Insomnia, Ayurvedic Recommendations
Sleep is time for recharging and filling the body with energy. In today’s society, which is exposed to a constant, stressful rush, this basic physiological function has become a luxury for many of us. Almost every day, new medications for insomnia are introduced as a solution, but the problem remains. Drugs might relieve the symptoms of insomnia, while the root of the disease remains untouched.
Sleep is a vital need of a living being, and it cannot be replaced with anything else. None of the energy boosters from coffee to drugs can be compared with a deep night’s sleep. High quality sleep makes one happy and healthy. Not enough sleep can lead to addiction, irritability, premature aging, adrenal exhaustion, poor concentration, and many other unpleasant consequences.
Why can’t I sleep?
According to Ayurveda, insomnia and restless sleep are indications of elevated Vata dosha. Vata is responsible for movement, activity, and the thinking process.
Vata is light, fast, and mobile in nature. When Vata is in balance, we feel creative impulses, lightness, inspiration, and a burst of energy. With elevated Vata, we feel exhaustion, fatigue, anxiety, and the continuous flow of thoughts, which make the brain hyperactive.
Factors that can overstimulate the nervous system and cause insomnia:
- Late dinner (after 6 pm).
- Eating heavy, spicy, or fatty foods for dinner. Even if you manage to fall asleep with a full stomach, sleep will be restless, and the food will turn into toxins.
- Watching TV or sitting at the computer before going to bed.
- Failure to follow natural rhythms. Our ancestors had no choice, they had to live according to the rhythm of nature – go to bed with the sunset and wake up at sunrise. Modern social life keeps us away from this original harmony with nature.
- Long trips, overworking, and an irregular daily routine.
How much sleep do we really need?
Ayurveda does not give a particular number of hours required for all people. Like in all other causes, it uses an individualized approach. The time one goes to bed and gets up is much more important. Eight hours of sleep during the day is not at all equal to a sleep that lasts from 9 pm until 5 am. The latter restores the body and nervous system, while the prior leaves the system and mind disoriented. See also “Early to Bed…”
If one gets up refreshed and feels rested, that amount of sleep is considered enough for this particular person.
- Reduce Vata dosha by using heavy, warm, moist, grounding foods such as dairy products, whole grains, and root crops. Avoid dried or raw foods and cold beverages. See also “Food list for Vata”
- Excluded are coffee, tea (black and green), alcohol and other stimulants, including herbs such as Ma Huang and ginseng.
- An hour before bedtime, it is useful to drink ¼ to 1 cup of warm cow milk with a pinch of turmeric, fennel, or cardamom powder. Almond milk will work if you do not tolerate caw milk. (See also Dairy products in Ayurveda).
- In the evening, one should avoid any form of stimulating activity such as TV, listening to loud music, and action movies.
- There must be a clear set sleep schedule with a bedtime before 11 pm, and an early awakening, not later than 6 am.
- The bedroom and the bed should be comfortable, clean, and tidy. Nothing herein should disturb the peace. The floor in the bedroom has to be mopped with moist cloth daily.
- Engage in a conscious process of relaxation. Yoga nidra is very helpful. See “Yoga Nidra”.
- Perform static yoga asanas. Choose a pose that is neither too hard nor too easy for you and stay in it for at least 20 minutes, then gently get out of the asana. Such a practice relaxes not only your body but the mind as well. Aerobic exercises are undesirable.
- Breathing exercises. Alternate nostril breathing (See “Nadi Shodhana”) will harmonize both hemispheres of your brain. Concentrate on your breathing or on the heart.
- Sleep in clothes that you do not wear during the day. It is not healthy to sleep in socks.
- Sleep with your head facing east or north.
- Never sleep in the kitchen, and do not store foods in the bedroom.
- Do not cover your face with a blanket, as this will cause you breathe in air low in oxygen.
- Sleeping outdoors in the summer is very useful provided there is no fog, rain, or high humidity.
- Sleeping on a wet or damp bed is very unadvisable.
- Ayurveda recommends sleeping on your side. Sleep on the left side when breathing through the right nostril facilitates digestion, and heats up and energizes the body. Sleep on the right side allows one to cool down and rest. Sleeping on the back is less advisable because it can agitate Vata dosha. The worst sleep is on stomach because it blocks breathing.
- Sleeping in the direct sun is harmful, while under the shine of the moon – very beneficial.
- The air in the room where you sleep should be fresh. Sleeping in a stuffy, poorly ventilated room is very harmful.
- Sesame oil massage (See Abhyanga) is one of the simplest and most effective ways to normalize sleep. Massage the scalp and/or the soles of the feet with warm sesame oil at bedtime. You can also lubricate the whole body, wait for 5-10 minutes, and then take a warm shower.
- Meditate before bed with a deep belief that the divine will take care of both you and the whole world.
Sleep during the day is generally not recommended for healthy adults, because it leads to diseases of the respiratory system, heaviness in the head, and other disorders. Exceptions are:
– people who are tired from heavy physical labor
– patients experiencing severe pain or suffering from respiratory problems and nausea
– short naps are allowed for patients with gastrological disorders
– people observing fasting and feeling the urge to take a nap
– people living in a very warm climate in the hours of the unbearable heat, resting in a shady, cool place
Especially harmful is sleeping at sunset.
If someone was forced to stay awake at night (not as a habit), he should sleep half the prescribed time the next morning without eating.
Ayurvedic herbs to treat insomnia:
Brahmi, nutmeg, jatamansi, and ashwagandha taken with ghee. A good composition can be prepared by taking two parts of the ashwagandha and valerian, and one of the nutmeg and licorice. In chronic insomnia, take 3 – 6 grams of the mixture at bedtime with warm milk and ghee or water.
Although insomnia is most often a Vata disorder, Pitta and Kapha type sleeplessness can take place as well.
Pitta type insomnia
This type of insomnia is accompanied by strong emotions, irritability, outbursts of anger, jealousy, resentment, and hatred. Sometimes it combines with feverish and infectious diseases. Dreams can be dramatic or violent.
Pitta type insomnia can be provoked by unreleased emotions, stubborn behavior, excessively hot or spicy food, exposure to sun or heat, fever, etc.
Pitta insomnia is treated by Pitta reducing diet with restriction of the use of spices, alcohol, coffee, tea, stimulants, and sour and fermented food.
Ayurvedic herbs for Pitta are brahmi, bringaraj, jatamamsi, aloe and shatavari. Feet and top of the head can be oiled with Bringaraj or Brahmi oil. Sandalwood is a specific cooling Pitta herb.
Kapha types are usually not affected by insomnia; on the contrary, they tend to sleep too much. Insomnia can take place if other doshas are imbalanced and secondary affect Kapha causing stagnation in the body. In such cases, nutmeg, valerian, and hot spices, such as Ginger or composition Trikatu can help.
TODAY’S TIP: If you wake up at 4 or 5 am at a regular basis, you do not have insomnia. It means that your soul wants you to use this precious time for prayer, meditation, or study of Holy Scriptures. This time is called Brahma Muhurta, when wise people purify their mind, strengthen intuition and intellect, and gain energy and optimism for the coming day. After such a start, you will be more effective during the day, less tired in the evening, and not need a very long sleep to get a full rest.