Healthy Nidra, “Sleep”: A Pillar of Health in Ayurveda
“Swasthyavrit: Circle of Health”
Everyone has certain sleep needs to function normally. The amount of sleep adults need is different from that of children, and one person may need more or less (on average) than another. For adults, the average amount of sleep needed to feel rested is 7 to 9 hours. A balanced sleep, neither too excessive nor too little, is good for us as both have been implicated in disease processes.
If you do not obtain the right amount of sleep for your needs you will begin to suffer from the ill effects of sleep deprivation. This may occur due to sleep restriction (simply not getting enough time in bed, asleep) or due to disrupted sleep. Sleep deprivation can create a slew of consequences, including: excess yawning, memory problems and cognitive dysfunction, impaired overall brain activity, hallucinations, mood imbalances including depression or anxiety, weak immunity and increased susceptibility to colds and flus, decreased libido, accelerated skin aging, weight gain, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, and even cancer to name a few. Animal studies have shown that sleep deprivation leads to early death in animals as compared to the normal sleep group. Documented human deaths have been reported after 6-7 days of sleep deprivation.
Oversleeping can also impact our health with negative consequences. These include, but are not limited to: an increase in depressive symptoms, increased risk of diabetes, increased heart disease (i.e. angina and coronary artery disease), early death, back pain, headaches, and increase in weight gain.
In continuation of this series on “Swasthyavrit,” we are going to take a look at what the ancient wisdom of Ayurveda has to offer for maintaining health sleep.
Ayurveda & Sleep
As we know, a pillar maintains a building’s integrity so it may support the rest of the structure. Ayurveda’s 5,000 plus year old wisdom further mentions that when we sleep, we don’t just ward off the above mentioned possible consequences of sleep deprivation but allow for our body to grow and assimilate mentally, emotionally and physically. Sleep serves as a pillar to our overall health and well-being and should not be short-changed nor overdone.
Though, how do we actually get sleepy?
At the hormonal level, we need to take a look at the interchange between melatonin and cortisol, including the functioning of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. The HPA axis is the main regulator of most hormones in our body. As such, cortisol and melatonin are secreted once they receive the signal from their corresponding areas in the hypothalamus and/or pituitary gland. The natural variation in hormone levels corresponds to our body’s natural internal clock, which then assists in promoting sleep and sleep quality.
Cortisol is recognized as a stress hormone and tends to naturally be low at bedtime. When we are calm, we are able to rest. Cortisol rises 2-3 hours after sleep onset and continues to rise throughout the night, peaking around 9AM, enabling us to wake up and get going. It then continues to decrease throughout the day, allowing us to feel less stress and “hyped” up as we approach the night. Scientists have found that although cortisol is useful at appropriate levels and times, it tends to not only affect our natural circadian rhythm, but immunity, the release of other hormones (i.e. growth hormone), inflammation, and even certain diseases like Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and cancer.
Its counterpart, melatonin is essential during the evening and night to help maintain sleep and sleep depth. It causes drowsiness, and puts the body into the sleep mode. Melatonin onset typically occurs when cortisol secretion is low. Often times, supplementing with melatonin at night, 30 minutes – 1 hour before bed, stimulates a positive shift in endogenous melatonin production. By staying awake for long hours into the night, or waking up at odd hours , we shift our body’s internal clock so that we see more elevation in cortisol and less regulation of the two hormones. Constant stress is another trigger for elevated cortisol and thus affects our ability to sleep. In today’s society, we have thrown off our natural cortisol and melatonin rhythm, and are thus seeing a shift in appropriate sleeping patterns.
As hormones follow an internal clock to enable appropriate functioning, Ayurveda also holds importance to routine and timing in explaining our sleep/wake cycle. Each dosha predominates at varying times during our 24-hour clock. By living in sync with these timings, we are able to naturally live in balance.
To further illustrate, Kapha reigns during the hours of 6-10AM and 6-10PM with its dense, heavy and earthy qualities. Pitta is dominant during the hours of 10-2AM and 10-2PM with its light, hot and sharp qualities. Vata resides during the hours of 2-6AM and 2-6PM with its light and airy qualities.
It isn’t just that the kapha time that promotes sleep, but it is associated with kapha qualities that translate to our symptoms of sleep, including: tiredness, lethargy, etc. that we all feel. It’s heavy and earthy qualities enable our bodies to get ready for a night’s slumber. During this time, kapha also promotes growth, development, and stamina of our body’s tissues, cells, and physiological processes, which is known to occur with sleep. This enables an increase in stamina allowing one to stay healthy and maintain immunity.
If we try to go to bed past 10PM it is often more difficult to fall asleep, as we move to the time of pitta, which results in the famous “second wind.”
The other component that promotes the sleep state is having the right state of mind. If we are concerned, anxious, scared, or constantly thinking it is going to be difficult to fall and stay asleep. Thus, we need to have a state of mind that can be described with dullness, inertia or lethargy, and maybe even ignorance and darkness. In Ayurveda, we recognize this as the tamasic state of mind. Interestingly, the tamasic state reigns during the evening and night, further promoting rest for the mind.
As such, when kapha and tamas dominate, the mind and body can rest. Conversely, excess kapha and/or tamas can lead to excessive sleep, as too little can lead to decrease in sleep; and, can negatively impact sleep and the functions of sleep.
It is easier to wake when vata is dominant. As such the ideal wake time is before 6AM, most often 5:30AM. If we sleep past 6AM, we fall back into the kapha state, which would explain why we find it more difficult to wake.
Sleep According to Each Dosha
During the sleep period, not each individual will experience sleep the same way. We are all unique and can experience similar, yet not identical types of sleep.
For example, Vata-type sleep is light, irregular, and of short duration. However, vata types would benefit with more rest. Symptoms of teeth grinding, sleepwalking, and sleep talking are common. Dreams tend to be airy in nature. Since vata types are light sleepers, they can easily wake during the night without being able to fall back asleep. Vata dominant individuals often need 6-7 hours of sleep to be invigorated.
Pitta-type sleep is sound but also light. Generally the amount of sleep is moderate, but they often forego sleep when preoccupied. Dreams tend to be wild, fiery, and vivid. Falling back asleep after waking in the night is not troublesome. However, if the mind is overactive and stimulated, it will be difficult to fall back asleep. Pitta dominant individuals often need 7-8 hours of sleep to feel refreshed.
Kapha-type sleep is deep, heavy and stubborn. Meaning, they are not easily disturbed or woken. They have a tendency to oversleep, even though they don’t need to sleep for long periods. Kapha people need 8-9 hours of sleep to come out of slumber.
General Ways to Promote Healthy Sleep
As mentioned earlier, Ayurveda lays heavy importance on timing and routine. Sleep comes naturally with the day getting darker, however, it is important to take certain steps in the evening hours to promote sleep.
Relaxation and Winding Down
It is important to help set the mood so the mind and body can detach from the day’s events and rest. The wind down period should begin 1-2 hours before bed. This includes:
- Stop screen time 2 hours before bedtime. This includes television, phones, and other electronic devices.
- Remove other stimulants, such as: caffeine and alcohol. Bedtime reading may also be stimulating, and should be done with caution.
- Have a lighter dinner so that the digestive system doesn’t have a heavy load to process during the evening time.
- Enjoy a cup of relaxing tea, such as: lavender, lemon balm, or chamomile.
- Indulge in a cup of hot milk with cardamom, nutmeg, saffron, cinnamon, seeds (i.e. poppy, pumpkin), nuts (almonds, etc) and ghee to help naturally promote a good night’s rest. You many sweeten with 1 tsp of raw, local, organic honey.
* Milk can be sourced from: cow milk, goat milk, coconut milk, or other nut/seeds.
Sleep Promoting Recipe:
- 20 Almonds
- 1 tsp. Poppy seeds
- 1 tsp. Pumpkin seeds
- 3-4 Cardamom seed pods
- 5-10 Saffron threads
- ¼ tsp nutmeg
- ¼ tsp cinnamon
Prep: Soak the nuts/seeds overnight
Blend these together with 1 cup water to make a nut milk or use any milk of choice
Add honey to taste
- Take a warm bath to relax the nervous system. Pitta types can use cooler water. One can add calming essential oils, such a lavender essential oil to promote relaxation.
- Massage the feet, hands and scalp with warm oil that has been infused with lavender essential oil to promote relaxation and grounding.
- Make sure the bedroom is dark enough and sound-less.
Breathing (Pranayama), Meditation, Journaling and Yoga to Promote Sleep:
Pranayama (breathing exercises):
Left Nostril Breathing:
Left nostril breathing stimulates the parasympathetic, relaxed state, as it is associated with the moon energy. One round of left nostril breathing consists of the following steps:
- Use the right thumb to plug your right nostril. Use your right index and middle fingers to reach between the eyebrows.
- Close your eyes. With your mouth closed, inhale completely through the left nostril.
- Pause briefly then exhale completely through the left nostril.
* Perform for 10-15 minutes.
So Hum “I am” Breath:
- Inhale through your nose, filling your lungs to full capacity.
- Hold the breath for 3 seconds, then slowly exhale through your mouth.
Repeat this exercise 16 times.
Another variation of this is to exhale longer than the inhale so promote the parasympathetic, relaxed state and to help you calm down.
Meditation is effective for all doshas and helps to set the mind, body, and spirit in a calm and relaxed state. Any form of meditation can be practiced. The simplest one is breath awareness meditation, where one focuses on his or her inhale and exhale without letting the mind wander towards the thoughts that may arise. Focusing on the breath, instead of the day’s events or concerns will help you fall to slumber.
Journaling can be effective for those who tend to be vata and Pitta dominant with many things on their mind, or for those who need to help clear the clutter in the mind.
Incorporate gentle restorative yoga poses. The moon salutation is a routine that promotes relaxation and calms the mind, body, and soul.
Supplements for Additional Sleep Support:
- Melatonin: As mentioned above, melatonin puts the body into the sleep state. Although it is naturally produced in the body, supplementing may help bring altered levels and help regulate the sleep cycle. This is especially useful to those who travel or are jetlagged. A typical starting dose is 1-5mg 30 minutes to 1 hour before bed. Be cautious about morning grogginess.
- L-theanine: Found in tea, this amino acid influences a number of different neurotransmitters in the body. It increases the relaxed alpha brain wave activity and reduces anxiety levels to help promote sleep.
Herbs for Additional Sleep Support:
- Ashwagandha, or Withania somnifera, has a longstanding reputation in Ayurveda as a rejuvenative and adaptogenic herb that serves many functions in the body. Studies have further validated its use in reducing anxiety, reducing insomnia, and promoting calmness and relaxation while supporting healthy cortisol levels. This plant can be best consumed via capsule form for adequate dosage. A standardized extract of 500 mg can be taken before bed time.
- Lavender, or Lavandula angustifolia/officinalis, is a popular herb due its aromatic nature and purple flowers. This lovely plant has anti-anxiety and stress reducing properties. Studies have confirmed it to be as effective as valium for reducing anxiety and promoting calmness. It has been used at bedtime to promote calmness and rest. Often, the oil is used in baths before bed or massaged on the body, while some take it as a tea before bed.
- Nutmeg, or Myrstica fragrans, is also known in India as Jaiphal. It is a common spice that is used most often during the fall and winter months. However, when consumed, it actually has a mild sedative effect, and promotes sleep, sleep depth and sleep quality while inducing relaxation and calmness. This spice can be combined in milk, taken as a tea, or mixed with honey 30 minutes to 1 hour before bed.
- Chamomile, or Matricaria recutita, has been well studied and promoted for its calming and anxiety reducing effects for many years now. Many consume this as a tea, balm to massage on the body, or tincture solution.
- Valerian is well-known mainly for its mild sedative effect to promote a deep sleep state and promote calmness. This root can be taken as a capsule or tincture solution about an hour before bed.
- Lemon balm, or Melissa officinalis, has been used in folk medicine for supporting mood and relaxation. Studies have shown that lemon balm indirectly promotes sleep by promoting a healthy mood and relaxation. With its citrus-type smell, people often enjoy it as a tea or oil to massage the body.
- Passion flower, or Passiflora incarnata, has been regarded for anti-anxiety and sleeplessness. Although, one should be cautious if taking MAOI antidepressants, as it may amplify sedative effects. Interestingly, this flower contains natural GABA, which is a neurotransmitter that promotes relaxation of the nerves and supports muscles. It is often consumed as a tea, capsule, or tincture.
- Kava Kava, or Piper methysticum, has long been revered for its anxiety reducing properties, and thus enabling a state of relaxation and sleep. This herb has been compared to Valium in promoting calmness. Many consume this as a tea, pill/capsule, or tincture solution.
* Please consult with your physician before initiating the use of any herbal or supplement products.
Sleep is the state when both the mind and body is at rest. By emphasizing an appropriate routine and timings of the day’s natural cycle, we can promote the sleep state, and, in turn, promote health.
In continuing the “Circle of Health,” our next topic will discuss Ayurvedic massages, or Abhyanga, for different body types and diseases.