The Sleep Benefits of Ayurvedic Medicine
This traditional medical practice can have a huge impact on your sleep.
Posted August 14, 2020
You’ve heard me talk a lot about circadian biorhythms, and how crucial they are to our sleep and our broader health. What if I told you there is a form of medicine that has advocated the importance of daily biorhythms—the daily when—for thousands of years?
Ayurvedic medicine is probably the first adopter of bio time as a foundation of medicine and disease prevention. The earliest Ayurvedic practitioners understood that the when of daily life—of sleeping, eating, exercising, performing mental and physical tasks—has a huge impact on how we think, feel, and age, and how healthy we are.
That makes this traditional medicine inherently sleep supporting. There are other principles of Ayurveda that are tailor-made to support sleep, including:
- A focus on balance, or homeostasis, in all aspects of life
- Consistency in routines
- A practice of letting go and calming the mind
- Optimism and gratitude in mindset
Today I’ll talk about what Ayurveda tells us about sleep and how to sleep better.
What Is Ayurveda?
Ayurveda, or Ayurvedic medicine, originated in the Indian subcontinent as much as 5,000 years ago. It’s been practiced ever since and is now used around the world, often as a complement to allopathic, or conventional Western medicine.
Ayurveda states that each person has a unique constitution, a combination of mental, physical, and emotional energies. While each of our constitutions is different, they’re all composed of three basic types of energy, called doshas. Each of the three doshas governs different parts of the body, mind, emotions, and experience:
Vata the energy associated with movement. It is composed of ether and air (two of the five elements that make up all energy). Its qualities are light and cold, and it is found in the bones, legs, ears, and colon, among other places in the body. In balance, vata feeds creativity and flexibility. When vata is out of balance, it stokes fear and anxiety.
Pitta is composed of fire and water. Ayurveda says Pitta has sharp, hot, liquid, and searing qualities. Pitta is deeply involved in digestion. It works in the intestines, stomach, sweat glands, blood, and lymphatic system. In balance, pitta fuels intelligence and understanding. Out of balance, it can give rise to anger, hate, and jealousy.
Kapha is made up of earth and water. Its qualities are cold, wet, heavy, and solid. Kapha resides in the chest, lungs, throat, health, stomach, lymphatic system, and in fat. In balance, kapha promotes compassion, love, and forgiveness. Out of balance, it can lead to unhealthy attachment and envy.
In each of us, one of these energies is typically dominant, our primary energy force, and the other two are present in smaller degrees.
The fundamental goal of Ayurveda is balance. A person’s natural constitution—their makeup of vata, pitta, and kapha energies–is inherently balanced. A constitution in balance is optimal for health. But challenges of life throw doshas out of balance—and this leads to dysfunction in the body, and to disease. What are those challenges?
- Stress and negativity
- Environment, everything from light to toxins and pollution
Ayurvedic medicine works to maintain and restore balance, for all aspects of life—including sleep.
Sleep in Ayurveda
Ayurvedic medicine from its origins has recognized sleep as essential to life and health. Sleep (nidra) is considered one of the pillars of health along with energy management (brahmacharaya) and food (ahara).
An Ayurvedic text describes the pivotal, life-forming role of sleep this way:
(Hat tip to this terrific article at Kripalu for sharing this quote.)
Ayurveda also puts great importance on the when of sleep. Thousands of years before modern scientists identified the circadian biological clocks that regulate our sleep as well as our mental, physical and emotional lives, Ayurveda understood and promoted the importance of the timing of activities, including sleep. Ayurveda also advocates the importance of consistency, and routine, to sleep.
Chronobiology and circadian-based medicine are today at the forefront of preventative health care and disease treatment. (I’ve talked about how circadian knowledge and treatment are being used in the treatment of diseases including cancer and Alzheimer’s.)
Ayurvedic medicine has been using biorhythms as therapy for thousands of years.
Michael J. Breus, Ph.D., DABSM