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Ayurveda and Sleep
Those of us who struggle with getting a good night’s rest will try just about anything.
One of the more common solutions is taking sedatives. But herbal or pharmaceutical remedies that dull the senses and knock us out only offer short-term, symptomatic relief at best. They don’t change the fact that we’re exhausted.
Here we look at Ayurvedic practices for deep, restorative sleep, and guide you through blissful body-mind rituals for all phases of the night and day that help you stave off burnout and prepare you for rest.
Circadian Medicine, Melatonin, and Sleep
New science tells us that every gene carries a biological clock that governs when we should eat, sleep, rest, digest, and exercise.2
According to Ayurveda, a loss of sleep efficiency and duration is due to an imbalance of prana vata (nervous system), which deals with regulation of the circadian clock.1 Living in sync with light-dark circadian cycles is critical for optimal health, sleep, and longevity. Studies on circadian science won the Noble prize in 2017.2 In Ayurveda, this study is called chikitsa kala: the study and treatments related to time.
Over-activity and suppression of natural urges causes exhaustion, according to Ayurveda. Chronic suppression of natural urges to sleep, eat, or use the bathroom at the right times will slowly disrupt the body’s circadian clock.4 An imbalanced, busy, hectic pace driven by sugar, caffeine, and a psychological need for accomplishment can drive the adrenals to make energy (cortisol) beyond its capacity. This results in burnout, sleep issues, and eventual cortisol depletion.3, 5
A lifestyle out of sync with your circadian rhythms causes circadian fatigue.6 Circadian fatigue damages your ability to maintain normal sleep efficiency and duration.7, 8, 9
Melatonin is the body’s circadian sleep hormone.
Ayurveda, the Doshas, and Sleep
In Ayurveda, the vata time of night, when we are governed by the mind and often feel light and calm, is 2 a.m. to 6 a.m., followed by sunrise and the kapha time of morning, from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m., which is governed by the body and feels heavier.
Ayurvedic Suggestions for All-Around Better Sleep
1. Meditate Twice Daily
Meditation is, at the very least, a tool that trains you to handle stress and come to a place of peaceful awareness. According to sleep research studies, meditation supports healthy sleep cycles and improves daytime energy.(1)
Don’t have a meditation practice? Start here with my free meditation training.
2. Maintain a Regular Daily Routine
Rise, meditate, eat, work, exercise, play, and sleep at the same time every day. Go to bed by 10pm, which is the end of the kapha period, when the mind and body are naturally drowsier. If you are not currently accustomed to being regular about your routine, start by writing down a schedule to follow for the first few weeks. Start with small changes so you can achieve your goals and not get discouraged.
We Recommend 7 Ayurvedic Rituals to Power Up Your Morning Shower
3. Eat Vata-Pacifying Foods
Vata body types, or those with vata imbalances, are more prone to having sleep difficulties.12 If the mind is very active at bedtime, be sure to eat a vata-pacifying diet. Have an early, light supper, such as soup, hot cereal, or toast and warm milk at least three hours before bedtime.
Vata-pacifying foods can be found on our Winter Grocery List. Vata-balancing or sleep-supportive foods are generally characterized by having one or several of the following qualities: warm, moist, oily, sweet, salty, or sour. Some examples include vegetable soup, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.
Foods that are cold, dry, uncooked, and spicy can increase vata and contribute to insomnia. Decrease your consumption of cool salads, chips and salsa, crackers, and cold beverages in general.
If you have dessert, have it after lunch, rather than after dinner. This will allow your body to burn off the sugar during the afternoon, instead of letting the sugar keep you up at night.
4. Manage Vata Digestion
If you have occasional constipation—a classic vata imbalance that is commonly linked to sleep concerns—it is usually effective to use natural, herbal support.
Also, stay hydrated with 6-9 glasses of water per day and sip hot water throughout the day for a 2-week period.
5. Get Outside and Play
Enjoy dynamic activities during the day, especially those that take you outdoors. The more sun exposure you get during the day, the greater your production of melatonin at night.14
6. Laugh and Enjoy
Enjoy some light entertainment each day. Humorous books, laughter, play, uplifting movies or being in pleasant situations with family and friends will support healthy sleep cycles.15
When possible, avoid situations which tend to cause anxiety, worry, or anger. Study after study shows that stress is linked to a variety of sleep concerns.14
Ayurvedic Sleep Solutions for the Evening
1. Cultivate Pleasant and Relaxing Activities
Read, listen to soft music, play with children or animals. A short walk after dinner is helpful. After sunset, kapha qualities increase, which are heavy, calming, and sleep-inducing.
2. Avoid Work that Requires Energy and Concentration
During the kapha time of night, between 6-10PM, the nervous system and cortisol levels should be winding down. Avoid watching TV or being on your computer for at least one hour before bedtime, as it stimulates the nervous system and blocks melatonin production. Blue light filters help support melatonin production, but they do not stop the overstimulation of the mind that contributes to keeping us up.
3. Use Gentle and Soothing Aromatherapy Oil
Use oils such as lavender, marjoram, chamomile, jasmine, rose, and neroli in the bedroom.
Ayurvedic Sleep Solutions for Just Before Bed
1. Abhyanga (Daily Self-Massage)
Massage your head and the bottoms of your feet with warm sesame oil or ghee. Do not overstimulate the head by rubbing it too hard. For moderate sleep concerns, give yourself a gentle, full-body self-massage followed by a warm bath. In post-menopausal women with sleep imbalances, an evening, full-body oil massage significantly supported healthy sleep cycles.16
2. Drink a Glass of Warm Milk
Warm milk has certain peptides that help lower cortisol and support healthy sleep. Add a little raw honey or chyawanprash (an Ayurvedic superfood). Saffron, nutmeg, and poppy seeds can be calming additions as well.
3. Avoid Sleeping Pills
Sleeping pills can interfere with the body’s natural sleep responses. Instead, try the following natural sleep aids (use one at a time until you find the one that works best for you):
- Saffron: Two to three threads of saffron heated in one cup of warm milk
- Nutmeg: One large pinch of nutmeg stirred into one cup of warm milk
- Poppy seeds: Soak ¼ to ½ teaspoon poppy seeds for a few hours in one cup of warm water or milk. Drink warm
- Gotu kola (brahmi) tea: One teaspoon gotu kola leaves or ¼ teaspoon powder, brewed with ½ cup water
- Chamomile tea: One teabag or 1 teaspoon loose leaves, brewed with one cup of water
- Sleep Easy herbal formula: Take 2 capsules before bed or as directed by your health care professional
- Ojas Nightly Tonic: A classic evening beverage of hot milk, dates, coconut, almonds, saffron, ashwagandha, shatavari, raw honey and ghee. Learn how to prepare it here.
Consider low-dose melatonin for an ojas-boosting, circadian clock reset. Many sleep-seekers have tried melatonin without success because they are actually taking too much. The over-the-counter- brands are typically at too high of a dose for sleep support..
I formulated a Low-Dose Melatonin, a liquid supplement with just 1 mg of melatonin per 1 drop. To reset your sleep clock, I suggest 1-10 drops 45-60 minutes before bed for 3 months.
Ayurvedic Sleep Solutions for in Bed
1. Adjust the Temperature
Make sure that your bedroom is comfortable and orderly, so you are less distracted, and at the right temperature. There should be fresh air in the room. Natural fibers are best for bedclothes and linens as they breathe more easily and don’t trap humidity next to the skin.
2. Avoid Using the Bedroom for Mental Activities
Avoid things like reading, working, or watching TV in bed. The bedroom should be associated with sleeping, not working or being on screens.
3. Keep Your Head and Feet Warm
Use a hot water bottle under your feet or on your belly, and a cotton nightcap for your head.
4. Turn Off Lights and Wi-Fi
Make sure the room is dark with blackout shades, eye covers, and no active computers or LED lights. Put black tape over the LED on/off indicator lights.
5. Sleep in a Comfortable Position and Relax
Do not worry about sleeping. Let your mind be lazy and wander freely. Take the attitude that you will naturally get as much rest as you need, even if you are not actually sleeping. Keep the lights off and your eyes closed without minding the time. Just enjoy resting comfortably. Remember that we go to bed to rest, not to sleep. If you worry that not sleeping will spoil your next day, this worry (and even anger) can make it even more difficult to fall asleep.
Ayurvedic Sleep Solutions for the Morning
Try not to set your alarm clock, if possible. Get up naturally with or before the sun. Once the sun is up, whenever possible get the sun on your body—even through a window is OK—to help with synching up with circadian rhythms.
Start the day with an oil massage, a shower, yoga and meditation, and you will feel fresh and rested. Even if you feel that you have not slept well, never take the attitude that you are too tired to begin a full day’s activity. Don’t think that you need to stay in bed longer to get more rest. Get up and get going, and avoid napping during the day. It will then be easier to fall asleep the next night.
Disclaimer: A sleep disorder is broadly defined as a physical or psychological problem that impairs your ability to sleep or causes increased sleepiness during the day. Everyone can experience sleep problems from time to time. However, you might have a sleep disorder and should consult your primary healthcare practitioner if:
- You regularly experience difficulty sleeping
- You are often tired during the day, even if you slept for at least seven hours the night before
- You have a reduced or impaired ability to perform regular daytime activities
- Your partner has told you that you snore loudly and sometimes seem to stop breathing.
Get the Ayurvedic Guide to the Best Sleep of Your Life eBook
This easy-to-read, colorful guide has all of the information here, will become your go-to bedside resource for getting the best sleep of your life. Download the ebook here.