Sleep is natural to life—just look at how well babies do it—and any problems we encounter should have a natural solution. Our inner sleep rhythm should connect to the rhythms of nature, or more specifically of daylight. Normally, as daylight fades, the body’s biological clock triggers the release of melatonin from the pineal gland, making us feel sleepy. The onset of morning light triggers a drop in melatonin, causing us to wake up.
Yet if sleep is so natural, why do an estimated 75 percent of Americans develop sleep problems? Probably because our lifestyles have become so un-natural. Late nights, evening computer- and cell-phone use, and sleeping late all alter this natural pattern of melatonin secretion. Add alcohol and caffeine consumption and late-evening meals to those years of cumulative abuse, and you end up with chronic sleep problems. To top it off, melatonin production tends to decrease as we age, further reducing the quality of our sleep.
Ayurveda considers sleep to be one of three key pillars of health. It recognizes the role of biological rhythms and identifies six time periods throughout the day that affect sleep by affecting our doshas—the three fundamental processes that guide our body’s functioning. The doshas include mind and movement (vata), metabolism (pitta), and structure (kapha). To improve sleep, ayurveda suggests going to bed before 10 p.m., during the cycle dominated by the heavy, slow-moving kapha dosha, when you naturally feel more mellow and sleepy. If you go to bed then, you’ll fall asleep easier and your sleep will be deeper.
The other pivotal point in the daily cycle occurs at 6 a.m. If you wake up before then, during the time of the morning dominated by quick moving vata dosha, you should have more clarity and dynamism.
As you and your husband illustrate, not everyone suffers from the same sleep problem. If your mind is whirling, your body tense, and you can’t fall asleep, chances are you have a dominant vata dosha. Your husband’s sleep problem on the other hand, waking up between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m., usually stems from a disturbance in the hot pitta dosha. People who sleep eight hours but still feel exhausted commonly have an excess of the slow, heavy kapha dosha. In each case, it’s important to balance the dominant tendency with diet and lifestyle choices.
Ayurvedic Sleep Aids
If you have trouble falling asleep (vata)
- Go to bed before 10 p.m., earlier in winter.
- Rub warm olive oil on your head and feet right before bed to calm an overactive mind.
- Avoid caffeine, raw foods, crackers, cold cereal, and other dry, light foods that aggravate vata dosha.
- Avoid TV, intense phone conversations, and exercise after 9 p.m.
- Choose quiet evening activities to wind down, such as washing dishes, folding clothes, and other simple tasks.
If you wake up between 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. (pitta)
- Avoid computer use and other work at night. Organize a to-do list to get a head start on the morning and settle your mind before bed.
- Avoid arguments or controversial discussions at night.
- Take an evening walk to clear your brain and cool your body.
- Avoid spicy or fried foods at night.
- Eat a juicy pear every day to cool the hot pitta dosha.
- Drink warm milk flavored with cooling organic rose syrup before bed.
- Rub your head and feet with coconut oil before bed.
If you feel exhausted after a good night’s sleep (kapha)
- Eat a light soup with whole-grain crackers or steamed vegetables for your evening meal.
- Flavor your food with digestion-stimulating spices, such as fresh ginger, cumin, and black pepper.
- Avoid meat, cheese, potatoes, and heavy desserts at supper, as these tend to clog the tissues, promoting snoring, apnea, stiffness, and morning lethargy.
- Make an effort to get up before 6 a.m.
- Exercise daily, if possible during the morning kapha cycle between 6 a.m. and 10 a.m.
Originally published in Natural Solutions magazine.
Reprinted with permission.
More on Overcoming Insomnia
- Meditate regularly to release mental and physical tension. When this tension is not resolved prior to lying down to sleep, it will often unwind at bedtime, causing restlessness, thoughts, worries or emotions that prevent sleep from coming easily.
- After getting in bed, assume a comfortable position and don’t try to sleep or worry about not sleeping. Let your mind move freely, just taking it as it comes. This attitude will allow you to gain as much rest as possible in the period before falling asleep. Just let the natural functioning of your body and mind bring you whatever experience it will. You are in nature’s hands. Just enjoy resting comfortably and you will fall asleep naturally.
- Have dinner by 6:00 PM. Eat lightly. Soups, grains or hot cereal are soothing and promote restful sleep. Eating heavy foods or too late can disturb sleep.
- Before bed, have a glass of warm milk. You may add raw sugar or honey, cardamom or ginger to taste.
- As a natural aid to sleep you may take one of the following herbal preparations:
- 1 bag of chamomile tea or 1 teaspoon of leaves brewed in 1 cup of water.
- 1 teaspoon of gotu kola leaves or 1/4 teaspoon of powder brewed into a tea with 1 cup of water.
- 2 to 3 threads of saffron heated with 1 cup of milk.
- 1 large pinch of nutmeg stirred into 1 cup of warm milk.
- It is helpful to keep your head and feet warm on cold nights. If you are highly sensitive to the cold, you may wish to use a hot water bottle and wear a cotton night cap for extra warmth.
- Have some exercise and activity in the fresh air every day. A 20-30 minute walk outdoors is the minimum exercise required for most people.
- Avoid using the bedroom for activities other than sleep, i.e. reading, studying or watching TV.
- The evening activity should be pleasant and relaxing. Walking for 10-15 minutes is recommended. Evening TV may overstimulate the mind and should be avoided. Reading or listening to soft music, particularly Gandharva Veda music, is recommended. 4. Avoid all focused work including phone calls for at least 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime. Sensory input just before bed should be soothing and relaxing.
- Vata aroma therapy started in the bedroom before sleep is settling to the mind and nervous system and promotes restful sleep.
- Go to bed at the same time every night. Turning your light out by 9:30 PM is highly recommended if you are having difficulty falling asleep.
- Massage the head and feet lightly with sesame or coconut oil or your Ayurvedic massage oil before retiring. This relaxes and quiets the mind. A full body Ayurvedic oil massage (with light pressure only) followed by a warm tub bath before bed may also be done, if desired.
Nancy Lonsdorf, MD is a prominent Ayurvedic physician, speaker and author of The Ageless Woman: Natural Health and Beauty After Forty with Maharishi Ayurveda (MCD Century, 2004).