Sleep issues are a pervasive problem that I see so often in my practice. The inability to fall asleep, stay asleep or have good quality sleep can have an extremely debilitating effect on our lives. In Ayurveda, there are three pillars of health – food, sleep and moral or spiritual living. When one or more pillar is out of balance, we are out of balance. Without good quality sleep or sleep routines that mirror the rhythms of nature, we cannot achieve optimal physical, mental and emotional health. Luckily, there are effective, natural ways to support healthy sleep.
In most cases, insomnia is caused by an excess of the Vata dosha. The Vata dosha, which has the qualities of the air and ether elements, is light and mobile. “Light” and “mobile” is often the state of the mind when a person has sleep disturbances. Their mind is active or racing with worry, fear, planning or excessive thinking. The light quality of Vata manifests as sensitivity to stimuli like noise and light, and the ability to be awoken very easily.
Pitta dosha can also play a role in sleep disturbances. Pitta types are often very mentally focused or ambitious individuals. Productivity is highly valued by Pitta individuals, and they can have difficulty shutting off “planning mode” when their head hits the pillow. The Pitta dosha also corresponds to the times of day between 10-2. Pitta types who find themselves working or focused on an activity close to 10pm can easily be drawn deeper into the focused activity for several more hours, as Pitta becomes elevated during that time and increases the focused qualities of the mind if one does not make a concerted effort to disengage. Lastly, Pitta types can also experience insomnia when the environment is too hot, as the external heat further aggravates the already fiery-natured of Pitta.
The most common causes of Vata and/or Pitta sleep disturbances often relate to overwork, overactivity and overstimulation of the senses. Patients dealing with insomnia often have stressful schedules that leave them feeling overwhelmed and/or they may tend to be very driven or focused, but have trouble calming their minds at the end of the day. This often happens in conjunction with an excess of “screen time” – being overly stimulated by computer, TV and smart phone screens and the over-abundance of information that our minds are asked to process in the modern era of lightning-fast information exchange.
The great news is that insomnia can be treated naturally and successfully. Ayurveda allows a person to pinpoint habits that may be contributing to sleep problems and address any physiological imbalances that have resulted. Treatment involves a twofold approach:
First, strengthen the body’s ability to handle stress by incorporating some of the following treatments:
- Herbs that calm and strengthen the mind and nervous system
- Appropriate diet and eating routines
- Stress reducing techniques, such as meditation and pranayam (breathwork)
- Self-massage with warm, dosha-specific oil
- Shirodhara, or third eye oil stream therapy
- Calming essential oils
- Gentle to moderate regular exercise
- Grounding, rejuvenating yoga poses such as forward bends and seated postures and gentle or restorative-style yoga
Second, remove or reduce the causes of the aggravation:
- Work to reduce unnecessary “screen time” or incorporate periods of mental rest throughout the day
- Address lifestyle factors that aggravate the mobile quality of the mind, such as multitasking, excess travel, irregular routines, etc.
- Adjust bedtime/wake time to flow with the rhythms of nature, which in turn supports the body’s optimal rhythms.
As with any Ayurvedic treatment, an individual should meet with a practitioner who can tailor this approach to his or her specific needs. As good sleep is one of the primary foundations of health, addressing sleep disturbances, insufficient sleep or improper bedtime/wake time can result in a tremendous shift in physical, mental and emotional wellness. I encourage each of you to make good quality and sufficient sleep a priority, and watch your health transform as a result!