According to the Ayurvedic calendar, winter is ruled by the Vata dosha. Vata combines the earth elements of air and ether, or space. The cold and dark days of winter are often characterized by feelings of dryness, fast-paced movement, and lightness—all qualities of Vata’s earth elements.
However, even those with strong Vata influences need not be sentenced to sleepless nights all winter long. Use the following three tips to find more restful sleep.
1. Limit Artificial Light
Your body is regulated by hormones, which follow a regular pattern known as circadian rhythms. Circadian rhythms help normalize day-to-day functions, including hunger/satiety, energy, and the sleep/wake cycle. In their natural state, your circadian rhythms follow the pattern of the sun. The body is naturally flooded with the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin when the sun goes down and it is time to sleep. That same melatonin is suppressed when the sun rises, helping you wake up feeling refreshed.
The first hours of sunrise are flooded with blue light rays, which suppress melatonin. This helps you wake up. However, electronic devices emit similar blue light, which also tells your body it is time to wake up. This can be problematic when using a laptop, tablet, or smartphone in the hours before bedtime.
To help reset your circadian rhythms, try the following:
- Take a “weekend reboot.” A quick Internet search will reveal the time of sunrise in your area. Set an alarm to wake up at sunrise. Get out of bed and start your day with the rising sun. When the sun goes down, try using no artificial lights. Put away the electronic devices, and read or do basic chores by natural light such as a candle. You will likely find yourself feeling sleepy earlier than normal. Go to bed when you feel tired, and set an alarm to wake with the sun.
- Go camping. Camping outdoors for anywhere from two days to two weeks helps to naturally attune your body’s melatonin levels to the rising and setting of the sun.
- Put away electronic devices two to three hours before bedtime. Devices such as laptops, tablets, and smartphones emit blue light similar to the blue light rays present in the first hour of sunrise. This tricks the body into thinking it should be waking, when you are actually about to fall asleep.
2. Limit Between-Meal Snacking
The standard American eating pattern of frequent, small meals leads to a constant fluctuation of blood glucose levels. The body consistently burns glucose for energy, which is delivered through your mouth to your belly in a seemingly unending dose. These blood glucose fluctuations then continue after you fall asleep. The body has a hard time staying in deep sleep. As soon as your blood sugar falls, your body wants to wake up and find its next dose of carbohydrates.
Ayurveda recommends eating three meals daily, with little snacking. By limiting eating instances per day, the body burns through glucose and then relies on fat metabolism to make it to the next meal. Blood glucose fluctuations during fat metabolism are much more even than those of glucose metabolism. By allowing the body to burn through excess carbohydrates without replenishing with constant snacking, you set yourself up to be able to sustain a long, uninterrupted sleep.
If you do choose to have a bedtime snack, try to rely solely on a whole-food source (such as fruits and vegetables). Whole foods contain beneficial food components such as protein, fat, and fiber, which promote a slow-release response, and more even blood glucose fluctuation during digestion.
3. Eat Seasonally
In nature, the way to balancing a season’s qualities and affects can usually be found in foods naturally produced or consumed during that time of year.
During winter, it is common to rely on heavy/high-protein foods, nonperishable or canned vegetables, and citrus. Not surprisingly, many of these foods are also high in melatonin and tryptophan, a neurotransmitter directly responsible for the release of melatonin in the body.
The following seasonal winter foods can help promote a healthy sleep cycle:
- Nuts and seeds—oily and high protein (protein is constitution building and also warming)
- Dairy, including milk and cheese—provides animal protein (Pitta) and also promotes moisture (Kapha), both of which balance out Vata. The probiotics present in yogurt and aged cheese also help the body to digest the heavier foods of winter.
- Meat (chicken, fish, turkey, red meat)—animal proteins provide high-quality amino acids to help build your constitution. In addition, their digestion is slightly acidic and, therefore, warming and Pitta-increasing
- Whole grains (oats, rice, barley)
- Citrus (pineapple, oranges)
- Canned or stewed tomatoes—the skins especially are acidic and promote Pitta
Try to include foods from this list in each meal. A sample menu of seasonal, winter foods might look something like this:
- Breakfast: Cooked oatmeal, topped with sliced banana and a handful of walnuts
- Lunch: Salmon with pineapple salsa and seasoned brown rice
- Dinner: Broiled bell peppers, halved and stuffed with a tomato/rice/ground turkey filling
- Bedtime snack (optional): 6 oz. warm milk with cinnamon
It is never too late to become re-attuned to nature’s natural rhythms. By syncing your routine with the sun, limiting snacking, and eating seasonally, you can help your body find rejuvenation—and uninterrupted Zzz’s—in winter.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.
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