Our fast paced and high productivity focused lifestyle, along with the endless opportunities revealed to us through the internet in the last few decades; is now creating a dilemma. The stimulating experience creates a state of hyper-arousal and creates the impression that sleep is a waste of time. In the end, we are often too tired to do anything, and at the same time, are too wound up with our thoughts to fall asleep!
It is estimated that one in three adults worldwide suffers from one or more symptoms of Insomnia. Researches have also shown that 75-90% of those suffering from insomnia are also at risk of developing various pain conditions, neuro-degenerative diseases, and gastric disorders*. Sleep disturbances associated with these chronic risk factors adversely affect an individual’s quality of life. Various studies prove the connect between sleep and endocrine functions. Proper sleep is necessary for our appetite and satiety hormones (ghrelin and leptin) to function, Insulin and cortisol to regulate, and the pituitary control of thyroid hormones to ensue appropriately**.
Ayurveda understands sleep at one of three pillars of healthy sustenance of life, along with Aahara (food) and Brahmacharya (conscious relationships). Moreover, the ancient textbook of Ayurveda, from 2nd century AD, by Acharya Charaka clearly mentions the significance of sleep in various physical and mental health parameters. He mentions that sleep is essential for
a) perception of joy
b) proper physical growth and tissue nourishment
e) logical thinking and retention of acquired knowledge and
f) lengthy and good quality life
It’s clearly understood in Ayurveda that insomnia is not just an illness, but it is a symptom of an underlying imbalance and sign of many other chronic physical, behavioral, cognitive and mental issues that may appear in future, if it is not addressed. The treatment for insomnia in Ayurveda has two goals. One is to help with the quality and quantity of sleep and second is to address the underlying cause and prevent long term health impacts due to it.
a) Calming Herbal supplements and Teas: Licorice, chamomile, cardamom, and hibiscus-based teas are excellent calming agents helping to get into a heal
thy sleep routine. Supplements like Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is also prescribed as a grounding milk drink at bedtime to improve the quality of sleep.
b) Treatments for calming the nerves: There is a range of various treatments, using oils and herbs that can help reduce stress, muscular tension and nervous pain. Shirodhara is an ideal treatment for this issue. It involves the rhythmic pouring of herbal medicated oil to the forehead of the person. It helps to control the hyperactivity of nerves, reduce stress, calms the mind, and stimulate the pituitary gland (master gland). It will also help the proper functioning of other endocrine glands and induce better sleep. Another treatment is thala-pothichil: covering of whole head with herbal paste like a head pack for a stipulated time frame.
Long term remedies
a) Sleep Hygiene:
It is best to avoid all stimulating drinks like coffee and black tea in the evening to help with sleep. Similarly, it is also necessary to avoid stimulating television programmes, and mobile usage, especially an hour before bedtime. Many people watch television and fall asleep in front of it, which is neither restful nor restorative. The time to go to bed should be also according to the circadian rhythm of our body. Ayurveda considers the first 1/3rd of the night (8pm-11pm) as an ideal time to go to bed and the last 1/3rd (5am-8am) as the best time to wake up and feel refreshed. Sleeping too late and waking up later does not have the ideal resting effect on our body due to various hormonal functions that follow the sun’s rhythm.
b) The Sleep Ritual:
The sleep ritual includes activities, diet and/or herbs that will lead to a well-deserved, deep, and nourishing night’s sleep. When done properly, these rituals ensure a harmonious body balance, and a productive day ahead.
c) Body-type based diet and lifestyle:
- Plan your dinner ahead. Dinner is a double-edged sword. Too light may make one feel unsatisfied/hungry and disturb sleep. Too heavy may destroy the quality of sleep and make one feel tired in the morning.
- Major quantity of day’s hydration must be before 6 pm. Don’t try to compensate for day’s low water intake just before bed.
- A hot shower or a bath is recommended once the meal is prepared before eating. Applying coconut or sesame oil over hands and soles of the feet is recommended for the aching muscles.
- Eat in a peaceful and un-distracted environment. We need all our attention attached to the food consumed to appreciate the hard work behind it and feel content with all our five sense organs. Watching television and handling mobile while eating should be avoided.
- Calming and digestive herbal teas can be consumed after dinner.
- Light walking, stretching or reading can be done after the meal time. Make sure you also spend some time with yourself observing breathing and appreciating the day just before bedtime. It can also transform into a meditative experience or prayer, which helps to let go of negative feelings and emotions.
In order to address the underlying imbalance causing insomnia, Ayurveda recommends a diet pattern based on your own body-type. This diet pattern is known as a dosha based diet or simply an ayurvedic diet. The ingredients used are always locally sourced and organically cultivated seasonal produce. Various spices, lentils, and pulses are also a significant part of an ayurvedic diet. It is best to avoid any strenuous activities like high-intensity workouts or cardio exercises in the later part of the evening. Try to include more wholesome and calming activities like yoga and stretches to relax and balance the doshas at the same time.
d) Management of the root cause:
If the Insomnia is an outcome of an underlying health condition like apnea, hormonal variations, aches and pains, the long-term remedy should include methods to address those as well.
Recipes for better sleep
Vata balancing Sleep Tea
- 1/4 teaspoon dry ginger/ ½ inch fresh ginger
- 1 clove crushed
- ¼ teaspoon licorice powder
- ¼ teaspoon hibiscus petals
- 1 green Cardamom
- 1 cup boiling water
- Mix the ginger, clove, licorice, hibiscus, and cardamom together.
- Add the boiling water to the herb and spice mixture.
- Steep for 5 minutes, covered.
- Strain and discard the herb and spice mixture and enjoy hot.
Pitta balancing evening meal
- 1 cup cabbage
- 200 grams of Whitefish
- 2 cup of coconut milk
- 1 tbsp Pitta Spice Mix (10 parts fennel powder, 4 parts coriander powder, 2 parts turmeric powder, 2 parts cumin powder, 1-part cinnamon powder)
- 1 tbsp fennel seeds
- 1 cup fennel stalk
- 1 clove garlic
- 2 tbs ghee
- 1/2-inch fresh ginger
- 1/4 cup cut onion
1. Finely shred the fennel and cabbage in your food processor or with a cheese grater.
2. In a large pot, sauté with onion, garlic, and spices in ghee until soft.
3. Dice fish fillets and add to pot.
4. Pour in coconut milk and simmer for 25 minutes to ensure fish is cooked throughout.
Kapha Balancing bedtime drink
- 1 teaspoon Organic Ashwagandha powder
- ¼ teaspoon turmeric powder
- 1 pinch of black pepper
- ¼ teaspoon nutmeg
- 150 ml of almond milk
- Honey for taste if required
Add all the contents together with almond milk and heat it while stirring. Allow it to cool down to lukewarm temperature and consume at bedtime.
*Roth T. Insomnia: definition, prevalence, etiology, and consequences. J Clin Sleep Med. 2007;3(5 Suppl):S7–S10.
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