Sweet Dreams; The Life-Changing Power of a Good Night’s Sleep

Maybe it’s the Coronavirus, or maybe this is something you deal with normally, but many people report finding their sleep cycle disrupted. Insomnia can be experienced as either difficulty falling asleep, or trouble staying asleep. For some of us it’s ruminating thoughts or restless legs at night, while for others it’s the early morning anxiety wake-up call that comes around 3am or 4am. Some people find themselves engaged in a battle with the clock that leaves them feeling awful the next day. It’s not the cycle we are seeking.

A healthy circadian rhythm links our internal body clocks with the natural world. Exposure to natural sunlight is part of this story. That ‘snap’ instant wakefulness with worry and all the physiological sensations of stress like rapid heartrate, shallow breathing, and a queasiness in the pit of the stomach, is not how nature intended it to be. Instead, the rising sun should ideally prompt a gradual shift into waking consciousness.

Not only do you feel tired/wired or both, if you are waking up long before the birds, or staying up half the night consistently, this is likely to impact your health.  If you have the early wake up pattern, it’s likely that your cortisol levels are high and probably staying quite high or having a flat slope, when the ideal picture is the level of this stress hormone secreted by the adrenal cortex, should slope down throughout the day so you are relaxed, calm and sleepy in the evenings. Living with prolonged high cortisol is linked to systemic inflammation, increased appetite, anxiety and depression, all of which makes sense because your body, via the nervous system, is convinced you’re in a life or death situation and you’d better hang onto resources, keep yourself warm, and have a short term survival benefit. Cortisol has other effects too – it’s a natural painkiller, not just physically, but it also blunts emotion, making it harder for us to connect with each other and feel empathy for one another.

Research has found that working night shifts increased the likelihood of cancer and other chronic diseases. You can read a literature review here https://search.proquest.com/openview/0e7602ea7eba9b130bb71cc93eb68ea1/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=45820 if you’d like to learn more. Suffice to say the World Health Organisation has stated that all forms of nightwork can be considered carcinogenic.

What can Yoga and its’ sister science Ayurveda offer to help us access the healing power of a decent sleep?

Insomnia might be characterised in Ayurvedic terms as a state of Vata excess, and Kapha deficiency. So lifestyle, herbal, and massage remedies aim to ground, hydrate, and balance the nervous system.

  • warm water – as a drink, shower, or bath
  • nadi sodhana – alternate nostril breathing is said to balance the hemispheres of the brain, and bring prana to the central channel sushumna
  • warm milk – not just an old wives tale, there’s some natural sedative effect of the tryptophan in milk, and warmed up it feels very comforting. You can add a tiny pinch of nutmeg for additional nurturance.
  • self-massage – I often teach this at the end of an asana practice, but it can be done anytime. Rub your hands together to make them warm, and apply pressure or make circular movements at the temples, around your belly (up on the right is a general rule to flow with samana vayu and the digestive tract where the ascending colon is on the right, descending on left), try massaging your scalp like you want to lift the roots of the hair and encourage blood flow, and of course, self-massaging the soles of the feet while in a butterfly pose is grounding and divine. You can use an oil such as sesame or almond, or dry massage is fine too.
  • herbal teas – still with the warm drink theme, follow your preference for chamomile, valerian, hops, skullcap, or ashwagandha (the powder is widely available even in some supermarkets – mix a teaspoon with warm milk and honey).
  • try having your biggest meal at lunchtime when digestive agni is at its’ peak. Avoid being too hungry or too full at bedtime
  • regular sleep and wake cycles – according to the clock of Ayurveda, it’s wise to be asleep before 10pm. Ever noticed how you get a ‘second wind’ late at night? That’s explained by the rising Pitta energy after 10pm.
  • consider all the usual sleep hygiene recommendations of course – turn off devices at least an hour before bed, keep your window open if possible, or have a slightly cooler room, minimise clutter, get adequate exercise earlier in the day, avoid or minimise caffeine, and keep the bedroom for sex and sleep only.

If you are still struggling with your sleep, try practicing Yoga Nidra regularly. Here’s an audio recording you can use, it goes for about 45 minutes. Most people don’t hear the ending 🙂