Thoughts of the future keeping you awake at night? Then look to the past for traditional sleep cures
If your sleep pattern has gone awry, you’re not alone. Unsurprisingly, people all around the world have struggled to drift off this year. But uncertainty in daily life doesn’t mean you should accept restless nights as the new normal. This is something you can control. Regular, restorative sleep makes you physically and emotionally stronger, so you can take on whatever curveballs come your way. “Now more than ever, it’s important to sleep up to eight hours nightly to fight potential illnesses,” says Euan MacLennan, herbal director at Pukka Herbs. “Sleep also helps you recover faster if you do get ill and it supports proteins and cells of your immune system to detect and destroy bugs and germs – it even helps your body remember bugs so it can fight them faster next time they appear.” Science regularly proves more and more benefits to quality kip, but sleep’s importance has long been known to ayurvedic practitioners. “Ayurveda is the world’s oldest health system, based on mind-body connection and natural rhythms,” says Sahara Rose, author of Discover Your Dharma. “We achieve optimal health when we align with the elements, classified into three energy types or Doshas in Ayurveda: Vata (air and space), Pitta (fire and water) and Kapha (earth and water).”
The ayurvedic clock shows different times of day are governed by certain Doshas. Considering that’s been around for approximately 5,000 years, it feels like Western medicine has only just caught up when it comes to body clocks. In 2007, the Nobel Prize was awarded to scientists discovering molecular mechanisms of our innate body clock, what we now recognise as circadian rhythms. Western medicine is important of course, for example in emergencies, imaging technology, or surgery. But ayurvedic medicine is all about prevention of illness through holistic (whole body) living in tune with nature. Think of your pets; they’re mammals like us but wake, sleep, play and eat in instinctive rhythms – and you don’t see them lying awake fretting at night! Circadian science gave us names for sleep hormones such as melatonin, which is a hormone primarily released by the pineal gland that regulates the sleep-wake cycle. However, our modern habits of checking news or social media at night via blue light-emitting gadgets messes this up.
“As production of melatonin is dependent on the body clock’s ability to adjust to darkness, it’s important to keep all lights dimmed in the evening, and ban electronic devices with light emitting units from the bedroom,” advises ayurvedic expert Dr Vijay Murthy (murthyclinic.com). “Try to avoid TV at least 90 minutes before bed. It may seem a harmless way to wind down, but brain scans and sleep studies show reduced hormonal, neurological and immunological functions amongst people who watch TV or use their laptop and phone.”
Meals should also complement Dosha timings, so consider what you eat and when. For example, your day starts in Kapha – a slow and calm Dosha – so eat an easily digestible, warm breakfast such as porridge or scrambled eggs to kick-start your waking body. Kapha’s return in the evening is the reason why you shouldn’t eat a heavy dinner. Eating heavier foods such as red meat and pasta in the evening will mean your body is still digesting when you go to bed, distracting it from other vital restoration, such as rebuilding bones, tissue and balancing hormones. Plus, a bloated or acidic stomach could stop you falling asleep. Eat a light dinner at least three hours before bed, such as roasted sweet potato or soup.
Your digestive fire, or ‘Agni’, is at its highest at midday and your body assimilates nutrients best during this time, giving you better energy, a more effective metabolism, and of course healthier sleep. Get in the habit of making your midday meal your largest one, for example a light curry, or grilled fish with vegetables. “Eat more tryptophan-rich foods, which includes fish, as well as nuts and seeds, as this helps convert serotonin into melatonin,” says Dr Murthy. These foods also contain healthy fats, which are great at helping you feel full so you don’t reach for sleep-disrupting sugar or caffeine later on. Ayurveda recommends eating only when you’re truly hungry, leaving five to six hours between meals to give your stomach time to digest.” says Dr Murthy.
In Ayurveda, ‘Oja’ is the crucial energy that rules your immunity, happiness and radiance. Regular meditation is proven to improve sleep, and boost your Oja. Another effective method is Abhyanga self-massage. “Daily self-massage is a great way of strengthening your mind-body connection, and brings you balance and grounding,’ says Dr Murthy. “Traditionally warm sesame oil is used with long strokes from the limbs towards the heart for 10-15 minutes. If you can’t commit to that each day, aim for 2-3 times a week. As a morning ritual, self-massage settles the mind and stimulates the body. In the evening, massage your feet to settle your whole system.” In Ayurveda, your feet are considered ‘organs of action’ – vital foundations to carry you physically and literally through the day’s ups and downs, so they deserve a pamper come evening time. Use a calming lavender or immune boosting eucalyptus oil, and gently drag your thumb from where your leg meets the top of your foot, right down your big toe, then do the same for all your toes before wiggling and gently tugging each one in turn. Then, firmly circle your thumb on different pressure points under your feet, such as your foot arches, to release any tension there. This will help you wind down and kick off your body’s overnight detoxing. In essence, the closer you stay to nature, including the rising and setting of the sun, the healthier you’ll remain.
“Aligning with the ayurvedic clock helps you work with your body, rather than against it,” says Sahara. Here, she gives us a countdown to good sleep:
6am-10am = Kapha (earth and water)
To help your awakening process, start your day with hot water and stimulating exercise such as a walk by water to shake off excess Kapha stagnation.
10am-2pm = Pitta (fire and water)
When the sun is at its highest, so is your energy. It’s a great time for work and checking tasks off your to-do list – meaning less to worry about at night.
2pm-6pm = Vata (air and space)
Having stimulated your brain all day, this is the best time for creative pursuits, diarising, brainstorming, envisioning and imagining.
6-10pm = Kapha
The Kapha cycle starts again, but rather than rising with the sun, you settle as it sets. Self-care, such as a warm bath, gentle stretching and self massage will prepare your body for sleep.
10pm-2am = Pitta
People often get a second wind if still awake during these hours, but it’s better to stick to a regular sleep schedule and let potent Pitta energy do its work, restoring your body while you rest.
2am-6am = Vata
Many lineages from Buddhist to Kundalini practice deep meditations during these auspicious hours, because in Ayurveda this is when the veils between spiritual and physical worlds are thinnest. If you’re not enjoying this in dreamland, try some guided meditation clear your mind.
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