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By Kester Marshall
"Happiness, misery, nourishment, emaciation, strength, weakness, virility, sterility, knowledge, ignorance, life and death - all these occur depending on proper or improper sleep." (Charaka, Sutra-XXI; 36-38).
In Ayurveda healthy sleep is listed as one of the three supports responsible for upholding our life sustaining processes. It is believed that good quality sleep at the right time of night is one of the greatest medicines, capable of promoting a strong immune system, healthy body tissues and even a longer life span! It stands to reason that insomnia or 'night awakening' has the opposite effect. It can affect our digestion, deplete our tissues and exhaust the very foundation of our immune system and longevity - our Ojas.
Ayurveda teaches that the major cause of insomnia is a 'Rajasic' state of mind, fueled by overactivity and overstimulation. The quality of Rajas drives us ever outward; seeking, striving and trying to solve problems that may or may not exist... and then worrying about their potential outcomes. The other main cause is disturbed Vata (Air/Ether) Dosha. But these two often go hand in hand. A Rajasic mind will aggravate Vata just as aggravated Vata will encourage Rajas in the mind.
Ayurveda gives a straightforward list of factors that are likely to cause insomnia. They include: overwork; fear, anxiety, grief or anger; excessive fasting; excessive purification therapies; an uncomfortable bed; old age; and diseases of Vata. Other causes include the excessive consumption of cold, rough, raw or dry food; excessive change; excessive exercise or not enough exercise; and intense mental work without the appropriate physical activity to balance it out - that is, spending too much time in our heads and not enough in our bodies.
Time is also a major factor. Vata is naturally increased between 2am and 6am, during changes of season and during the transitional phases in our natural life cycle - namely puberty and menopause, but especially the latter. At around 50 years of age we all move from a stage of Pitta predominance into a time when Vata begins to exert its influence on our physiology. At the same time our social and family roles tend to change which in our culture is often met with a good deal of fear and apprehension. This propels an already Vata affected physiology into a state of aggravation and sleepless nights ensue.
How then to remedy the situation? The first thing to do is to remove any obvious causes (keeping in mind that they may not always be obvious, nor easy to change). The next is to adopt some simple, effective measures to pacify Vata and calm any over activity in the mind and nervous system.
Here are some home remedy tips for insomnia:
• Get out of your head and into your body with some gentle, grounding, mindful exercise like Yoga, Qi Jong or Tai Chi
• Have a warm, light meal in the evening that is not too spicy, such as soup.
• Allow at least three hours after dinner before retiring to bed and do not use this time for work or study.
• Try to avoid coffee or other stimulants in the afternoon and evening.
• Indulge in pleasurable, relaxing activities in the evening (such as reading or a little meditation) and enjoy scents and music that you find calming. (Note - the telly, angry birds and facebook are not really relaxing... although the mind may feel 'switched off', stimulating images will still have an effect on your nervous system and state of mind.)
• Massage the scalp and feet (including the soles) before bed with warm almond or sesame oil. This is an excellent practice for pacifying Vata.
• Drink a small cup of warm milk with a teaspoon of ghee and a pinch of nutmeg before bed - this helps to calm the mind and induce sleep.
• Last but not least, make sure your bed and pillows are comfortable and that you get to bed by 10pm at the latest. This is the end of the time of day influenced by kapha and therefore the most conducive to sound, restful sleep.
Obviously missing a bit of sleep is not the end of the world, but if it is prolonged it can make us really miserable, have lasting effects on our mental and physical health and can be indicative of a more widespread state of imbalance that needs addressing. If you suffer from long-term insomnia, consider seeing a Practitioner to get more specific advice and treatments.
The best thing about Ayurvedic treatments for insomnia is they are delicious and nourishing... there is no hardship or displeasure involved! In Ayurveda it is said that 'like increases like', so if we are to receive the gift of deep, restful, healing sleep, we must introduce a dose of this feeling into the way we treat and appreciate ourselves during the day.
If you are in any doubt about your health please be sure to consult an Ayurvedic Practitioner or your local health physician.
**Ayurvedic Cleansing & Rejuvenation Programs are now available at the Mudita Health Clinic in Mullumbimby. For more information email see our Cleanses page.**
Agni - the digestive fire.
Ama or Aama - undigested food waste, toxins.
Ojas- the foundation of our immune system and longevity.
Dhatus - the tissues of the body.
Srotas - the channels of the body.
Vata - the air/ether
intelligence in the body.
Pitta- the fire/water
intelligence in the body.
Kapha- the water/earth intelligence in the body.
Sattva- the quality of purity, intelligence, peace and love.
Rajas- the quality of
turbulence and activity.
Tamas- the quality of
dullness, darkness and inertia.
Rasa - the taste of a food (Sweet, Sour, Salty, Pungent, Bitter, Astringent)
Virya - second level of digestion (either Heating or Cooling)
Vipaka - third level of digestion, the deep taste of a food (can be Sweet, Sour or Pungent)
Prabhav - the 'special effect' of a food or herb/spice
Rasa - also the name for plasma tissue
Rakta - blood tissue
Mamsa - muscle tissue
Meda - fat tissue
Asthi - bone tissue
Majja - nerve & bone marrow tissue
Shukra - sexual reproductive tissue