Still, there are times in my life when I wake up sighing before the alarm goes off only to realise that I have not yet fallen asleep, where a healthy sleep has almost become a luxury, especially when traveling and in emotionally stressful situations such deadlines that need to be met or when being confronted with a terminal illness of a loved one. In my practice I have seen clients, where the need to sleep has almost become a burden and is seen as waste of time.
Especially in a fast paced world like today, where speed has become the driving force of life, just the thought of uncompleted projects could become the very cause of insomnia, a typical phenomenon in times of Ethernet and tabloids.
Lack of sleep does not only deprive us of a quality life, but it can also be the start of many serious diseases. In Ayurveda, sleep is known as one of the three pillars of good health, which provides the foundation for physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.
How do we define sleep?
A healthy, restful sleep means that you fall asleep easily when you switch off the light and sleep peacefully. The goal is to deep slumber 6-8 hours without the help of medication. You should wake up rested and refreshed.
A good night sleep is crucial for your health, because this is the time where important hormones are being produced, such as the human growth hormone (HGH). HGH is responsible for the immune system, it regulates fat metabolism, supports muscle growth and generally acts against aging. This hormone is produced the most during the deep sleep phase.
Sleep has its own rhythm, which repeats itself about every 90 minutes. Immediately after you fall asleep begins a phase where your sleep is light, which then slowly turns into the deep sleep phase. Then an REM phase occurs (rapid eye movement), the time of the night where you start dreaming. This REM phase is initially short and extends then through the night, which means as the REM phase extends, your time of deep sleep reduces. During a six-hour night sleep, the average time of deep sleep is only two hours.
We usually have three to five periods of REM phase during a nights sleep. These phases occur at intervals of 1-2 hours and are highly variable in length. An episode of REM sleep may take 5 minutes or an hour. Most people spend 25% of their sleep with dreams and the rest in a state of non-dreaming.
image courtesy of www.end-your-sleep-deprivation.com
Sleep disturbances according to Ayurveda:
Difficulty falling asleep is caused by a VATA imbalance, excess of the element of air. This could be due to irregular lifestyle, night shift, excess worry or thinking.
Intermittent awakening is caused by PITTA imbalance, linked to the element of fire, perhaps due to frustration, anger, excess heat or an over acidic body.
Excessive sleeping, but still waking up in the morning feeling un-refreshed is caused by an imbalance of KAPHA, related to the element of earth. This could be caused because of overeating, lack of exercise, depression or toxicity.
What happens if we do not get enough people sleep?
Studies have shown that if you wake up around 3 o’clock in the morning, during the following 24 hours your immune system is weakened and you are more susceptible to viruses and other pathogens.
Research has also shown that lack of sleep increases the production of inflammatory chemicals (cytokines). Lack of sleep can also lead to the production of chemicals, which can be causative factors for the development of obesity and diabetes. Diseases such as high blood pressure, premature aging, depression, anxiety and other psychological disorders may be the result of sleep deprivation.
When considering sleep from an Ayurvedic perspective, unhealthy sleep leads to the reduction of OJAS or (immunity), the vital nectar of life which is extracted from food. OJAS as the end product of all digestive processes is responsible for enhanced energy, enthusiasm, joy, clear thinking, and balanced communication between mind and heart.
What can help?
In Ayurveda, this depends on which of the three bio-energies of VATA, PITTA or KAPHA are out of balance. VATA is the energy that regulates all neurological processes such as your thinking, cellular communication, and nutrient transportation. PITTA is responsible for metabolic functions, the transformation of the food you eat in healthy bodily tissues and KAPHA, which very much reflects your immunity.
VATA – Difficulties falling asleep
The problem is, insomnia itself increases VATA, the bio-energy, which is responsible for proper circulation and movement. Any irregularity increases VATA and this creates a vicious circle, where VATA prevents you from falling asleep, whilst not being able to get a good quality sleep, increases VATA itself. So the cause and the effect is the same and often leads to neurological stress.
In this case a regular daily routine is important: going to bed at the same time, waking up at the same time, regular meal times. All this is essential to balance VATA. Also food should be mainly hot, well cooked and plentiful.
Meditation allows calming a restless mind, which leads to relaxation and mental tranquility. Massaging the feet and the head with warm sesame oil will help to overcome anxiety and stress.
Drinking warm milk with freshly grated nutmeg, or add a teaspoon of poppy has a calming and relaxing effect. Even a hot water bottle on your stomach can be relaxing.
PITTA – intermitted awakening:
An overactive PITTA needs cooling, so make sure that the bedroom is cool and not too hot. Use cotton sheets; keep the bedroom dark, and read inspirational literature for a few minutes before bedtime. Write down your thoughts and concerns before falling asleep, this "downloading" soothes a raging spirit.
KAPHA – Excessive sleep
A KAPHA constitution may have the problem of sleeping too much. Some people believe they need 9, 10 or more hours of sleep. In the morning these people often wake up feeling still heavy and tired and show symptoms of sleep deprivation. They may yawn all day and still have the need for an afternoon nap.
In this case, the solution would be to look at your diet. Make sure you only have a light meal such as soup at nighttime. The best is to eat around 06.00pm. Avoid sweets, dairy, pasta and other grains. Drink hot ginger tea throughout the day. This helps to reduce food cravings and increases your digestion. Avoid napping during the day and get up in the morning before sunrise.
Irrespective under which of the three categories of sleeping disturbance you may fall under, the best quality sleep is the one you get before midnight. My grandmother, although she had never heard the word AYURVEDA in her life, always used to say to me: “Hurry up Thomas, if you wish to catch the last train of the angels, you have to be in bed before 10pm.”
In summary, sleep deprivation is often not taken serious enough and the much-quoted ‘BEAUTY SLEEP’ can be a simple but effective recipe for improved health and wellbeing. Finding a healthy sleeping routine should become an important aspect of your daily routine, as Sleep is your best health insurance.
This article first appeared in Om Yoga Magazine in August 2014