When I was 13 I suffered from severe insomnia for a few months and it was, to that date, the most painful thing I had had to endure. Lying there awake, feeling like everyone was asleep apart from me was a deeply lonely and exasperating experience. Thankfully that was my only foray into the world of sleeplessness but I have deep empathy for those to whom sleep is ever elusive, and there are many of them. Approximately 1 in 3 people suffer from some sort of sleep problem in the UK. Sleep is named as one of the three supports of life in Ayurveda and it is stated that if sleep happens at the right times then you remain free from disease, cheerful, strong, endowed with good complexion and sexual potency and can live to 100 years!
Three types of sleep-disorder
Ayurveda categorises sleep disorders into types according to the predominant dosha (physico-psychological principle).
High vata and an overactive mind can lead to vata-type insomnia; difficulty in falling asleep due to over-attachment to sensory experiences. Over-stimulation and a lack of stillness throughout the day causes you to forget your true essence, that of a still, calm being. You begin to believe you are all these sensory perceptions. The mind then dwells on experiences encountered during the day, mulling and cogitating and doesn’t allow sleep.
With aggravated pitta, you find getting to sleep fairly easy but then find yourself waking in the small hours and it is a struggle to get back to sleep. This pitta-type insomnia comes about from high stress levels, constant demands and emotional and traumatic events along with the usual pitta increasing factors.
Kapha-type sleep disorder is closer to hypersommnia; long, deep sleep from which you wake unrested and lethargic, symptoms which can last throughout the day. This stagnated kapha (or ama) is exacerbated by further day-sleep, which leads to mucous-dominated problems such as coughs, breathlessness, congestion along with poor digestion and the effects of that.
Our natural body-clock
Many bodily processes of humans, other animals, plants and even bacteria, are governed by the daily passing of time; sleeping-waking, body temperature, appetite, thirst, cell regeneration and brain-wave activity. These circadian rhythms are adjusted by outside influences, such as light and temperature. Each cell in the body has its own clock, with the master-clock located in the hypothalamus. Thus, our body’s processes work in a rhythm, using cues such as sun-set and sun-rise to keep them in sync with nature. This time-dependency means that our choice of timings for activities such as eating and sleeping are very important. If we want to give our sleep the best chance of quality and regularity, we need to live in tune with the cycles of nature which give our body its body-clock cues. An extreme example of when we don’t do this can be found in shift workers, where the body clock gets the external cues of light and dark but is forced to eat and sleep at times which don’t fit in with these cues. Shift workers, living at odds to their circadian rhythm, have been shown to have higher incidence of obesity, diabetes, hypertension and inflammation.
Tips for a great night’s sleep
Bearing this in mind, here are 5 essential tips for working with the natural rhythms of the day and getting a good night’s sleep:
- Regularity. Try and keep bedtimes as regular as you can; the same each day, preferably by 10.30pm. Don’t have any daytime sleep (bearing in mind that late into the morning also constitutes daytime and has the same clogging effect). A very short “power-nap” may be alright if you are really flagging.
- No caffeine after lunch. The half-life of caffeine in the body is about 6 hours – i.e. 6 hours after drinking a cup of tea or coffee, you will still have half the caffeine left in your body. It has been found that just one cup of coffee resets your body clock by about 40 minutes so it can have a profound effect on the ability to sleep.
- Have a few moments of calm throughout the day. Dip into some quiet a few times a day, especially in the morning and evening. This gives the mind an opportunity to remember the peace behind the activity and is a good practice in ‘turning-off’. If you leave your computer running without ever restarting it, it gets slower and slower as its background processes clog it up. Our minds are just like that. Press your restart button a few times a day by connecting with the senses for a few minutes or simply pausing before you start a new activity. If you can meditate, even better. Meditation is likened to an actor going off stage for a costume change between acts rather than just acting on and on, getting more tired and shabby.
- Reduce alcohol. We often think of alcohol as soporific but actually there is a strong link between increased alcohol and sleep disorders.
- Keep your bedroom a bedroom. Don’t use your bedroom for anything else; no TV, no computers, especially not near bed time.
And 3 more for immediately before bed:
- No food before bed. Leave 1.5 to 2 hours between eating and bed-time.
- Avoid stimulation from 9pm. Make this wind-down time the gentle part of your day, no TV, no news, no exercise (but do do some earlier). Read something calming and reflective, a spiritual or uplifting book. If your mind is whirring, do a brain dump, write it all down, make a to-do list and leave it for tomorrow.
- Massage feet with ghee (vata or pitta), sesame oil (vata) or coconut oil (pitta) or just press them without oil. The connection between the feet and sleep isn’t intuitively obvious but it really works! You can also massage your head, with or without oil, which is very relaxing. Breathing techniques as you are lying in bed are really helpful, such as breathing just through the left nostril and brahmari (‘bee’ breathing).
But if I go to bed earlier, I’ll wake earlier!
Many clients complain of “waking too early”. When I probe on how they feel at that time of day, they say “awake” and “not-tired”. Others worry about going to bed earlier in case they start to wake earlier in the morning. As long as you are going to bed at a reasonable hour and are generally healthy, embrace the early waking. From an hour and a half before sunrise until sunrise is the so-called brahma muhurta (spiritual time) and is the best time to meditate or undertake spiritual study as the mind is at its quietest. If early waking happens to you, you are actually incredibly lucky as your body is naturally waking at the most auspicious time for spiritual work. Clearly, it’s easy enough to take advantage of this special time in winter (getting up between 5 and 6) but come summer, it’s a bit more tricky (fancy waking at 3.30am for some study anyone?!).
Dosha specific tips
Depending on your type of sleep disorder and your predominantly higher dosha, you’ll need a few extra tips to get you the best night’s sleep.
- Be well nourished and grounded by your diet (with naturally sweet, sour and salty tastes). Vata pacifying, sleep promoting foods such as these will be helpful: ghee, milk, grains, meat broths, urad dal. Have at least three warm, nourishing meals a day. Have plenty of warming spices with your food (most culinary ones are good for vata).
- Give yourself a quick, daily self-massage with warm sesame oil to soothe vata.
- Sleep by 9.30pm if you can, latest by 10pm as at this hour kapha is high and will help relax the mind into sleep.
- Vata reducing, grounding teas containing liquorice, fennel, brahmi, fenugreek, cardamom or tulsi taken throughout the day and especially in the evening will allow the mind to calm a lot quicker come bed time.
- Take mind-calming medicinal herbs such as ashvagandha and bala. Doses of culinary herbs such as nutmeg, dill, oregano and rose can also help with vata-based insomnia.
- A quick self-massage with coconut oil will help to calm the pitta.
- While it is always best to have your main meal at lunch time, if you’re a pitta-type person make sure your evening meal is also substantial enough to ensue deep, easy sleep.
- Definitely sleep before 10pm.
- Keep your bedroom cool with plenty of ventilation.
- Teas containing chamomile, chrysanthemum, rose, mint or liquorice will cool and soothe pitta throughout the day, and are especially useful in the evening. Bitter, sweet and astringent tastes soothe pitta (salty, sour and pungent will increase it).
- Brahmi, ashoka, bala and shatavari are some excellent medicinal herbs to take for pitta-type insomnia. Some you may have in your kitchen or garden would be lavender, lemon balm, sage and rose.
- Massage yourself with powder (barley flour is excellent for this) or just vigorously exfoliate every day.
- Invigorate yourself and reduce kapha by following a kapha reducing diet; high in bitter, astringent and pungent tastes while lower in sweet, sour and salty tastes.
- Wake before the kapha time of day to prevent excessive kapha and ama accumulating (causing dullness, lethargy and difficulty in waking up). Kapha time is from sun-rise to about 10.30am so make sure you are up before the sun. There is a proven causal link between oversleep and depression, while reducing sleep has been shown to alleviate depression.
- Try and exercise vigorously during kapha time (sun-rise till about 10.30am) or if you can’t then, at least sometime every day.
- Invigorating (but not over stimulating such as caffeinated) teas such as those with ginger, clove, pepper, turmeric, saffron or cinnamon will stimulate and revitalise.
- Take some brahmi, ashoka, tulsi, pippali or ashvaganda for a clearer, less foggy mind and better quality sleep. Herbs around the house which are excellent for kapha-sleep disorder are chamomile, lavender, lemon balm, sage, dill, oregano and rose.
Sleep well and live long folks.
Author: Kate Siraj, Ayurvedic Practitioner, Bsc Ayurveda, MChem (Oxon), MAPA. © The Ayurveda Practice.