Why sleep is so important
Sleep plays a very important role in our health along with eating healthy and exercising regularly. It influences very much how emotionally stable, mentally clear and physically fit we are. A good night’s sleep gives our body the possibility to begin its night-shift work. During sleep, our body can heal damaged cells and strengthen our immune system. We also recharge our heart, cardiovascular and nervous system for the next day. Deep and sufficient sleep is one of the keys to long-term health and the basis for a functioning immune system.
Improve your sleep with Ayurveda
Ayurveda or Ayurvedic medicine contains a lot of wisdom for a life in balance, including how to improve your sleep.
Ayurveda is about harmony and balance, especially the balance between the three doshas Vata, Pitta and Kapha. They also play an important role in our sleep. The time we go to bed, what we do before and after bedtime, and of course what and when we eat. This all influences our bioenergies and thus contributes to a night of healthy sleep.
The role of the doshas in your sleep rhythm
From an Ayurvedic point of view, sleep is the most important regeneration phase of the day. Between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. our Pitta energy wants to clean the body, picking up the dirt from the furthest corners. Then between 2 and 6 a.m. our Vata energy is very active, transporting the dirt and toxins to the excreting organs.
The most important prerequisite for this cleansing process is that the digestion of the last meal is finished before 10 p.m. That’s why it is important to have an early light dinner, at least three hours before you go to bed. If this is not the case, the body sets the priorities differently and focuses on digestion. Hence, prompting the whole system to power up instead of shutting down for the sleep and cleansing process. Consequently, fatigue is delayed and it’s difficult to fall asleep. We also are more likely to wake up at night and therefore, when it is time to get up in the morning… we’re exhausted.
Apart from the last meal, our general lifestyle also has an impact on our sleep. Our sleep problems may arise from the fact that there is too much movement, too much Vata, in our internal system. Consequently the body does not find its way deep enough into the relaxation mode. An overactive sympathetic nervous system means too much movement or Vata that is caused by stress, lack of time and an unsteady lifestyle. If we snack between meals, quickly change our routine, don’t get enough sleep, travel a lot and eat foods that elevate Vata, we probably won’t fall asleep and, above all, won’t sleep through the night.
How the Doshas differ
If we compare the different doshas, we note that a Vata imbalance tends towards irregular and light sleep. Vata type will usually wake up between 2 – 6 a.m., unable to return to sleep. They also can have problems to fall asleep. Whereas Pittas sleep can be disturbed by vivid and active dreams or nightmares. Pittas usually experience difficulties falling asleep as their mind is too busy and they can’t stop thinking about their plans, projects and upcoming activites. However, Kapha types are generally good sleepers but when out of balance, they sleep too long which makes them sluggish and heavy. Also after a long and sound sleep they do not wake up feeling well rested.
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How can the Ayurvedic way of life be beneficial for our sleep?
The most important keys points are routine, diet and stress reduction. The optimal routine from an Ayurvedic point of view is three meals at similar times of the day, with the main meal at lunch and a light, early dinner. Of course, it is incredibly valuable to adjust the diet so that we can find a balance based on our constitution. It is also recommended that you go to bed and get up at similar times each day.
But we should also adjust our daily work and stress levels. Stress, regardless of what caused it, lets our nervous system run in a mode that is intended to protect us in dangerous situations. But if we often feel tense, agitated and rushed, then we are preventing the part of our nervous system that is responsible for regeneration, metabolism and sleep, from doing its job.
As a result, we may have permanently elevated cortisol levels. The stress hormone can lead to anxiety, hormonal imbalances, increased appetite, obesity and other issues. That is why in Ayurveda, we not only focus on nutrition and lifestyle but also meditation, yoga and other methods of stress reduction. Therefore the Ayurveda approach is holistic and matched with one’s unique constitution.
How diet affects your sleep
The most important tip is to move the main meal to noon and then eat lightly and early in the evening. From an Ayurvedic point of view, early and light means before 7 pm with little fat and protein and not too complex in composition. You should also eat raw vegetables at lunchtime as they are heavy to digest. This dietary advice is somewhat contrary to some modern-day opinions, but it works. Soups, stews or vegetables, perhaps with a little grain, are ideal for the evening. One-pot meals are especially easy to digest for our metabolism.
To have an early and light evening meal, of course, we need to have a good lunch. Otherwise, we’ll be too hungry. Since the body has the strongest digestive fire around lunchtime – also from a conventional medical point of view – we digest quickly at this time of the day. From an Ayurvedic point of view, our lunch should not consist of a small salad or a sandwich on hand, but of a healthy and rich meal in which we satisfy our fat and protein needs. Interestingly, after such a meal, we are hardly hungry in the evening and can easily get through the night with a small supper until breakfast in the morning. And the body thanks us with a night of deep and restful sleep.
What helps if we have difficulty falling asleep?
The easiest way for the body to fall asleep is when it is relaxed and not struggling with a heavy meal. Ayurveda recommends establishing an evening routine that automates this process. Some examples of activities that would prevent us from falling asleep are: screen time, exciting books, an extremely high pace during the day, and in the worst case, a high pace until late in the evening. Thoughts circle around our heads and therefore our energy, too. After an early light dinner, it’s the ideal time to enjoy moments with loved ones, to go for a walk or to take a bath. Any other non-digital hobby like writing a diary, drawing, performing handicraft works, is great too.
An important factor is the time we go to bed. Kapha energy is dominant until 10 pm. The energy of Kapha helps us to wind down and to notice the first signs of end-of-the-day fatigue. Its energy is heavy, steady and calm and perfect for preparing ourselves for better quality rest. From 10 pm the Pitta energy takes over the lead. This energy rises and makes us active and mentally busy. Ayurveda, therefore, recommends going to sleep during the Kapha time, this means before 10 pm. It makes a big difference in our quality and quantity of sleep.
In addition, the following tools are extremely valuable to help us to come to rest: Gentle yoga exercises that ground and bring our energy down such as Yin Yoga, slow pranayamas such as alternate nostril breathing or meditation. Otherwise, a foot massage with warm sesame oil and an essential oil like Lavender which will help to descend the energy in our body. And finally, golden milk or turmeric milk (also made with plant milk) can also make it easier for us to fall asleep.
Are there specific sleeping tips for the individual doshas?
In addition to the tips for Vata and Pitta that are already mentioned, the duration of sleep is also crucial. Vata types need the most sleep of all. They are not doing well without the mandatory eight hours. With a lot of stress, they may even need more. Eight hours are perfect for Pitta types, even if they usually don’t like it because they have so much to do.
Less sleep is recommended for Kapha types only. Kapha usually has no problems falling asleep and sleeps well through the night. However, they find it difficult to get up. So they need to get up before 6 am. As mentioned, the Vata movement principle is dominant between 2 and 6 a.m. This movement gets us up more easily. But from 6 a.m. Kapha takes over again. And this energy makes it very difficult for us to get out of bed. With Kapha, there is also the fact that a maximum of 7 to 7.5 hours of sleep is better and more relaxing than a long sleep. Too much sleep will make them too heavy and sluggish.
Do you want to learn more about your unique constitution, your Dosha? Take the Dosha quiz here.