Embracing Ayurvedic Principles for Better Sleep
Sara Wener, IIN Content Writer
I never had trouble with sleep until I had children! As a mother, my sleep cycles became so disrupted I started mixing words, saying things like, “Kids, you need to get in the fridge while the water is still hot!” and “What would you like to eat for bedtime?” My short-term memory was shot, and I could barely keep up with myself.
I was panicked, convinced I needed to meet with a neurologist for an immediate assessment. My primary care physician told me not to bother with an office visit and wrote me a three-day prescription for Ambien, with strict directions to sleep for 6–8 hours every night for a week to see if the symptoms subsided…which they did.
But Ambien, or any other drug of this nature, was not a long-term solution. After trying many tactics and supplements, I discovered Ayurveda. This was my introduction to conscious living and empowering myself with the knowledge required to bring self-awareness to my mind, body, and soul.
The foundational principles of Ayurveda
In Sanskrit, Ayurveda means “the science of life.” Ayurvedic knowledge originated in India more than 5,000 years ago and is often referred to as “the mother of all healing.” Ayurveda teaches us how to tune in to our bodies and adapt lifestyle habits in order to create an environment that is most supportive in caring for our own health.
There are fundamental elements in Ayurveda that make up the building blocks of humans and nature. Ayurveda sees each individual as unique: Our physical bodies are made up of the five elements, but the proportions of each element in our bodies differ. In Ayurveda, this specific elemental combination is referred to as our dosha, or constitution.
The five elements combined to make up our individual doshas are earth, water, fire, air, and ether. These doshas are organized into three categories: Vata (air and ether), Pitta (fire and water), and Kapha (earth and water). We are all born with a primary dosha type and an optimal elemental prakruti (balance); however, due to what our five senses experience daily, such as the weather, food, music, exercise, and environment, our prakruti is often antagonized, and we find ourselves out of balance (vikruti). This means when our elements are bent out of shape, so are we, and this includes our sleep patterns!
To find out your primary dosha type, you can take a quiz. Once you are aware of your primary dosha, you can adjust your lifestyle, habits, and dietary needs to align with your original and most optimal state. It is important to understand that our state of being can shift from one moment to the next, or from one phase of life to another. Therefore, Ayurveda offers us an opportunity to regularly check in with our bodies and how we are feeling and then guides us to bring it back to balance.
Ayurveda’s role in our sleep/wake cycles
During sleep, the body repairs and rebuilds itself, which is vital for our physical and mental health. Inconsistent sleep/wake cycles throw off our circadian rhythm, the internal master clock that helps us determine when we need to be alert or asleep. If our circadian rhythm is off, our cognitive function and general health can be greatly impacted. Before the light bulb was invented, humans lived according to the Earth’s relationship to the sun and the cycles of the moon. Even though your sleep has been disrupted by the advancement of technology, your body still operates on its circadian rhythm based on a 24-hour day.
In Ayurveda, each day is split into six four-hour segments, with a dominant dosha assigned to each time of day. As the sun rises and falls, so does the activity of each! Between 6pm and 10pm (and 6am and 10am), Kapha dominates with endurance. Between 10pm and 2am (and 10am and 2pm), Pitta dominates with focus, fuel, and transformation. Finally, between 2am and 6am (and 2pm and 6pm), Vata dominates with creativity and inspiration. Let’s look at these segments in relation to our sleeping hours:
- Kapha (6pm – 10pm) – This is when we should be winding down our day and preparing to fall into a restful sleep.
- Pitta (10pm – 2am) – Pitta fires up and begins to support the digestive system and process your daily experiences, giving the body an opportunity to detoxify and heal. In Western science, in the early hours of sleep (before midnight), the body is considered to be in its deepest and most restorative sleep.
- Vata (2am – 6am) – Vata, the dosha of movement, begins to activate the nervous system, our sleep lightens, and dreams are set in motion. This is one of the reasons many of us consistently wake up between 2am and 3am and indicates your Vata energy is overly active.
To sleep more soundly, it’s important to get your parasympathetic nervous system in charge before bedtime. This enables the body to calm down after a long day of stimulation and activity and prepares you for extended rest and rejuvenation.
I am a Vata-Pitta dosha type, with my more dominant dosha being Vata; I have an excess of Vata or Pitta and not enough Kapha to help balance me out. Therefore, I will have difficulty with sleep when these elements become activated during the sleep cycle.
Twenty ways to optimize sleep using Ayurvedic principles
Now that you know the Ayurvedic role in your sleep habits, here are some things you can do to promote restful sleep every night:
- If you have pent-up energy at the end of the workday, exercising between 5pm and 8pm is a great way to burn it off.
- In Ayurveda, you are encouraged to eat your largest meal at lunchtime and a very light meal in the evening. Eat at least two hours before getting into bed and avoid drinking alcohol or anything caffeinated.
- Do not look at any blue light 2–3 hours before bedtime. If you have to be online, consider wearing blue light glasses.
- Go for a 15-minute walk after dinner. Being outside in fresh air and around nature will tranquilize the senses and enable you to be present in your body.
- Before bedtime, consider practicing restorative yoga, which can help calm both your body and mind.
- Take a warm shower or salt bath to soothe your Vata energy.
- Give yourself a warm-oil massage to reduce stress and detox.
- Practice breathing exercises (pranayama) to release anxiety.
- Drink herbal teas, such as chamomile, tulsi, or valerian, an hour before bedtime.
- Prepare your environment to create a relaxing atmosphere. Your bedroom should be uncluttered with little distraction to allow for energy flow.
- Invest in soft sheets and comfortable bedding.
- If you can tolerate it, play nature sounds or ambient music to ground you.
- Dim your lights an hour before bed to promote an increase of melatonin. If you are sensitive to light, consider blackout shades.
- Consider taking a natural supplement, like melatonin, which can help regulate the sleep cycle and other biological rhythms. Wait at least one hour after eating your last meal to take melatonin so it does not interfere with blood sugar control or the digestive system.
- Aromatherapy can help by placing a few drops of essential oils in a diffuser.
- Visualization, such as being on a beach and counting waves lapping in, can aid falling asleep.
- Disconnect from technology an hour before bedtime and leave all devices in a different room if possible.
- Read a book.
- Journal your day away to release all emotions and process any unresolved feelings. Always end on a note of gratitude and positivity.
- Calm your spirit and meditate with a mantra or guided meditation.
Bio-individuality and getting quality sleep
No matter what works for you, you ultimately want to cultivate an evening and morning ritual around your bedtime and waking hours. The key to success is consistency. If you struggle with sleep, resist the urge to make up for lost sleeping hours by napping during the day or going to sleep later or sleeping in on weekends.
Support your master clock by going to bed and waking at the exact same time. In Ayurveda, ideal sleeping hours are 10pm – 6am. This routine will eventually create a healthy sleep and wake cycle, and you will feel more in control of your body, improving all aspects of your health!
To learn more about the IIN core concept of bio-individuality – the idea that you’re unique and must find diet and lifestyle practices that work for your own body – check out a free Sample Class.