Why we Need Sufficient Sleep
According to Ayurveda, getting enough restful sleep is just as important as a healthy diet. Modern science agrees - sleep is necessary for cognitive and physiological functions. Proper rest boosts immunity, happiness, focus and decision-making skills. But lack of sleep (or too much sleep in the case of Kapha imbalances) increases the likelihood of making mistakes in work and school and developing a myriad of mental, emotional and physical problems! Not to mention it is frustrating and distracting, whether there’s trouble falling asleep, waking up repeatedly in the middle of the night or being very groggy in the morning and having difficulty getting out of bed.
Scientists have been studying the in’s and out’s of sleep for years – we spend about 1/3 of our lives asleep – and the basis of what they have come up with is that sleep is the body’s time to rest, rejuvenate, detoxify and renew on all levels. Sleep has a powerful effect over the brain and emotional and behavioral health. Tissue repair, muscle growth, protein synthesis and the releasing of growth hormones all occur during sleep as well. Not to mention there are studies that have linked the growth of cancer cells to a lack of sleep.
Children and infants are in particular need of good sleep because of sleep’s major influence over brain development, but because of their sensitivity to food and outside stimulation, kids can sometimes be the most common sufferers of insomnia. For adults, sleep helps the brain to form new neural pathways and strengthen synapses that correlate with memory and learning.
But it’s not always possible to get the best sleep, whether its traveling, work events or a social life that keeps us up later or wakes us up earlier than is biologically optimal. Luckily for the human race, Ayurveda has extensive knowledge and effective remedies for promoting deep, balanced, satisfying sleep.
Why We Can’t Sleep
Excess Vata and the disruption of the five Vayus (Sub-doshas of Vata) is one of the biggest factors causing insomnia. Two of the main symptoms of Vata excess is anxiety and racing thoughts, which are both common complaints coming from people who have difficulty falling and staying asleep. The overthinking and anxiety forces too much prana up into the head, creating insomnia. Thus, most Ayurvedic treatments center on balancing Vata Dosha. Vata is made up of the qualities of wind, movement, change, light, dryness, airiness, instability and cold. To combat insomnia the opposite must be practiced – staying grounded, stable and warm.
Are You Experiencing A Vata, Kapha or Pitta Type Sleep Imbalance?
In Ayurveda sleep disorders are placed into three different categories: Vata, Pitta or Kapha. For each category there are unique signs and there is a specific line of treatment. The type of sleep disturbance someone experiences is determined by their constitution and their current state of balance.
The next three sections will explain the different sleeping tendencies of Pitta, Kapha and Vata types and the specific ways the Doshas’ manifest as imbalances in sleep patterns.
Stable Kapha’s fall asleep easily, stay asleep through the night and can pretty much catch some Z’s anywhere. Good luck trying to wake them up! Kapha types enjoy sleeping for long hours with lots of fluffy covers on a very soft bed. But in Ayurveda opposites bring balance. Kapha types thrive on less sleep than Vata’s or Pitta’s, and they will usually have calm, slow, emotional dreams with people they know in them.
When Kapha Dosha is out of balance, sleeping will become excessive and accompanied by difficulty waking up, grogginess, procrastination, heaviness and laziness. Nidradhikya is used to describe too much sleep in Sanskrit. Because the Kapha time of day is from around 6am-10am (and 6pm-10pm) it is easy for Kapha’s to sleep in for a long time and go to bed early.
Vata sleep imbalances lead to rest that is unsatisfying and irregular. A Vata-dominant person will want a bed that is very soft and warm since they typically have thinner skin and bonier frames, and will usually sleep less than Pitta’s or Kapha’s, though they would benefit most from sleeping more than the other two Doshic types. Sleep walking, grinding teeth, talking during sleep and having lots of dreams that center around chases or flying are also typical Vata sleep occurrences.
Vata imbalances can cause difficulty falling asleep but typically Vata excess will cause waking up at least once in the night, probably in the very early morning hours starting at 2am (Vata time), and it will be hard if not impossible to fall back asleep. In Sanskrit the term for sleeplessness is Asvapna.
Fiery Pitta people don’t usually have difficulty getting a good night’s rest, but they can be light sleepers who prefer a firm bed and little to no covers because of their warm nature and dislike of getting too hot. If they do happen to wake up, however, it’s not difficult for them to fall back asleep. The amount of sleep Pitta’s thrive on is moderate, around 6 hours, somewhere in-between the ideal amount for Vata (7-8) and Kapha (5-6) types. They will usually have active dreams with adventures and fights. With an exciting project or a tight deadline Pitta’s can tend to get very involved with their pursuits and give up on sleep to work instead.
When in excess, Pitta Dosha can make it very difficult to fall asleep because the Pitta time of day is from 10pm-2am, when most people are trying to wind down. But this is when Pitta is the most active and will increase ambition and motivation and wipe out any desire for sleep or rest. People who are “night owls” and get a lot done after 10pm are influenced by Pitta. However, staying up late and working at night will only exacerbate the problem, which is why it is so important to balance Pitta and make sure to start winding down earlier in the evening than Vata’s or Kapha’s!
Part 2 in our sleep series will cover the specific Ayurvedic remedies and practices to prescribe your client to help them sleep depending on their specific imbalance. Until next time, here are three Ayurvedic combinations that can help relieve insomnia in general.
Sources & References
Contributing Editor and Source: Dr. JV Hebbar
Ellenbogen, Jeffrey M. "Cognitive benefits of sleep and their loss due to sleep deprivation." Neurology 64.7 (2005): E25-E27.
Kumar, V. Mohan. "Sleep medicine in ancient and traditional India." Sleep medicine. Springer New York, 2015. 25-28.
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Ahh, Kapha. A Dosha that we all have, made up of earth and water. It gives us many of our best human qualities, such as our grounding, stability and warm emotions. When in excess however, it can have negative consequences on our overall health.
To reduce or pacify kapha, Ayurveda has given us dietary, lifestyle and herbal treatment strategies. To reduce Kapha, emphasize stimulation, exercise, lightening, warming and drying in your diet and lifestyle.