Think of all the people you know. How many of them, including you, claim to get a solid good night’s sleep on a regular basis? Without adequate sleep, we are at risk for many diseases and we falter in efficiency and productivity. Sleep is nutritive, and is as essential to our bodies as food. Ancient Ayurveda, with its lifestyle recommendations and such sister practices as meditation and yoga, offers some sage advice in the slumber department.
First, it is important to understand the typical quality of sleep experienced by each dosha. Vata individuals tend toward shortened and interrupted sleep. This is due to their nervous and anxious nature, and most insomnia tends to originate from a vata imbalance. This vata-type insomnia also can stem from excessive thinking and worrying, general ungroundedness, and hypersensitivity to people and surroundings. Pitta individuals may get moderate to little sleep, but it is sound. An example would be the super efficient owner of a large company who functions well on 4 hours of sleep and a power nap. A pitta-type insomnia, though, can result from unresolved hot emotions like anger, resentment, jealousy, hatred, and irritability. Kapha individuals tend towards heavy, prolonged, and excessive sleep, which further exacerbates the sluggishness of the Kapha constitution. Kaphas rarely experience insomnia, but may do so as a temporary congestive disorder blocking the channels of the mind. They actually derive health benefits from purposefully shortening their sleeping time.
How much sleep is really necessary? Ayurveda often recommends between 6 and 8 hours, depending upon constitutional balance and soundness of sleep. A Kapha needs less, while a Vata may need more. When aiming for longer sleep, it is important that it be had before sunrise, lest it promote accumulation of ama, or toxicity, in the system. The sunrise cutoff will vary, of course, depending upon where in the world we are and what time of year. A Vata dominant person could also nap in the afternoon if quite overwhelmed or depleted. Most Ayurvedic lifestyle recommendations include instructions to be in bed by 10am, asleep by 11am, and up by 6am. So, how do we make that happen?
As you can well imagine, Ayurveda highly recommends peaceful meditation before bedtime. It is a time to review the day, our actions and conduct, our responses and states of being. Then it is necessary to release the tensions and concerns of the day, to truly “empty the mind” of these bothersome thoughts. Yoga asanas are also highly valued, but nothing exciting, stimulating, or aerobic. Oil massage of the head, especially with grounding Sesame oil, both promotes a sound sleep and helps prevent premature graying and hair loss! Applied to the feet of a Vata dominant person, the grounding oil anchors and calms, especially if followed by a warm bath. For some Vata dominant types, a small amount of wine before bed sets the tone. Heavier food for the last meal of the day helps as well, but note that heavy food in Ayurveda means whole grains, root vegetables, dairy, boiled rice with milk and ghee, and other “real” foods. It does not refer to a heavy pasta, meat, and fried food late dinner that leads to indigestion! The last meal should sustain you and carry you through until you break the fast again, but not cause gastric distress. Singing, chanting, listening to calm music, and generally placing oneself in joyful circumstances are good preparations for a full night of sleep. Pitta aggravated insomniacs may benefit from using soft natural perfumes and flowers to cool their fire and irritation before bed, and sandalwood paste on the forehead is said to do the same.
It is important that the bed be a place conducive to sleep, free of disturbances by animals or children. The room should be cool and dry, comfortable and uncluttered, with as few electronic lights, noises, or vibrations as possible. Leave the television and the computers outside the bedroom. Many people get worked up by the 11 o’clock news. Avoid this mentally activating influence before bed, along with stimulating music and movies; and certainly avoid video gaming. Read something calming or inspiring instead, or listen to music for a few focused minutes. Prayer and meditation are the preamble to sleep for many. Prayer is where you do most of the talking, meditation is where you are listening! Prayer can help you empty your mind, while meditation can help to calm it.
If, with all these lifestyle recommendations, you still need help with peaceful slumber, Ayurveda does also recommend some foods and herbs. Warm milk, as we all know, really does help promote slumber. It does contain some tryptophan which can be sleep inducing. In Ayurveda it is more its soothing energetic qualities that have the effect. If dairy intolerant, use warmed rice, coconut, almond, or other nut milk. To this you can add a pinch of nutmeg, cardamom, poppy seeds, and/or gotu kola. Nutmeg and poppy seeds are both excellent sedatives, but can lead to dullness of the mind if overused on a daily or copious basis. 1-4 capsules of Ashwagandha taken with warmed milk and a bit of raw sugar helps the body cope with stress and leads to deep, untroubled sleep. Medicated Bhringaraj oil applied to the scalp or hairline calms the mind and excessive mental activity. Jatamansi and Valerian (very similar herbs) can also sedate and work for some, while being rather heavy for others. Chamomile tea is still a good standby for all three doshas. You may have to experiment a bit to see what works with your current doshic state of being. And, of course, you can alway try counting the sheep, or maybe in the case of Ayurveda it would be water buffalo? There is one more recommendation...appropriate, connected, and moderate sexual activity is a real winner for inducing contented sleep. Of course, in Ayurveda, there is a proper way to go about this! But we’ll save that for another article. Sweet Dreams!!
Originally published in, Taste For Life Magazine March 2012