Do you find it hard to fall asleep? You’re not alone. 60% of adults say they don’t sleep as well as they’d like to. Getting enough sleep won’t just keep you from being tired during the day, it is also critical for your overall physical and mental health.
Often, the reason we aren’t sleeping well is lifestyle and seasonal disbalances that are affecting our doshas. In this article, we’ll be exploring the importance of sleep in Ayurveda, and also Ayurvedic tips you can use to sleep naturally using your body’s own rhythms.
The importance of sleep in Ayurveda
Ayurveda is a 5000-year-old traditional medical practice that originated in India. According to Ayurvedic medicine, sleep is one of the three supporting pillars of life (the other two are food and sexuality). The Charaka Samhita says: “one who manages these three pillars properly is guaranteed a full life span that will not be cut short by disease.”
Ayurveda also summarizes the impact of poor sleep in this Sanskrit sloka, which captures sleep as the most important of the three supporting pillars of health. It says that:
“happiness and unhappiness, proper or lack of nourishment, strength and debility, sexual powers and impotence, knowledge and ignorance, and life and death depend on sleep.”
At Ayurkula, we recognize that proper sleep, nutrition, and elimination form an important triad for health.
What science says about sleep and good health
Sleep deprivation has a serious negative impact on both our mind and body health. Although research into sleep is still an emerging science, we have all experienced that the lack of sleep can make us feel groggy, tired, and less productive in the short term.
Sleep deprivation and sleep disorders like insomnia are linked with diseases ranging from obesity, diabetes, cancer, dementia and Alzheimer’s. In promoting a healthy nervous system, sleep helps eliminate metabolic waste from the brain and ensure memory consolidation.
The three types of sleep in Ayurveda
In Ayurveda, we can categorize sleep into three kinds:
- Natural, sound sleep
- The inability to sleep (anidra), associated with Vata and/or Pitta imbalance
- Excess sleep, associated with a Kapha imbalance.
In Ayurveda, air (the primary constituent of Vata) and fire (the primary constituent of Pitta) can move upwards and disturb mental health and have a drying effect on the body when in excess.
On the other hand, water and earth (associated with Kapha) exert their calming energy downwards and can lead to laziness and stupor when in excess. For a reminder of how the Vata, Pitta, and Kapha doshas work, you can revisit this piece.
How many hours of sleep is enough?
There is nothing magical about getting eight hours of sleep: the quality of your sleep is more important than the quantity of your sleep. How you feel when you go to bed and after getting up will give you feedback about that.
If you wear a sleep tracker, you may notice that you feel fresher when you spend more time in deep, slow brain wave sleep, with fewer wakeful episodes. Ideally, you would sleep at regular periods every night, both relaxing your skeletal muscles and suspending your day-to-day consciousness.
Sleep need changes with age
According to Ayurveda, the amount of sleep we need varies with our age, season, health condition. Modern science has also shown that sleep needs vary with age. It goes without saying that infants and pregnant women need more sleep than fifty-year-olds. However, some yogis and very healthy people may need less sleep than usual, because they can quickly slow down their body processes to achieve exceptional sleep quality (yognidra).
Daytime sleep and napping in Ayurveda
Napping in Ayurveda is generally associated with an aggravation of all doshas, decreased digestive power, and impaired cardiovascular health. The immediate impact of daytime sleep is a lack of sleep pressure, which can lead to nighttime insomnia.
As a result, napping is generally not recommended for anyone unless one is unwell or fasting. It’s okay, now and then, to make up for lost sleep during an exceptionally rocky night.
If you’re not getting enough sleep and want to recharge, a disciplined fifteen-minute nap before lunch in a relaxed sitting posture is ideal. This is least likely to increase dryness (Vata) or wetness (Kapha).
If you’re nervous about napping or not being able to fall asleep, remember that all is not lost if you’ve lost a few hours of sleep!
Ayurvedic tips to help you sleep naturally
There is no magic pill for sleep, but here are a few basic things we could try even as we toss around in our bed. Don’t try to force sleep—just relax and see how it works.
Approaches that address lifestyle, body, and mind can often do more to promote deep sleep than sleep pillows, weighted blankets, pills, and herbs.
Go to bed according to your circadian body clock
The simple rule of rising early and sleeping early can go a long way in promoting good sleep. This would imply going to sleep during Kapha time, between 8 pm to 10 pm, and getting up early during Vata time, just before sunrise.
Our brain and major organs have internal clocks which are synchronized with the daily rising and setting of the sun. Normally, sleep pressure, or the urge to sleep, builds up as the day progresses. As evening approaches, a brain signal carried by melatonin tells our entire body to go to sleep. This is also known as our circadian rhythm.
Though you may consider yourself to be a productive night owl, persistently deviating from your circadian rhythm as driven by the solar clock may lead to illness. You can try to improve the situation by sleeping a little earlier every day to help your body ease into a new routine. You might benefit from trying to change when you sleep to nurture the morning lark hidden inside you.
Ayurveda has recognized this failure to obey the natural clock as a source of disease. This is captured by the following Sanskrit sloka, which says that sleep at an improper time, an excess of sleep, and a lack of sleep are all destroyers of health.
Align your meals with your body clock
Aligning your circadian rhythms with your eating and living habits can go a long way in promoting good sleep. One basic step would be to make lunch your heaviest meal and have a light early dinner. By doing so, you can take advantage of your peak metabolic activity and digestive fire between 12 and 2pm.
You should also carefully control caffeine and alcohol in your diet. Caffeine can stay in your system for well over six hours, interfering with sleep pressure or the urge to sleep. If you are looking to sleep by 9pm, an early afternoon coffee is probably the last one you should have.
Reduce evening screen time
Mental calm is important for good sleep. Late-night Netflix thrillers or even endlessly scrolling on your cell phone Instagram feeds don’t promote a calm state before bed. Reducing evening screen time may help you have a restful sleep. Instead, listen to light music, read, or write your thoughts for the day. Put away your cell phone and remove ticking clocks from your room.
Follow a sleep routine
When it is time to sleep, try a daily wind-down routine to help prepare your mind and body for this ritual.
To soothe your physical body, you might want to try a warm shower or pamper yourself with a neck massage. Neck massages at the sides of the neck and behind our ears provides stimulation to the vagus nerve, which is credited with reducing body stress. You can also give yourself a foot massage and put on socks to stay warm.
You could even try some wind down yoga and breathwork, such as alternate nostril and deep breathing, which we discuss more below.
Yoga Nidra: Yoga poses to help you sleep
Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you might find yourself unable to sleep or waking up in the middle of the night unable to fall back asleep. This often seems to happen at the worst times, when we most need to sleep early or have a looming deadline.
When we’re anxious about our lives, we often become anxious about not being able to sleep, which can cause a spiral that’s hard to escape. One strategy that might help is to practice physically bringing all our tension together and then letting it go, using yoga and progressive relaxation techniques.
To do the boat pose (nauka), lie flat on your back and clench your fists with your palms facing downwards. As you exhale, contact your body by raising both the upper body and your feet.
Hold your feet together a few inches or more above the bed. Hold for five to ten seconds or longer if you are comfortable, and then simply let go. Relax into your bed. Repeat three times.
Following the boat pose, you can try to do the corpse pose (shavasana) along with visualization.
Lie flat on your bed, eyes closed, with feet slightly apart and your arms on your sides,the palms facing upwards. As you breathe in and out, move your attention from the bottom to the top of your body.
Start with your right toe and trace the contours of your body, ending at the left toe. Keep repeating this process of progressive muscle relaxation. This practice is also known as yoga nidra.
If you are still awake after this, you can focus on your breathing.
Try Ayurvedic breathwork to relax
Two basic exercises in pranayama, or breathwork, that may help you go to bed are alternate nostril breathing and deep breathing with an extended exhalation.
Alternate nostril breathing (nadi shodhana)
Alternate nostril breathing reduces stress, balances our nervous system, and increases the efficiency of breathing. To practice alternate nostril breathing (nadi shodhana), breathe in through one nostril, hold for a little while, and exhale from the other nostril. Then, reverse the process for the next cycle. You can try this while sitting or lying down on your back.
You can use your thumb and index finger on either side of your nostril to guide the flow of your breath.
Extended exhalations (ujjayi breath)
For deep breathing with extended exhalation, lie flat on the bed, looking at the ceiling (or the stars if you are lucky!)
Place your palms gently across your belly. Consciously extend your exhale breath for a longer duration than your inhale. By doing so, you will send relaxation signals to your nervous system.
In this way, you can use the sound of your own breath to prompt your body into a state of relaxation. Focus on the sound of your breath emanating from the back of your throat—you don’t need the television or a white noise fan! Keep practicing the breathwork for as long as you are consciously awake without seeking a goal of actually trying to sleep.
Finally, I’ve often heard people say you should try to meditate when you cannot sleep. In reality, if you cannot sleep, it is likely that you will not be able to meditate even if you are armed with a magical mantra. Sleep and meditation are processes of letting go.
Ayurvedic drinks and herbs for better sleep
It’s important to keep in mind that no one plant, herb, or food alone is a magic pill. Unless you are living on the North Pole with six months of continuous sunlight, simply gulping more melatonin to overcome persistent insomnia is not a smart thing to do. Our bodies can regulate themselves by producing enough of what we need, and we should respect that.
Here are a few Ayurvedic medicines relating to sleep that you may consider under expert guidance from Ayurvedic practitioners:
- Pistachios are a wonderful natural source of melatonin.
- Brahmi is associated with good sleep
- Ashwagandha may act as a sedative
- Jatamasi reduces vata
- Shankhpushpi is a flower used in traditional medicine for inducing sleep and calm
- Aromatic essential oils like lavender, sandalwood may have a calming effect
- Chamomile, rose, and spearmint tea contain essential oils with a therapeutic effect
- Ghee can calm and reduce vata and pitta disbalance
- Ginger can be used to reduce vata and kapha disbalance
Warm water helps relax the body and may help with earlier sleep onset.
You could also have a warm non-alcoholic drink, like camomile or lavender tea. A simple Ayurvedic wind-down recipe involves heating a cup of dairy or almond milk, adding a few strands of saffron, ¼ teaspoon of ashwagandha, ¼ teaspoon turmeric, a dash of nutmeg, and date or honey to taste. Milk contains tryptophan, which is a precursor to serotonin and melatonin.
How to improve sleep quality based on your dosha
When our doshas are balanced, we can all sleep peacefully. According to Ayurveda, it’s best to wake up in the last part of the night (brahma muhurta), just before sunrise. This is the ideal time for pranayama and meditation.
Waking up early in this way will also increase “sleep pressure” in the evening, helping us sleep early. It will create a healthy pattern over time as our internal body/organ clocks fall in sync with the external environment.
Imbalances of primary dosha in people can manifest in some typical sleep problems, which we describe below. You may have more than one dosha imbalance, so consult a practitioner for individualized advice.
Vata imbalance results in unsettled, broken sleep. This often occurs with particularly active REM sleep and vivid dreams. Vata aggravation can happen due to many reasons, including illness, weakness, excessive alcohol, or excessive stimulation that leads to mental disquiet.
Following a proper sleep routine, as discussed above, is very important for balancing the Vata dosha. It will help to sleep in a soft, comforting bed with minimal external stimuli and sounds. If you’re lucky, facing the moonlight is considered very good for sleep.
Pitta imbalances generally manifest with late sleeping and night owl activity. The mind may be problem-solving and working in overdrive, unable to let go.
To tackle this, calming teas, sandalwood paste, and a cooling environment are very helpful. Avoid pitta stimulating and heating spices and peppers in your food, and don’t eat late at night.
Kaphas require the least amount of sleep, but kapha imbalance generally results in excess sleep. Kaphas also tend to nap in the daytime, which is generally harmful for people with excess Kapha.
If you have a kapha imbalance, work on reducing your kapha through light, anti-kapha diets. Follow a strict sleep schedule and wake up before the morning kapha period from 6-10am. Use nasya and steaming and dry body massage to clear their nasal passages to improve sleep quality.
The best sleep is natural sleep
Let go of your anxiety about sleeping, and try to have a diet, lifestyle, and sleep routine that promotes healthy outcomes. Don’t try to force yourself to sleep using pills, magical herbs or essential oils without consulting your sleep doctor or an Ayurvedic practitioner. Instead of shopping for pills and herbs, it may try to make simple lifestyle changes and remove one or two harmful foods or behaviors to promote overall good health.
To learn more about sleep, Ayurveda, and other related topics, you can subscribe to our newsletter or write me a note at email@example.com. I offer workshops and deeper content on sleep and other topics. We also do dosha analysis to help you find your personal path to wellness.
All content is for educational purposes only. Please consult your medical practitioner before attempting any therapeutic, nutritional, exercise or meditation-related activity.
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