You’ve heard me talk a lot about circadian bio rhythms, and how crucial they are to our sleep and our broader health. What if I told you there is a form of medicine that has advocated the importance of daily bio rhythms—the daily when—for thousands of years?
Ayurvedic medicine is probably the first adopter of bio time as a foundation of medicine and disease prevention. The earliest Ayurvedic practitioners understood that the when of daily life—of sleeping, eating, exercising, performing mental and physical tasks—has a huge impact on how we think, feel, and age, and how healthy we are.
That makes this traditional medicine inherently sleep supporting. There are other principles of Ayurveda that are tailor-made to support sleep, including:
- A focus on balance, or homeostasis, in all aspects of life
- Consistency in routines
- A practice of letting go and calming the mind
- Optimism and gratitude in mindset
Today I’ll talk about what Ayurveda tells us about sleep and how to sleep better.
What is Ayurveda?
Ayurveda, or Ayurvedic medicine, originated in the Indian subcontinent as much as 5,000 years ago. It’s been practiced ever since, and is now used around the world, often as a complement to allopathic, or conventional Western medicine.
Ayurveda states that each person has a unique constitution, a combination of mental, physical, and emotional energies. While each of our constitutions are different, they’re all composed of three basic types of energy, called doshas. Each of the three doshas govern different parts of the body, mind, emotions, and experience:
Vata the energy associated with movement. It is composed of ether and air (2 of the 5 elements that make up all energy). Its qualities are light and cold, and it is found in the bones, legs, ears, and colon, among other places in the body. In balance, vata feeds creativity and flexibility. When vata is out of balance, it stokes fear and anxiety.
Pitta is composed of fire and water. Ayurveda says Pitta is has sharp, hot, liquid and searing qualities. Pitta is deeply involved in digestion. It works in the intestines, stomach, sweat glands, blood and lymphatic system. In balance, pitta fuels intelligence and understanding. Out of balance, it can give rise to anger, hate and jealousy.
Kapha is made up of earth and water. Its qualities are cold, wet, heavy and solid. Kapha resides in the chest, lungs, throat, health, stomach, lymphatic system, and in fat. In balance, kapha promotes compassion, love and forgiveness. Out of balance, it can lead to unhealthy attachment and envy.
In each of us, one of these energies is typically dominant, our primary energy force, and the other two are present in smaller degrees.
The fundamental goal of Ayurveda is balance. A person’s natural constitution—their makeup of vata, pitta, and kapha energies–is inherently balanced. A constitution in balance is optimal for health. But challenges of life throw doshas out of balance—and this leads to dysfunction in the body, and to disease. What are those challenges?
- Stress and negativity
Environment, everything from light to toxins and pollution
Ayurvedic medicine works to maintain and restore balance, for all aspects of life—including sleep.
Sleep in Ayurveda
Ayurvedic medicine from its origins has recognized sleep as essential to life and health. Sleep (nidra) is considered one of the pillars of health along with energy management (brahmacharaya) and food (ahara).
An Ayurvedic text describes the pivotal, life-forming role of sleep this way:
Happiness and unhappiness, nourishment (good physique), and emaciation, strength and debility, sexual prowess and intimacy, knowledge and ignorance, life and death—all are dependent on sleep.
(Hat tip to this terrific article at Kripalu for sharing this quote.)
Ayurveda also puts great importance on the when of sleep. Thousands of years before modern scientists identified the circadian biological clocks that regulate our sleep as well as our mental, physical and emotional lives, Ayurveda understood and promoted the importance of the timing of activities, including sleep. Ayurveda also advocates the importance of consistency, and routine, to sleep.
Chronobiology and circadian-based medicine are today at the forefront of preventative health care and disease treatment. (I’ve talked about how circadian knowledge and treatment are being used in the treatment of diseases including cancer and Alzheimer’s.)
Ayurvedic medicine has been using bio rhythms as therapy for thousands of years.
The science of sleep and Ayurveda
Ayurvedic medicine is based on following natural bio rhythms, of maintaining balance, of reducing mental, physical, and emotional stress. These concepts are all well studied in relation to sleep. What about research that looks directly at sleep in Ayurvedic terms? There is a small body of research with some interesting findings.
Sleep problems, like other health issues, arise from an imbalance of energies in the body. Remember the three doshas: vata, pitta, and kapha? In each of us, these three energy forces have a balance to maintain for optimal sleep.
Ayurvedic medicine points to sleeplessness and insomnia being caused by excess vata and pitta energies. Pitta out of balance is also associated with intense, potentially disruptive dreaming. Excess Kapha, on the other hand, is associated with oversleeping. The source of these imbalances, you’ll recall, can be any number of factors, including diet, stress, lack of physical activity, and other illnesses.
I was particularly interested in a study from 2015 that investigated whether doshic imbalances could be connected to sleep problems. During a weeklong residential yoga program in India, researchers assessed dosha values for a group of nearly 1,000 adults, and also gathered information about their sleep.
The scientists analyzed their data to see if the dosha values—the amounts of vata, pitta, and kapha energies present—had any relationship to the individual’s quality and quantity of sleep.
People with higher vata scores experienced more symptoms of insomnia, including taking longer to fall asleep and feeling less rested in the morning.
People with higher kapha scores had more daytime fatigue and sleepiness, and took longer naps during the day.
Other recent research has also shown a dominance of vata linked to more frequent awakenings throughout the night, and an excess of kapha to fatigue.
Ayurvedic tips for better sleep
In its holistic, mind-body-environment approach to wellness—an approach rooted in the maintenance of health through prevention and consistent attention to natural bio rhythms—Ayurveda has a great deal to offer in improving our sleep.
How can we incorporate this traditional science to our lives? There are lots of ways. You can find out about your constitution, and learn about your primary dosha, which will help give you insight into particular sleep challenges. For example, Vata types may be prone to insomnia, while kapha types may sleep too much or at the wrong times.
Kripalu has a quiz to determine your dosha, which you can take here. I took the quiz and I was a Kapha! For a complete, professional assessment of your Ayurvedic constitution and your health, you can find Ayurvedic practitioners here.
There are also many Ayurvedic rituals that are easy to incorporate into your life. Here are several that are perfect additions to a bedtime routine, and can also help to keep you calm, focused, and centered throughout the day.
Stick to a consistent sleep routine. How many times have I suggested this? It can’t be said enough. The body and mind thrive on consistency, especially when it comes to sleep. Ayurvedic medicine puts a great emphasis on the consistency of one’s sleep schedule. Set a bedtime and wake time and stick to them, 7 days a week.
Hit the sack earlier. Ayurveda encourages earlier bedtimes, with the idea that sleep in the earlier phases of the night is the most restful and restorative. The first third of your night is when you’ll experience the most slow-wave sleep, which is critical for cell health and physiological functioning, including immunity. Every stage and phase of sleep is important, though. The final third of the night is when you’ll get the most REM sleep, which refreshes the mind and processes emotions.
Bedtime is where we typically have the most control over our schedules. So if you’re not getting enough sleep, adjusting bedtime backward is a good place to start. Use my bedtime calculator to determine your ideal bedtime. I also recommend you work with your chronotype when considering shifting your bed and wake times. A Lion may do great going to bed at 9 p.m. But that’s not likely to work for a Wolf. On the other hand, a Wolf who’s staying up until 1 or 2 a.m. can benefit tremendously by scaling back to an 11 or 11:30 p.m. lights out.
Eat a light and early dinner. Ayurveda suggests that lunch be your biggest meal of the day, followed up by a lighter dinner at least two hours before bed. That’s great advice for sleep. Reducing the activity of your digestive system will help you sleep more soundly, and allow your digestive system a much-needed rest. Here are some common food mistakes at bedtime I see my patients make.
Give yourself a massage. Self-massage, or massage by a partner, will help open up blood vessels, release heat from the body, lower blood pressure, ease stress, calm the mind, and soothe the body. Ayurveda recommends using ghee as a massage oil. Other essential oils are specifically sleep promoting, including rose and jasmine. Here’s my roundup of seven of my favorite essential oils for sleep[MB1] . The head and temples are key areas to massage, as are the feet. Read about how reflexology can improve your sleep, and try it out before bed.
Use a weighted blanket. I wrote not too long ago about this weighted blanket trend that is becoming more popular. In Ayurveda, an excess of vata is associated with feelings of lightness, especially in the legs. Too much vata is also connected to heightened arousal and stress. Adding weight to the body while in bed can be soothing, calming, and grounding, both mentally and physically.
Breathe with intention. I’ve long been a fan of breathing exercises as part of a pre-sleep routine. This is a basic mindfulness practice that can have a transformative effect on mental and physical relaxation, and in facilitating sleep. Ayurvedic practitioners recommend alternate nostril breathing as a way to lower excess vata, balance the left and right sides of the brain, and help with sleeplessness. Here’s how it works:
Get in a comfortable position on your bed. You don’t need to be lying down.
Close your eyes.
Use your finger to close your right nostril and inhale a breath through your left nostril.
Now, close your left nostril and exhale through your right nostril.
Alternate sides and repeat:
Close your left nostril and inhale through your right; close your right nostril and exhale through your left.
Try working up to 10 minutes of this breathing exercise, before lights out.
Check out more good Ayurvedic tips for sleep in this Kripalu article, and this one from Yoga Journal.
Michael J. Breus, PhD, DABSM
The Sleep Doctor™