By Dr. Anju Sodhi (Bams, Nd)
Finding it difficult to fall or stay asleep despite having a chance to sleep is the definition of insomnia. Most people have experienced some sleep disturbance, whether it be one night where too many thoughts were swimming through the mind or over several weeks or months. During the transition to spring and then again to summer, many may find that sleep evades them more often or worse than during the winter.
According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, 30-50% of the country suffers from short-term insomnia. The prevalence of insomnia that lasts three months, where one has difficulty sleeping three or more days a week, is considered chronic insomnia and affects five to ten percent of the US population1.
In Ayurveda, sleep disturbances are mainly attributed to Vata and Pitta. Both doshas share light, quick, and mobile qualities. These are the opposite qualities desired for sleep: heavy, still, and dense. During the spring and summer, both Vata and Pitta qualities increase in the environment, affecting the body in many ways, sleep is one of those things.
Vata and Pitta naturally have upward energy. Sleep, however, requires downward energy to settle the mind and body into giving up consciousness and ground into our Mother Earth. If there is unbalanced Pitta or Vata, the mind may be alert or the body may feel restless, needing to move. Balancing these doshas is key to kicking insomnia and getting the rest you need to take on the next day.
Digestion is another bodily process that is affected by the changing doshic state of the environment. If digestion is weak, sleep is highly affected. The hours of sleep start in Pitta time (10:00 pm to 2:00 am). During this time, the body uses the Pitta to transform and process thoughts, nutrients and begins healing the body from daily assaults. When digestion is weak, providing the building materials for the pitta time of healing becomes problematic and the body becomes stressed, interrupting sleep. Furthermore, if one eats right before bedtime, the body must choose to use its Agni to digest what is the belly or digest what is in the body or mind.
For women going through perimenopause or menopause, sleep disturbances can be caused by the hormonal flux of the body. Because estrogen levels plummet during this time of life, hormones levels of cortisol rise (which carries a body clocking function). Cortisol increases create alertness, making sleep harder to attain. Furthermore, women in this time of life are more sensitive to ambient temperature-they feel too hot or may get very cold, arresting the body in its rest process.
During this season of change and renewal, there are easy and highly effective ways to reduce the impacts of Vata and Pitta as well to improve digestion.
Sleep is highly affected by what we do when we are awake. Bringing structure to the day is vital to not only feeling rested but for health in general. Establishing a healthy daily routine should not feel limiting. In fact, it should ensure that your days are filled with new experiences. If getting into a daily routine feels limiting or daunting, take one step at a time for a few days until it feels natural. Commit to an established bedtime and wake up time.
If possible, use a light alarm clock. The sounds of alarm clocks can jar the nervous system. If one uses gentle light cues with soft sounds, the nervous system is calmly filled with awareness. After awake, bring the knees to the chest and gently rock back and forth.
Once the feet hit the floor, go to the bathroom to relieve bodily urges. Splash cold water onto the face. Brush the teeth and scrape the tongue. If oil pulling is in your practice, pull first then brush teeth.
The morning is the best time to meditate, do yoga, or exercise. Remember that this practice does not need to be a workout if time does not allow. Bring gentle movement to the body if that is what the body is requesting. This is the best time of the day to practice inversions. After this practice, take herbs with warm water, then bathe. Eat breakfast after bathing. This change in behavior sets the body up to be prepared for stress during the day.
Remember to eat lunch at the same time every day. Lunch should be consumed during midday (12:00pm-1:00pm). Whatever time is chosen, it should be a sacred time to eat and should not be rescheduled or moved.
If one chooses to exercise during the afternoon, do not do so at high noon. This is the peak of Pitta time and this practice can weaken Agni. Afternoon exercise should be moderate and inversions can be practiced here.
Dinner should be consumed at least two hours before bedtime. This ensures the body is not forced to break down food during sleep.
Avoid vigorous physical activity before bedtime. Light stretching before bed can communicate to the body that the nervous system is calming down. Inversions are meant to stimulate the nervous system and are not ideal to do when grounding down to bed.
light of computers, phones, and tablets, even on “night mode” stimulate the eyes. The eyes are our most active nervous system component. Furthermore, these Pitta organs are transforming light into images for the Vata nervous system can respond. Forty-five minutes before one plans to lie down for bed, avoid screen exposure. The
Before laying the body down to rest, take a warm shower or bath. Apply oils to the body and wear sleeping clothes that will keep you comfortable during the night. For women undergoing menopausal symptoms, take measures to regulate body temperature. Use cotton sheets instead of flannel or silk as the cotton material allows for air exchange, dissipating heat. Remove any excess blankets that would normally reside on the bed. Open windows to regulate the temperature of the sleeping area (if possible). Air conditioning uses forced cold moving air, properties of vata, to cool a room. This forced and consistent air exposure could further make sleep difficult to attain.
During the spring, digestion can be fragile. To ensure Agni, the digestive fire, is strong, eat meals that are warm and easy to digest. Avoid raw foods other than berries and other soft fruits. All vegetables should be cooked but can still have a bite to them. By cooking, food is broken down enough for the body to extract nutrients. When eating beans, make sure they are soaked overnight to remove difficult to digest nutrients. Discard the soaking water prior to cooking the beans. Reduce vata promoting vegetables such as peas, sprouts, and brussels sprouts. Use spices such as cumin, coriander, turmeric, trikatu (black pepper, long pepper, and ginger powder) and vegetables such as garlic and onion.
If you tend to fall asleep easily but wake up during the night, add in cooling foods such as cucumbers and yogurt. Here are some summer recipes.
Beverages are great to help induce and sustain sleep. Liquids are generally easier to digest during the night and can contain powerful foods for medicine.
Try to reduce the amount of dairy consumed during the day. However, dairy is heavy and can settle the body at night. If you find falling asleep is difficult, make the following recipe.
- 1 cup milk (dairy or non-dairy)
- 1 tsp ground dates
- ½ tsp cinnamon
- ½ tsp nutmeg
- ¼ tsp pippali
- 1tsp ghee
- 1-2 strands of saffron
- 1 tsp honey
- In a saucepan, heat milk, dates, cinnamon, nutmeg, pippali, and ghee. Heat ingredients until you see the milk rising, but do not let it boil.
- Once the milk is cooled to a sipping temperature, add the honey.
Drink this mixture about an hour before bedtime. It will provide balanced heavy downward energy to help you drift to sleep.
Another helpful bedtime drink uses small amounts of poppy seeds and the healing power of almonds.
To make 1 week of Poppy Seed Almond mix
- 3 tablespoons poppy seeds
- ½ cup almonds
- Place the poppy seeds in a coffee grinder or Vitamix and grind them into a powder. Remove the poppy seeds from the food processor and place into a bowl.
- Place the almonds into the food processor and pulse them until they are powder like. Be careful to NOT make them into an almond butter.
- Mix the poppy seed powder and almonds together in a bowl. Place the mixture into an airtight container and store in the refrigerator until use.
To make daily Poppy Almond Beverage:
- 1 cup milk (Dairy or non-dairy)
- 2 teaspoons of Poppy Almond mixture (optional: place the mixture in 1 tablespoon of water for a few hours to overnight for digestibility)
- Place the milk and poppy almond mixture together in a saucepan.
- Heat the milk until just ready to boil. Be careful as to not allow burning.
- Place in a mug, let cool and enjoy 1 hour before bed.
Diet and lifestyle are key to all aspects of health. However, herbs do exist to assist in the transition into new healthy habits.
Ashwagandha is the premier herb for sleep troubles. Withania somnifera is the Latin name for this herb, the somnifera referring the inducer of sleep. It has been shown to have induced sleep in many models2. Ashwagandha is an adaptogen, regulating stress in any way needed. This allows one to sustain sound sleep throughout the night. Magnesium, acting as an electrolyte, calms the nervous system and muscle tissue, easing the body into a restful state. In conjunction with ashwagandha, this herb team makes a powerful impact in on the quality of sleep as well as the east to fall asleep.
Taking supplemental phosphatidylserine promotes proper neuronal cell functioning and signaling, easing the amount of effort the nervous system endures when trying to rest. Furthermore, this nutrient promotes healing of muscles and traumatic damage, allowing the body to rest during healing.
Saffron, though also a culinary herb, can be taken in tea or supplement form to act directly on the brain tissue, activating pleasure and dopamine centers3–7. Bacopa monnieri is a neuroprotective herb, nurturing and reducing the chatter of the mind. This herb eases vata out of the mind, anger, and worry8–14.
For women undergoing menopause or people who feel much too warm when they sleep or feels like sleep creates anger, sitawari (Asparagus racemosa) creates downward energy that removes pitta from the body. It is a gentle yet powerful choice to regulate hormones as well as the feeling of heat.