Ayurveda’s Tough Love Recipe for a Good Night’s Sleep
Or, how to sleep like a baby
This one is dedicated to my night owl friends! You know who you are. :) I know you’re creative and do your best work during the wee hours, but I hope you’ll at least consider what I have to say.
As much as I love Ayurveda, I know that it can sometimes seem overwhelming with its dos and don’ts. So, I’m going to lay it all out here, and you can take it or leave it. Maybe you’ll find one gem that can help put you on the road to better sleep.
So many articles are written about sleep. That’s because it affects us all, and any one of us can fall prey to insomnia at any time.
Don’t we all wish we could sleep like a baby again?
That being said, even babies differ in their sleep habits because guess what? They have different constitutions, too! But, infancy through teenage years is the Kapha time of life when the body is doing its serious growing and needs a lot of sleep.
Kapha types, as they age, are generally the lucky ones who can fall asleep at the drop of a hat and stay asleep.
Lack of sleep can do more than just make us cranky and reach for a cup of coffee or a chocolate bar. It can make us crazy, and it can make us sick.
Our body depends on sleep to repair and regenerate. Without it, we’re vulnerable to a host of illnesses too long to list here.
And forget looking and feeling our best. It just doesn’t happen without a good night’s sleep.
I know firsthand how horrible chronic insomnia is. When I had fibromyalgia, sleep was practically nonexistent. Pain and an overly sensitive nervous system kept me up most nights. Oh, the irony. I needed sleep to heal the pain.
I used to joke that I was the Princess and the Pea because my bed felt like it was filled with hard pebbles.
I bought a new mattress.
I made my bedroom a beautiful haven.
Desperate for sleep, I succumbed to the pharmaceutical Ambien. Oh, boy, was that ever a mistake.
I went from an insomniac to a sleepwalker doing all kinds of strange things in the middle of the night.
Eventually, I found pain and insomnia relief from a plant, St. John’s Wort, along with living a more Ayurvedic lifestyle, and my sleep improved. Only then did the healing truly begin. (Note: St. John’s Wort can interfere with pharmaceuticals, so check with your doctor before trying it if you’re on medication.)
Writing this is taking me down memory lane to how nearly crazy the lack of sleep made me.
We all know that our natural biorhythms dictate how we should sleep. And yet still, we treat bedtime like a toddler having a temper tantrum.
We avoid an early bedtime at all costs.
Can’t shut off the computer, TV, or telephone.
Just one more episode of our favorite show. Like, “The Adventures of Merlin.” :) I love that show!
Or, the hardest one of all, we can’t stop writing, painting, making music, etc. - any kind of creative project is hard to put to rest for the night.
Here are a few basic Ayurvedic principles that helped me get my sleep back on track:
1. Respect your biorhythms
Ayurveda divides the 24-hour day into six four-hour cycles.
2:00-6:00 a.m. - Vata Time
6:00-10:00 a.m. - Kapha Time
10:00 a.m. - 2:00 p.m. - Pitta Time
2:00 p.m. - 6:00 p.m. - Vata Time
6:00-10:00 p.m. - Kapha Time
10:00 p.m. - 2:00 a.m. - Pitta Time
These time cycles hold a key to better health and longevity in so many ways. In this article, I’m focusing mostly on sleeping.
In terms of sleep, it’s important to rise towards the end of vata time before kapha time begins. This is generally 6:00-ish or before the sun rises.
One reason for this is that Kapha is a slow, heavy, often lethargic kind of energy.
Sleeping into this time of morning will not usually result in a rested kind of sleep. It can set you up for feeling groggy throughout the day, even though you may have slept more hours.
Please note that this does not apply if you are sick or infirm. If that’s the case, the best recipe is sleep and more sleep!
Even more important than early rising is getting to bed BEFORE Pitta time begins at 10:00 p.m.
During the evening Pitta hours, the body wakes up, and the organs start doing their work, repairing, regenerating, digesting, etc.
The liver is especially active at this time. This energy will wake us up and keep us up (i.e., getting your second wind) and make falling asleep next to impossible.
This time period is the most critical in terms of sleep. Sleeping from 10:00 p.m. - 2:00 a.m. will do more for your health than sleeping during any other period.
Most people with a lot of Pitta in their constitution are the night owls. They laugh at me when I make this suggestion.
Preceding evening Pitta time is Kapha time (6:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.). Just like the slow energy in the morning, we experience it in the early evening hours. How many times have you fallen asleep on the sofa during this time? This is when your body is ready for sleep! Take advantage of its wisdom. Go to bed!
Note: These times are not set in stone because of the change of seasons and time changes like Daylight Savings Time. Waking before sunrise and hitting the hay when it gets dark is honestly what our body wants to be doing. Are you having a good laugh right now?
2. Eat your largest meal at noon and keep supper light and early (preferably 5:00-6:00ish).
Pitta dosha rules digestion and metabolism, so eating during the Pitta hours of the day - 10:00 a.m. - 2:00 p.m.) will help the body immensely.
When we eat a heavy or late supper, our body will unnecessarily be given the task of digesting a big meal during evening Pitta hours rather than being able to repair and regenerate.
Digestion takes roughly 60% of our daily metabolism!
This is also a tough one to shift, I know! But it’s so worth a try.
3. Learn to Meditate
Just like we have a sleep state, a waking state, and a dream state, we also have a meditative state. It really is as important as all of the others.
Do yourself a favor and learn to meditate. Just twenty minutes, once or twice a day, will change your life and help your sleep state immensely.
An added bonus is that it’s a wonderful remedy for those who wake during the Vata time of the morning (2:00 - 6:00 a.m.) and can’t get back to sleep. These are high anxiety hours (Vata rules the nervous system) when we often awake with our heart racing.
Meditating during these hours will often result in falling into the most delicious sleep you can imagine.
And, if meditation is just not for you, slow deep breathing can also work wonders! I meditated twice a day for years, and I credit it with wiping away a good deal of anxiety. Since I moved here into the lap of Mother Nature, I feel like I’m in a state of meditation, whether or not I’m sitting still with my eyes closed. But, when I lived in the city, meditating was my medicine.
4. Turn off the lights and all electronics at least an hour before bedtime
By now, you all probably know this one. The wrong light really does mess with our melatonin and makes it hard for us to fall asleep. Light some candles, take a bath, listen to calming music or read a book (boring is better). I never turn the lights on anymore after dark. I light a few candles, and that’s it.
5. Learn how to do Ayurvedic self-massage (abhyanga)
Even newborn babies in India benefit from this age-old practice. HERE'S how it’s done. I’ll admit that I’ve fully fallen off this bandwagon, but I do try to at least massage a calming oil into my hands and feet before bed. When I was healing from chronic pain, I started going weekly to an Ayurvedic spa for a Vata abhyanga treatment. It was definitely instrumental in my healing and worth every penny.
6. Use herbal remedies to help with the transition
While we don’t want to become too dependent on anything to help us sleep, herbal remedies are food and can help us immensely, especially in the beginning.
Here are some good choices from Banyan Botanicals, a wonderful source of clean, sustainable, organic herbs.
Some other herbs, in tincture and/or tea form, that are helpful for both stress and sleep are St. John’s Wort (can interfere with pharmaceuticals, so check with your doctor), Passionflower, Skullcap, Chamomile, Lemon Balm, Valerian, and many many more. I’m not a practicing herbalist, and here’s where I have to give that little disclaimer that I’m not dispensing medical advice. :( You can easily read up on them online and make your own decision.
Keep in mind that our bodies are all different and will react differently to herbs.
What may be calming and sedating for one person can be stimulating for someone else.
Also, many herbs take time to show results. Be patient.
My Ayurveda teacher, Maya Tiwari, used to say that taking herbs was always secondary to our daily routine, aka living in sync with Nature and our circadian rhythms.
Routine is hard! Especially for those of us with lots of Vata dosha. But, I never stop trying.
Getting up before the sun rises is a magical time in terms of creativity.
When I moved here, it was the first time in almost two decades that I lived somewhere where I could see the sun rise and set, and nighttime is dark, as Nature intended. I can’t see any lights from my little house. I was giddy the first night I slept here and didn’t need earplugs or an eye mask!
I haven't mentioned people who regularly work the night shift. It stands to reason that this fights against the body's natural rhythms in the worst possible way.
Aside from suggesting another job, all I can offer is that you nurture your body as best you can in all other aspects of your life.
Give these tips a try for two weeks and see if sleep doesn’t once again become something pleasant rather than frustrating.
One more thing. You might be interested to know how different our dreams can be depending on our constitution.
Vata-type dreams are generally of a fearful, anxious variety. Lots of chasing. Especially when they occur during the wee Vata hours (2-6 a.m.) As I said, Vata rules the nervous system. Vata-types often have trouble remembering their dreams.
Pitta-type dreams tend to be more firey. Action-oriented. Even their dreams can seem organized.
And oh, those lucky calm Kapha types. Their dreams are often watery and lovely.
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