A Mind-Body Prescription for Restful Sleep

07/08/2011 Mind-Body Health Ayurveda Healing Wisdom Health and Wellness Meditation Sleep

Do you have trouble falling asleep? Do you frequently wake up throughout the night, unable to drift back into a restful slumber? Do you feel exhausted when you get up in the morning, wishing you could crawl back under the covers for another hour or longer? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may be like one of the millions of people who suffer from sleep disturbance.

Why Do We Need to Sleep?

The physicians who developed the healing system of Ayurveda  thousands of years ago had wisdom about sleep that is now being confirmed by modern medical research: Restful sleep is one of the foundations for good health. We need sleep to rejuvenate our bodies as well as our minds. During sleep, the body repairs and regenerates tissues, builds bone and muscle, and appears to strengthen the immune system.  Sleep also plays a role in memory and learning.

Not sleeping well not only affects our quality of life but may also increase mortality and is associated with a number of serious medical issues including high blood pressure, obesity, heart attack, stroke, and mood disorders. If you have chronic insomnia (lasting more than one month), it may be important to be seen by a healthcare practitioner.

Why Does Sleep Get Disrupted?

One-third of our lives are spent in the sleeping state, and yet with today’s hectic, fast-paced life our inherent need for rest is often not achieved or prioritized. Chronic sleep problems may be a result of lifestyle choices and habits that don’t promote our natural sleep-wake cycle. Sleep is also often disturbed during major life events or transitions, which trigger a stress response. In addition, sleep disorders can result from medical or psychiatric conditions and from medications or other substances used to treat these conditions. In any case, when we have trouble falling asleep or we keep waking in the night, our sleep cycles get interrupted and we are deprived of the healing effects of sleep.

The Quick Fix Is Not Always the Best Answer

Very often the easy solution to poor sleep is medication, and in the past six years, the number of prescriptions given for sleeping medications have more than doubled. However, both prescription and over-the-counter medications have downsides. Although they may work initially to put you to sleep, many people end up waking in the middle of the night, feel groggy or “hung over” in the morning, or are unable to recall dreams (which may be due to a medication-induced sleep disturbance). In addition, many people feel that they become dependent on these substances in order to sleep.

I recently had a medical consultation with a guest at our Perfect Health program who had been struggling with poor sleep since the death of her husband three years ago. Marie’s primary care doctor had initially prescribed a medication that helped somewhat, but as she continued to take it the effectiveness diminished and she started to wake up in the night despite taking the medication. The day after I counseled her on suggestions to improve her sleep based on Ayurvedic principles, I found her waiting for me excitedly outside of my door, bursting with the news, “Doctor, last night I slept all night for the first time in three years!”

Restore Natural Harmony with Ayurvedic Principles

The Ayurvedic approach to improving sleep is to encourage balance in both our inner and our outer environments, restoring the rhythm of our natural sleep-wake cycles. This entails setting up a daily routine that follows nature’s circadian rhythms, reducing internal and external stimulants, and creating a sleep-promoting bedtime ritual.

Our body has natural rhythms of mental and physical activity known as circadian rhythms. Most of these rhythms, including our sleep/wake cycle are controlled by our “biological clock,” which has evolved in synchrony with nature’s light-dark cycle. So when the sun rises, our body naturally becomes more alert and active, and as the sun sets, our body increases its level of natural chemicals such as melatonin that start to slow us down and prepare us for sleep.

Electric lighting has now made it possible for human beings to work well into the night, and many people now have lifestyles that run counter to the rhythms and cycles of nature, thus creating an imbalance in the body.

Ayurveda has an inherent understanding of nature’s rhythms and teaches that in order to get restful sleep, it is best to have regular sleeping and waking times that follow the circadian rhythm of light and dark and do not vary too much from day to day. Ayurveda recommends a bedtime around 10 p.m. to take advantage of the natural cycle of slowing down (Kapha principle), and a waking time of around 6 a.m. or approximately the time of the sunrise. This gives us eight hours of rest although some people need more or less than the general rule of eight hours. Ideally, you should wake up feeling refreshed and without the need for an alarm clock. If your sleep times are significantly different from this guideline, try shifting your bedtime closer to your goal by about fifteen minutes each week.

To help your body align with a sleep-wake natural cycle, be sure to get outside for a dose of sunlight that our bodies need. Ten to twenty minutes of mid-day sun exposure can help to cue our biological clocks (as well as help the body to produce vitamin D if your arms and legs are exposed and you are not wearing sunscreen) In addition, it is important to reduce exposure to light at night. The blue end of the light spectrum – emitted by sources such as TVs, computer screens, and ordinary light bulbs – suppresses the body’s natural production of melatonin, a substance that plays a role in sleep, hormonal regulation, immune function, and other biological functions. It is thought that being exposed to too much light at night is the environmental equivalent of ingesting caffeine before bed, so dim the lights and turn off the screens at least two hours before you want to go to sleep. Consider using special light bulbs in your bedroom that block blue light.

What About Naps?

If you are having a hard time falling asleep at a reasonable hour, then naps are likely to further disrupt your sleep cycle. Occasionally we need additional sleep – a short nap or sleeping in – but making this a regular habit may not necessarily be beneficial. If you do choose to take a nap, make it short (less than thirty minutes) and do not nap after 4 p.m.

Having a regular daily routine for mealtimes and work/activity times also helps keep our inner body clock running smoothly. Daily physical activity is important, and research has shown that it may help improve sleep; however exercising after 6 or 7 p.m. may be too invigorating and make it difficult to fall asleep. Eating heavy foods or late night meals can also disturb sleep.

Minimize External Stimulants

Very often when we are not sleeping well, one of the first things we do to combat daytime sleepiness is to reach for an external pick-me-up, usually in the form of caffeine. However, studies have shown that even if you reach for your latte in the morning, it may still cause sleep disturbances hours later at night. This is because caffeine’s half-life is 7.5 hours, which means that seven and a half hours after you consume a caffeinated drink or food, you still have half the amount of caffeine in your bloodstream. These effects increase at increasing doses, so decreasing your intake will definitely help. To avoid any potential withdrawal symptoms, such as headaches, reduce your intake gradually.

In addition to coffee, which contains an average of 100 mg of caffeine per cup, there are many other sources of caffeine to be aware of, including tea (white, green, black, and oolong), decaffeinated coffee, colas, some non-cola sodas, chocolate, energy drinks, guarana, and yerba mate. Some over-the-counter weight loss pills, pain relievers, and cold medications may also contain significant amounts of caffeine.

How Alcohol Effects Sleep

Another common substance that is used in a misguided effort to rest is alcohol. While alcohol may seem to calm the nerves and help you fall asleep, consumption of alcohol can actually cause further sleep disorders by disrupting the sequence and duration of sleep states, altering total sleep time, and altering the time required to fall asleep. It is best to keep alcohol consumption to a minimum and avoid drinking alcohol within two hours of bedtime.

One must also be aware that certain medications can have stimulant-like effects or sedative effects that can disrupt the natural sleep cycle and contribute to insomnia or daytime sleepiness. It’s important to check with your doctor or pharmacist to review any effects that your prescription medications may have.

Setting the Stage for Restful Sleep

Aside from avoiding excessive light at night, reducing TV time close to bedtime also helps to minimize mental stimulation that can cause our minds to become too active or agitated. Make your bedroom a haven for rest and relaxation. Is your room cluttered with books, work, and other things for you to do? Having a habit of doing work in bed makes your brain associate being in bed with continued activity, not rest. Use your bed only for resting and lovemaking to end the association with continuing activity of your mind when you are trying to get to sleep.

But even without purposefully bringing mental activity into the bedroom, our minds may still be preventing us from getting our much needed rest. According to some sleep experts, stress is the number one cause of short-term sleeping difficulties – be it job-related stress, relationship issues or health challenges. It is therefore important to tend to your emotional health before bedtime. Relaxation techniques such as journaling, meditation, breathwork, and guided imagery can help to quiet the mind and let the worries of the day fall away.

Soothing Aromas and Herbs

Using relaxation techniques as part of a regular bedtime ritual calms both body and mind and helps regulate our internal clock. Starting off with a warm shower or bath can help as we sleep better when we are cooling off. An unwinding self-abhyanga massage, paying particular attention to the head and feet, is another wonderful practice that can put your body at ease as well as producing feel good natural chemicals that combat anxiety and depression. Adding aromatherapy can further help the mind relax. Use calming aromas such as lavender, chamomile, or sandalwood essential oils in your bath or in other scented products such as candles or massage oils.

Consider brewing some calming herbal teas such as chamomile, valerian, lemon balm, or passion flower (which may also be taken as an herbal extract). The Ayurvedic sleep remedy of taking warm milk with cardamom and honey may be helpful because the ingredients have soothing and nourishing properties as well as the amino acid tryptophan, which is a precursor to the calming neurotransmitter serotonin. Tryptophan is also found in other foods such as nuts, seeds, dairy, eggs, and meat. A number of other natural remedies, such as the Ayurvedic herb ashwagandha, may be helpful. Always talk to your healthcare practitioner about the benefits and risks before taking any natural remedies.

Once you have completed your bedtime ritual, your body and mind should be prepped for a blissful night’s rest. It is important, however, not to try to force yourself to sleep. There is nothing relaxing about peering at the clock all night, wondering if you will ever get to sleep. If you are unable to fall asleep within fifteen to thirty minutes, get up and out of bed. Lying in bed wide awake can further exacerbate sleep disturbances because it reinforces the association between being in bed and being awake. Instead, go and do something relaxing until you naturally feel sleepy and then return to your bed.

If incorporating these suggestions does not help, you may want to consider a consultation with a sleep specialist to make sure there is no other disorder that is preventing you from getting the rest and rejuvenation that you need.


Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, fitness, or other health program.

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About the Author

Valencia Porter, M.D., M.P.H., F.A.C.N.

Chopra Center certified Perfect Health instructor
Dr. Valencia Porter is a leader in Integrative, Preventive, and Environmental Medicine, combining ancient wisdom traditions such as Ayurvedic Medicine with modern science. Double-Board Certified in General Preventive Medicine and Integrative Medicine, she has been a part of the Chopra Center medical team for the past decade, providing integrative medical consultations and teaching health professionals and the community how to achieve total mind, body, spirit health. She passionately advocates for real solutions to the global problems of climate change and pollution, knowing that personal and planetary health are intricately linked. Dr. Porter shares her extensive knowledge about the environment and...Read more