Sleep, I love you so much, and yet, I fear you. Sleep is king; the power sleep lords over us is greater than all the gold ringing in the coffer. We need it desperately, requiring sleep in order to function in every single way. To be able to navigate the world without snapping, crying, or withdrawing. To loving serve our children, family, community, and boss without being acerbic. Basically, we need sleep to be a good human. But, what if sleep is not your forte? What if going to bed fills you with trepidation and uncertainty? Will I sleep tonight, or will it be disturbed and full of chaotic dreams?
Rest assured, Ayurveda offers the key to decoding your seemingly erratic sleep patterns. For those unaware, one of the cornerstones of Ayurveda is following a daily routine. In modern parlance, this would refer to heeding the call of circadian rhythms.
It is universally understood that human beings are diurnal creatures. Diurnal means awake during the day and sleeping, god willing, during the night. Nocturnal meaning the opposite, awake at night and sleeping during the day.
Contrary to popular belief, human beings are not designed to be night owls. However, through the force of habit, societal pressure, or jobs, many end up self-identifying as candle-wasters. While the practice of burning the midnight oil can be fun in your teens and early twenties, over time it becomes detrimental to your health.
Ayurveda recognizes that the daily clock is governed by the energies and qualities of the three doshas, vata, pitta, and kapha. Each dosha rules a 4 hour block of time in the morning and evening. Below is a breakdown:
6am – 10am = Kapha
10am- 2pm = Pitta
2pm – 6pm = Vata
6pm – 10pm = Kapha
10pm – 2am = Pitta
2am – 6am = Vata
For the sake of this article, we will be focusing on the last three time chunks.
The qualities of kapha are heavy, dense, stable, gross. Kapha is composed of earth and water. Together earth and water meld to form a thick, goopy substance. Kapha gives us physical structure and allows us to feel grounded. At 6pm, kapha rolls in and resides until 10 pm. Why is this important? Because it is the heavy, dense, stable energies of kapha that makes our body feel heavy and sleepy while watching Lester Holt. It’s okay to be tired at 8pm, that’s what nature intended, go to bed! Instead of repeatedly forcing your eyes open, GET IN BED! If you slip into bed when these heavier qualities are present, the chances are that you will fall asleep quickly, and most likely stay that way until the morning.
However, if you decide scrolling through Instagram is more appealing, no shame, then you will feel the energies of pitta, the next dosha in line. Pitta is derived from fire and water. While counterintuitive, pitta is mostly made up of fire, with a smattering of liquid. The liquid serves as a container to hold the fires of pitta. Similar to how our stomach is lined with a mucosa layer to protect the tissues from the fiery acids. Pitta is hot, sharp, and spreading. Uh oh. Do you see the difference between sweet, heavy, dense kapha and wildfire pitta? If given the choice, which qualities would you elect to have dominating your slumber? Seems like a no brainer, right? Kapha is the sure winner – kapha is maternal/paternal. Kapha wants you to get some shut eye.
Should you be awake at 10pm when pitta rears its spicy head, you will get a second wind. The boiler ticks on and the body’s temperature kicks up a few degrees. The biological function of this extra heat is similar to the nightly janitor coming in to clean house. Scientific research discovered that this is the time when the body is repairing cells, detoxifying the liver, and flushing out toxins through the lymphatic system. Clearly, this is a critical piece to being a thriving human. We need the janitor to come in every single night. Sure, if you stay up late every now and again, no biggie, but if this a nightly habit, not good.
Being up every night during the wee hours is akin to never cleaning your apartment or taking out your trash. Letting boxes pile up in the corner, leaving dust bunnies to form sentries under your couch, toothpaste film in your sink, and your compost bucket transforming into a liquid. You get the picture. If you are not detoxing nightly, then your channels are brimming with toxins that the body did not have the luxury to dispose of because you were noodling around on Twitter.
The final chunk of time to explore is from 2am-6am. This gem is ruled by Vata dosha. Vata is a marriage of the elements ether (space) and air. Space and air are not tangible, they are light, mobile, dry and rough. Imagine a brisk windy day, the wind whipping around the trees. We cannot physically capture the wind, but we can experience it through our senses. The wind is abrasive on our skin, overtime causing dryness and hyper-sensitivity. Once 2am hits, Vata is in charge and things may get a bit rough like the wind. The mind picks up speed, the senses are heightened and the emotional palate may be extreme and variable, like the wind. Tears, anxiety, grief, worry, frustration, loneliness, these emotions are all par for the course. This is when the wild dreams will take flight, all brought to you by Vata.
And without further adieu, onward to the insomnia analysis.
Why am I waking up at midnight, 2am or dawn?!
While most sleep experts would discourage you from looking at the clock when you wake in the middle of the night, Ayurveda would suggest taking a peek. Trust me, I get it, this part fills me with apprehension, but this information is critical to deprogramming the insomnia story.
Midnight-2am – Pitta Dosha
If you wake up at midnight, or in the pitta window of 10pm-2am, this points to a pitta imbalance. To throw in another layer, there are different organs that prevail during various 2 hour chunks of time. These organs are also connected with a dosha and an emotional overtone. The hours of midnight to 2am are governed by the heart, related to unresolved emotions- which can manifest as sadness or anger depending on the person.
Remember that these hours are ruled by pitta, pitta’s job is to metabolize, detoxify and transform once it punches the clock. The liver is one of the primary organs of detoxification, and you can bet the house that the liver is hard at work during the wee hours. Liver time begins at 2am! The liver is a hot, fiery organ, classically associated with anger. If you are living a life that is pitta aggravating, you may notice that you wake up around midnight dumping sweat and requiring copious amounts of water to quell the heat. What aggravates pitta?
- Citrus and sour fruits
- Spicy or fermented foods
- Fried Foods
- Not eating enough to feed the fire (pittas burn through food, salads are not going to cut it)
- Fighting, talking about politics
- Being overly competitive or regimented
- Not allowing space in your schedule to decompress
- Being a workaholic
- Lack of love, compassion and surrendering
- Negative self-talk
Perhaps if you had a glass of red wine before bed, you wake up because your liver is working in overdrive. Again, everything in moderation, simply take note and adjust. Balance with opposite qualities. Prefer less aggressive and intense foods and beverages. Get outside in nature, bring the heat out of the head by walking barefoot in the dewey grass or submerging them in cool water. Take in the expansiveness of the night sky, gaze at the moon.
Sleep Tips for Pitta:
- Black out curtains! Being photosensitive, a pitta cannot sleep if there is even a sliver of light. Invest in black out curtains or an eye mask.
- Keep the room on the cooler side, pittas have enough internal heat to keep them toasty.
- Metta meditation before bed (not the news!) – practice softening the heart and opening to more compassion. Pittas have the hardest time falling asleep, practicing gratitude is a perfect way to mitigate the fire of an analytical mind.
- Teaching or learning
- Naked in public
- Arriving late for a meeting/school/event
- Violence, battle, war, aggressive sex
- Burning buildings
- Tigers or Cats
2am- 4amVata Dosha
Curse you 2:45am! 2-3am is the most loathed wakeup call. This is the time of night where you startle awake as though someone tossed a bucket of ice cold water in your face. Gasp! You find yourself torn out of sleep, heart pounding and the mind amped up and ready to fret about everything under the sun.
For those with a predominance of vata, your sleep is light and interrupted. You may find yourself waking up every 2 hours due to excessive dreams or debilitating nightmares. As a result, the next day a vata sleeper is exhausted with poor energy. Lack of sleep dries out the channels and poor concentration, bloating, constipation, and eventually arthritis and rheumatism can ensue.
Recognizing that vata qualities will inevitably dominate in the hours of 2am-6am, you may find your thoughts become more mobile. These are the hours where the mind is bouncing like a Jack Russell Terrier. Oscillating like an industrial fan from emotion to emotion. Worrying about the state of humanity, picking at old childhood wounds, getting peeved at your snoring partner (or pet), tears of frustration followed by a cool resignation to your sleepless state. Ether and air are running wild, but what aggravates Vata?
- Coffee, chocolate, black tea
- Dry, light foods- salads, rice cakes, crackers, beans, leafy greens
- Cold food, beverages
- Skipping meals
- Eating on the run
- Irregular routine
- Being on a screen all day
- Excessive talking, or texting
- Engaging the mind too late into the night
- Too much sex
- Excessive movement- running, spinning, commuting, power yoga
- Overwhelming the senses
- Late fall to early winter
Balance cold, rough, dry, and mobile vata with grounding practices. Warm, cooked, gently spiced foods. Include oils internally and externally into your daily routine. Increase lubrication by adding a drizzle of olive oil to your cooked grains, or anointing the body with herbalized oil before a warm bath. Aggravated vata is soothed by dimming the lights, unplugging 2 hours before bed and playing spa.
Sleep Tips for Vata :
- Ear plugs! Vata types are hypersensitive to sound. These are the folks that can hear a clock ticking in the next room. Eliminate extra stimulation by wearing ear plugs.
- Make a nest. Weighted blankets, socks, sweatshirts, pillows to cuddle. Vatas cannot sleep in a cold room, make sure you are warm and cozy.
- Belly breathing – breathe deep and full, filling the entire belly. Exhale completely, wash, rinse, repeat.
- Being attacked or pushed
- Constant action
- Witnessing the death of a loved one
- Jail, or being locked up
- Being paralyzed with fright
- Birds or snakes
Dawn- Kapha Dosha
To be frank, I didn’t think there was such a thing as kapha insomnia. These earthy types are known to sleep like a log and are often prone to hypersomnia. These guys go down hard and fast and stay that way. Kaphas can sleep in any room, warm or cold, any bed. My partner is a kapha and he once fell asleep in a lawn chair, positioned on a busy street corner while holding a campaign sign for his pal running for City Council….he slept for 2 hours!
Waking a kapha up is not pretty, they love sleeping through their alarm and often beg for “just another 5 minutes”. They wake up puffy with eye crusts. Coffee was basically invented for kaphas, otherwise they would require a small crane to come excavate them each morning.
According to Dr. Vasant Lad, kaphas CAN have insomnia, though mild by comparison to the pitta or vata variety. While a kapha sleep soundly through the night, they may find themselves waking up at dawn and unable to get back to sleep. This can be a bummer, especially if they didn’t hit the pillow until midnight.
4-6am is related to the colon and bladder, which can explain some wakeup calls that are more a call of nature. Because vata is still prevailing, the emotional overtone during the bladder/colon hour is anxiety. 6am ushers in the lung hour. In both Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine, it is believed that the lungs are a repository for grief and sadness. It is not uncommon for breath to be constricted at 6am, or to feel glimmers of sorrow during the lung hours.
Kapha insomnia is often related to diet, namely overeating. Remember that kaphas are composed of the grosser elements, earth and water. Because of this, they have a propensity to put on weight, and keep it on. These extra pounds can interfere with breathing resulting in snoring, sleep apnea, mild depression, seasonal affective disorder and even restless leg syndrome. What aggravates kapha?
- Heavy foods – meat, wheat, dairy sugar
- Cold foods and drinks – ice cream, iced water, smoothies
- Excessively oily foods – nuts, avocados, coconut, olives
- A diet heavy in the sweet, sour and salty tastes
- Eating in between meals
- Eating too late at night
- Drinking your calories
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Lack of stimulation – mentally or physically
- Being married to a routine and unwilling to deviate
- Not vocalizing your needs
- Sleeping too many hours
- Staying in unhealthy relationships
- Late winter early spring
Balance heavy, slow, solid and cold kapha with the opposites. Bring in stimulation through vigorous exercise. Increase circulation by incorporating spices into your foods, like cinnamon, cayenne, black pepper, garlic, or ginger. Dry brush the skin to slough off old cells and move the lymph. Avoid eating wheat, meat, dairy and sugar in the spring, especially if you are prone to seasonal allergies. Spring clean! Organize your space and donate whatever you no longer need. A clutter free space creates a clutter free mind.
Sleep Tips for Kapha :
- Eat a light dinner, leaving at least 2 hours between your last bite and bed.
- Exercise daily
- To cultivate gratitude and temper any seasonal depression, before counting sheep, make a mental list of 3 glorious things that happened that day.
- Feature water or snow
- Finding money
- Eating sweets
- Arriving late
- Seeing themselves dead
- Ocean animals, elephants or swans
Well, there you have it, the user’s manual for solving those pesky sleep interruptions. Next time you are ripped from a deep sleep for seemingly no reason, glance at the clock and note the time. Allow this information to help you decipher a potential doshic imbalance.
Remember, no one is impervious to temporal or seasonal changes. Meaning, you may find you have more kapha sleep issues in the spring, pitta in the summer, and vata in the winter. I invite you to dive inside, be your own healer and get that sleep back on track, stat.