Ayurvedic Wisdom for a Good Night’s Sleep
Sleep disturbances are very common, and even more so the older we get. Yet experts recommend getting 7-9 hours each night. Ayurveda provides insight into how different energies are at play both during each 24 hour period and at different stages of life. Understanding and working in harmony with these rhythms can help you obtain a better night’s rest.
Life Stages and Sleep
According to Ayurveda, our early years (birth to puberty) is the Kapha stage of life. Kapha is soft, smooth and sweet. There is a juiciness associated with early life which is associated with tremendous physical and mental growth. Due to its heavy, slow, stable nature, Kapha supports deep, restful and sound sleep. Generally speaking, sleep issues occur with less frequency during this stage.
Next, puberty to midlife is the Pitta stage. This is an action-driven time of life, when we are building careers and establishing family life. All of these require passion, drive, courage and sharp focus which are characteristic of the Pitta dosha. It is not uncommon for people to skimp on sleep during this phase of life. In addition, some find that sleep isn’t as deep during this goal-oriented time of life.
Finally, comes the Vata stage, encompassing menopause to end of life. Vata dosha is characterized by being light, mobile and subtle. In this stage of life we begin to “lighten the load” by downsizing our homes, reducing our workload, and ultimately moving into retirement. Because Vata tends to be mobile, it’s common to have difficulties falling asleep as well as periods of nighttime wakefulness. People also often complain of feeling restless and fidgety which makes sleep difficult.
No matter what stage of life you find yourself, here are some ideas to help you get a restful night’s sleep:
1) Rise with the Sun
The hours of 6-10AM are cool and heavy time so rising during this time period can leave you feel sluggish and unmotivated. Ayurveda recommends rising by sunrise, somewhere between 5-6AM (depending on where you live and the season). This is also one of the best times of day to get outside and be exposed to natural light. Take a walk, ride your bike, work in the garden– whatever brings you pleasure. In the wintertime, take your morning coffee by a sunny window or bundle up and head outside for a brisk walk.
2) Eat Light, Eat Early
Eating a big meal after 7PM places a large demand on your digestive system and can prevent sound sleep. Aim to eat at least 2-3 hours before bedtime so your stomach has time to digest your meal before bed. If you need something before bed, try a soothing cup of Golden Milk or cup of chamomile tea.
3) Try a cooling foot bath before bed
If you run hot, especially in the middle the night (hello hot flashes!), try rinsing your feet with cool water before bed. Ayurveda connects the feet with the fire element of Pitta. Cooling the feet not only refreshes and soothes tired feet, but it can also soothe and refresh the mind.
4) Treat yourself to some self-massage
Both Vata and Pitta are supported by a simple self-massage before bed. Key areas to rub are the feet, low back, neck, shoulders ears, and head. Use your favorite lotion or mix some soothing lavender essential oil with a carrier oil, such as coconut oil.
5) Go to bed by 10PM
According to Ayurveda, between 10PM and 2AM is Pitta time where energy tends to rise. Staying up late not only contributes to difficulty falling asleep, but it also robs us of some of our best sleep.
For most people, the first half of the night is when we spend the most time in deep sleep. During this time period, our brains do important housekeeping tasks: blood flow increases to muscles, growth hormone is released, and muscle and cell repair occurs. At the same time, the brain cleans house– flushing toxins and other waste products as well as optimizing memory by consolidating short-term memories into long-term storage. Going to bed by 10PM assures that your brain can do important housekeeping as well as have adequate time to move through all the sleep cycles.
6) Practice Good Sleep Hygiene
This means turning off all electronics at least an hour before your intended bedtime. Listen to soft music or read something inspirational. Right before bed is not the time to read the latest thriller or engage in a heated discussion with your spouse or a friend! Make sure your room is sufficiently dark and not too warm. And open a window (even in winter) to allow in cool air. You can learn more about sleep hygiene from the Sleep Foundation.
7) Release tension
Once in bed, try this tense-and-release practice:
Lie on your back with a cushion under your head and your legs about three feet apart. As you inhale, scrunch up the muscles of your face and pull them towards the nose. Hold for two seconds, then exhale and relax completely. On your next inhale, clench your right arm, shoulder, making a fist with your hand. Again hold for two seconds and release as you exhale, allowing your muscles to melt into the bed. Repeat with your left arm. Then tense your right leg from the buttocks to the toes; hold briefly, then exhale and release. Repeat with the left leg.
Finish by tensing your entire body. Hold for two seconds, deepening the contraction, and then exhale and surrender into the bed. Repeat the whole body tensing 1-2 more times. Then slowly scan your body, starting at your toes and moving towards your head, consciously relaxing each part. Don’t be surprised if you are asleep before you finish!
Even with the best of sleep hygiene practices, you may occasionally find yourself staring at the clock in the middle of the night. Vata is most active between 2-6AM which is why it can be difficult to get back to sleep if you wake during this period. Air, characterized as light and mobile, governs our minds which is why repetitive and obsessive thinking often prevent us from getting back to sleep.
Experts recommend you get up rather than lie in bed tossing and turning. When you do, keep the lights low and resist the urge to check email or social media. Instead, engage in practices to sooth and distract your mind, such as meditation, soft music or a guided body scan. These can help you to more easily return to sleep.
Revamping your sleep habits by going to bed earlier when you are a night owl can take time. Institute changes slowly and be patient. With persistence and consistency, you’ll soon be sleeping like a baby. Sweet dreams!