment to help with your sleep, consult your health care team for tips on how to incorporate and execute this strategy. A variety of free music made to intentionally relax you is available online through platforms like YouTube to help you get started. Try out various songs/sounds/musical mixes and see what works for you. Be sure to pay attention to potential safety hazards such as headphones, opting for speakers instead, and volume control.