Using Ayurveda to Support Sleep Health
At one time in my life, my inability to fall asleep consumed my being. Every night would come and there I was- wide awake, anxious, and even sometimes in panic. What was wrong with me? Why couldn't my doctor and psychiatrist figure this out for me? Well, they did have one solution-prescription drugs. I prayed, I cried, I confided in anyone that would listen. I was desperate and surely driving my friends and family crazy.
I decided, after ten years of misery, to try something new. I learned about ayurveda and sought guidance from a qualified practitioner and wouldn’t you know?- I started to feel change.
Ayurveda is an ancient healing science from India. It is said to be at least five thousand years old. Ayurveda is the sister science to yoga which is wildly popular now in American culture- gaining millions of new practitioners every year. In ayurveda, yoga is used as a tool for healing. Ayurveda teaches us to tune in to ourselves at a very deep level and to listen to what our minds and bodies need. It forces us to ask, “What is the root of my problem?” Ayurveda teaches us that as humans we are a part of nature and as such, there are ways of living and being that are highly superior to the unnatural way most of us live in this country. For example, we would all benefit from paying attention to the seasons and adjusting our diets and lifestyles just like plants and animals do.
How did ayurveda help heal my struggle with insomnia? Below are my 4 recommendations for improving your sleep using ayurveda.
Know Your Dosha
According to ayurveda, each of us made up of the five elements- space, air, fire, water, and earth. Although we all have them all, each of us is born with a different proportion of these elements. An energetic dancer- abundant in the air element. A passionate activist- full of fire. These elements form biological energies called doshas. When space and air come together they form an energy called vata. Vata dosha regulates everything that is moving in and around us. Fire and water come together to form the pitta dosha. Pitta governs all that is metabolizing and transforming. Kapha dosha forms when water and earth come together. Everything that provides structure comes from the kapha energy. Most of us have one or two dominant doshas- some of us are vatas, some pittas, and others kaphas. Still others are vata-pitta, kapha-vata etc. This means that our mind and body systems behave in certain ways based on the amount of the elements and their qualities within us.
In regards to sleep, vatas tend to have irregular sleep patterns. Their sleep tends to be lighter and they get less of it. Vata’s dreams are full of chasing, falling, and adventures. They are prone to awaken in the night and have a hard time falling back asleep. Pittas have issues with being hot at night. Their dreams are intense, vivid, and passionate. They may have a hard time falling asleep because they are overly ambitious and can’t stop “working.” Kaphas are heavy sleepers who love to cuddle in the covers. Their dreams are serene and romantic. They may struggle more with waking up. Learning your dosha is enlightening in so many ways, but especially for people struggling with sleep.
As a pitta with a tendency to have issues with vata imbalance, I learned how to be aware of both energies within me and to beware when one of the doshas is out of balance. When I can’t fall asleep because I am obsessing over what happened that day, I know my pitta is imbalanced. When I wake at night and can't fall back asleep, I know my vata is imbalanced.
Tailor Your Diet and Digestion
Once you know your dosha you can begin to explore the types of foods that either help you or work against you when it comes to sleep. “You” is the operative word here as it is very important to understand that, what is good for one person when it comes to diet and sleep is not good for others. For pittas (the fiery ones) spicy foods can spell disaster at bedtime. But, for kaphas (the earthy ones) spicy foods can help them get out of bed easier. For vatas, sweet heavy foods can help them sleep through the night, but again, for kaphas, those same foods will prove it difficult to get out of bed the next day.
In addition to eating for your dosha, ayurveda places a great emphasis on keeping a balanced digestive fire or agni. According to ayurveda, all of the food and drink we consume, the experiences and sensory information that we take in everyday, and all of our past traumas and repressed emotions need to be digested completely for us to be healthy. When we have not fully digested and assimilated these things we are too “full” all the time. When we lay down to fall asleep or when we awaken in the middle of the night our minds may race with the millions of things we need to do or we begin to obsess about a situation that happened at work that day. Both of these examples illustrate the consequences of not being able to properly digest our lives. Ayurveda teaches us how to eat the right foods for our mind/body types and how to kindle our digestion so that our days and lives are continually processed, assimilated, and cleansed.
As a pitta with tendency to have vata imbalance I eat mainly a pitta-pacifying diet. I emphasize sweet cooling foods and stay away from spicy, salty, and oily foods. I conduct an ayurvedic cleanse at the beginning of every season to help kindle my digestive fire and to expel waste. I keep a journal that helps me to process my experiences and emotions. I have a yoga practice that has me folding and twisting and squeezing a lot to get blood pumping in my digestive organs.
Follow the Ayurvedic Clock
Just as animals and plants behave certain ways at different times of the day, during seasons, and during different stages of their life cycle, so should we. According to ayurveda, from 6AM to 10AM is the kapha time of day. The qualities of this time are heavy, slow, and dull. It is beneficial for all of us, especially kaphas, to get up before this time begins. If we can, we enjoy the benefits of waking during vata time which starts at 2AM and ends at 6AM. The qualities of this time of day are clear, light, and mobile. Getting up at this time gives us some extra momentum. At 6PM we start the kapha time of evening and it goes until 10PM. Going to bed during these hours is advantageous. At 10PM, pitta hours begin with the qualities of hot, sharp and mobile. These are the hours it seems some can easily catch a second “wind.” During this pitta window from 10PM to 2AM our bodies and minds set out to digest all of our food and experiences from the day so, it is most important that we are asleep at these times. Come 2AM, vata time starts again and it is not unusual to wake for the bathroom and to be unable to fall back asleep.
If you pay close enough attention, as well, you may find the seasons can make your sleeping issues better or worse. In the spring, it is kapha season and the qualities are cold, wet, and dull. You may find it harder to get out of bed during this season and even harder to motivate in general. On the other hand, late fall and early winter is vata season. The qualities are windy, cold, and dry. You may find your sleeping issues more aggravated at this time. From summer to early fall is pitta season and you may find the heat and intensity is what you struggle with.
Also the stage of your life cycle plays a role in sleeping. From ages 25-55 are the pitta years of life. We are ambitious and focused on achieving our goals and for some that means sleeping issues. After this stage we enter the vata stage of life as things dry out and become more subtle and light. It is not unusual for people in this stage to also struggle with sleep issues.
As a pitta in the pitta stage of life, I am extra cautious about staying up past 10PM. During the fall and early winter when the weather is cold, windy, and dry I pay special attention to staying warm, hydrated, and grounded so that my vata does not become imbalanced.
Regulate Your Nervous System
There are two parts to your autonomic nervous system, the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system serves as your fight or flight response. It is what “protects” us in the face of real or perceived danger. The parasympathetic nervous system is our relax response. It gives us the ability to assess a situation and be at ease with it. In people with sleep issues, often the sympathetic nervous system is ”stuck” on and the parasympathetic nervous system is underdeveloped.
Creating routines throughout the day are great ways to soothe the sympathetic nervous system and to stimulate the parasympathetic. Routines help because they take a lot of guesswork off of our nervous system. Our nervous system doesn't have to worry and wonder about when you will eat, sleep, or wake- it already knows. Bedtime is a great time to start some routines according to ayurveda. Not eating past 7PM, omitting media after 9PM, using massage oils, aromatherapy, taking warm baths, journaling, and breathing and relaxation practices are especially beneficial as rituals.
Learning to cultivate a smooth, even, deep breath has a soothing effect on your nervous system. Also, any deep relaxation practice like a body scan will help calm your nervous system and bring a sense of stillness and peace to your mind and body. These are skills that are taught at yoga studios throughout the city. If you think you have an issue related to an overstimulated sympathetic nervous system, classes like hatha yoga, restorative yoga, yin yoga, and yoga nidra may help you immensely. You can also find a private teacher or even search the internet for audios and videos.
As a pitta I found journaling to be a great way to “put my day away.” At night, I write anything down that comes to my mind in a technique I call a brain dump. What I write doesn't make any sense and it is scattered and all over the place, but it's out of my head. Before getting in my bed, I massage my scalp, ears, hands, tummy, and feet with massage oil and do a short breathing practice.
If you are frustrated with sleep and looking for a natural way to compliment what you are already doing to promote sleep health, consider ayurveda. Learn and explore what your mind/body type or dosha is. With this knowledge, you can tailor your diet to support your efforts to sleep better. By working to cleanse and kindle your digestion you will feel clearer and more at peace; sleep will come more readily and upon waking you will feel refreshed. Take the time to design some routines and practices that support your unique needs and desires, like keeping bed and wake times that honor the ayurvedic clock. Establish a yoga practice that helps pacify imbalances, kindles your digestion and expels wastes, and that helps you to connect with your breath and learn to relax the body and mind.
As an ayurvedic yoga specialist, this is what I do- I guide people through these steps. So, just like I sought out help in my journey to heal my sleep issues, you might need to as well.