For better or worse, we’re all familiar with sleep. Sleep is natural to life, which progresses through cycles of rest and activity. Without adequate sleep, mental function breaks down. Modern neurophysiology is beginning to reveal the mechanisms by which sleep rejuvenates our mental capability. The brain demands 12% of cardiac output as well as 20% of oxygen and glucose consumption even though it represents only 2% of body weight. So it’s not surprising that sleep serves to remove metabolic wastes that accumulate during the day. Sleep also rejuvenates our physical capabilities.
Simply put, being well-rested is key to being productive and successful in life. If sleep is fundamentally simple, natural and important, why do so many have trouble with sleep? The Ayurvedic answer comes in terms of diet and daily routine. Much of the problem boils down to either life stress or violation of the laws of nature.
Stress is Tough on Health and Sleep
It’s no surprise that stress causes lots of problems. Some of us face more than our fair share of it. Even so, two people can experience the same difficulty and one will be overwhelmed by a wave of repercussions while the other suffers only a little ripple. It helps to have an anchor of stability in life in good social relationships. It also helps to have a lifestyle that supports balance.
One ancient formula for combatting stress is to take a brisk walk in nature within the first two hours after sunrise. We all understand the value of exercise for health. Ayurveda adds recognition of the nourishing value of the rising sun and an appreciation that this time of day is influenced by Kapha Dosha which gives greater strength and endurance. Conversely, vigorous exercise in the evening may impair sleep.
Meditation is the other major stressbuster. Any technique like Transcendental Meditation, which takes awareness to the field of transcendental pure consciousness, will return maximum benefit. This is because the Transcendent is known to be the silent, unchanging eternal source of life and the home of all the laws of nature. A dip into the Transcendent creates the physiological opposite of the stress response and activates the body’s natural self-repair mechanisms. Moreover, studies show that TM systematically produces a state of physiological rest deeper than that of sleep. With support from TM, even if sleep is not ideal, you have an opportunity to make it up during your twice-daily 20-minute meditations.
The Value of a Regular Daily Routine
A regular daily routine provides stability. In Ayurvedic terms a regular routine for sleep, meals and activity balances Vata Dosha. Because Vata represents Movement in the physiology and mind, it is the most ethereal of the Doshas and the one which most easily gets thrown out of balance. Imbalances of the Doshas create conditions favoring the development of disease. Who wants that?
Apropos of good sleep, we find that the ideal time to go to bed is the second half of the Kapha period in the evening. This is 8-10 PM, after sundown when most of nature is going to sleep. Kapha has the qualities of sweet, slow, calm and steady—just the influence one would want to take to bed.
Even so, it’s easy to get caught in the attractions of modern life made possible by electricity. When we stay up past 10 PM, we enter Pitta time. Pitta is flowing, sharp, sour and hot. It is associated with the digestive fire. Most people experience some fatigue in the 8-10 PM time frame. Then, after 10 PM they get their second wind, sometimes accompanied with hunger. It’s not hard to appreciate that this aggravates Pitta, but it also aggravates Vata. This double-whammy impairs sleep quality. To make things worse, eating at this time disrupts the body’s process for making healthy tissues.
What is more, it’s of great value to regularly awaken before sunrise during the second half of Vata time in the morning (4-6 AM). This brings the energy and enthusiasm of balanced Vata into the day. When you sleep in past sunrise, you get caught in the slowness of Kapha and have may trouble getting going no matter how well you have slept.
Types of Sleep Disturbance
The two basic patterns of impaired sleep map to the Doshas that cause them. Difficulty in initially falling asleep is largely driven by disturbances of Vata. Awakening in the middle of the night and having trouble returning to sleep, often feeling warm, is usually caused by imbalanced Pitta. Since Pitta dominates in middle age and Vata easily gets out of balance, these two factors get mixed in many adults.
Nevertheless, it turns out that there is good agreement between Ayurveda and western medicine about many aspects of sleep hygiene. Let’s look at the basic recommendations.
How to Improve Sleep the Natural Way
- Awaken before 6 AM.
- Get fresh air and exercise daily, preferably in the first few hours after sunrise.
- Make time to experience Transcendence twice a day using TM or a comparable form of meditation.
- Organize your time to have lights out before 10 PM.
- Avoid coffee and any other caffeinated beverages. Regardless of the time taken, they aggravate Vata and Pitta. Ditto for alcohol containing beverages and tobacco products.
- Eat dinner by 7 PM. Dinner should be lighter in quantity and quality than lunch because the digestive fire is weaker in the evening. A heavy dinner is hard to digest. A full stomach is not conducive to restful sleep and is a major factor in esophageal reflux disease. A short leisurely walk after dinner promotes good digestion. Much after 7 PM think about just having a cup of boiled milk and calling it quits.
- Wind down your activity in the evening. Favor whatever is quiet and relaxing to avoid over-stimulation. Particularly avoid watching the news or action movies. You are unlikely to hear or see anything soothing.
- Overuse of the eyes in the evening, especially with screens including TV has a negative effect on sleep quality. Short, blue light wavelengths are known to stimulate wakefulness. If you must use a device, lower the screen color temperature and brightness.
- Make Abhyanga (self-oil massage) part of your morning routine.
- Do Nasya (oleation of the nasal passages) twice daily.
- Here are some other suggestions to improve sleep quality:
- Have a little boiled milk with cardamom at a comfortable temperature before bed
- Take a warm bath before bed with some relaxing oil like lavender.
- Massage a little ghee or coconut oil on the arches of the feet when you get into bed. Keep a small jar on your nightstand so you won’t track oil on your carpets or put yourself at risk of slipping on hard floors.
- Let the bedroom be like your private heaven: reserved for sleep and intimacy. Don’t watch TV, work or read in bed.
- Keep fresh flowers in the home – especially the bedroom.
- Try diffusing a calming essential oil in the bedroom like lavender or Slumber Time.
- Try listening to Sama Veda hymns at a low volume for 5-10 minutes before bed. See for example: https://shaivam.org/audio-gallery/sama-veda.
Remedies for Disordered Sleep
If you find yourself awake during the night, set your default response as “be with the bed.” Don’t fret about it. It may be boring, but no harm will come. Your body will still get the rest it needs, even if your mind is active and you feel you are awake.
- Avoid getting up to read or watch TV.
- If you’re feeling tense, don’t engage with your thoughts. Instead, allow your attention to scan the body. You may find a disturbance somewhere. If so, gently keep your attention there until it subsides.
- Try sitting up and doing gentle alternate nostril breathing (Sukh pranayama) for about 5 minutes. Then lay back down and let sleep come.
- Slow and easy yoga asanas (floor postures, not standing postures) ending with Chit Asana (consciousness pose) may also help.
If these recommendations don’t solve your problems, assess your state of balance and pay more attention to balancing Vata Dosha and/or Pitta Dosha according to the situation. A famous Ayurvedic aphorism warns that without proper diet and daily routine, herbs and medications are of little benefit. This is certainly true in the long run.
Short term, there are non-habit-forming herbs that may be of considerable help, especially when one is trying to cope with a difficult situation. MAPI.com* offers two sleep products to consider. Blissful Sleep is good for those who have a hard time initially getting to sleep. Deep Rest is preferred for those who awaken in the middle of the night. You can take 1-2 tablets of either one or one of each about an hour before bed with warm water or boiled milk. For Pitta imbalance, Stress Free Emotions may also be of help. Take 1-2 tablets after lunch and dinner. Some prefer other calming MAPI aroma oils over first choice Slumber Time when diffused in the bedroom.
If your situation is more complicated or if these simple recommendations are not sufficient, consider an Ayurveda consultation.
*Note: I have a financial relationship with MAPI that is only triggered if you click one of these links and make a purchase. In that event, I receive a 20% commission. Regardless, product pricing is the same.