Sleepless in America
Balancing Vata, Pitta and Kapha Sleep Disorders with Maharishi Ayurveda
Q: Research shows that lack of sleep causes major health problems, both in the short and the long term. Yet one in three Americans gets less than six and one-half hours of sleep a night, placing them at risk for serious disease. What does Maharishi Ayurveda say about sleep and its relationship to health?
A: Sleep is one of the pillars of Maharishi Ayurveda, and is considered to be as important as diet in maintaining health and balance in the body. Sleep is the time when the body is able to repair and heal itself. The mind and emotions also become balanced through sleep.
Quantity of sleep is important, and recent research shows that most adults need an average of eight hours of sleep. Too little sleep impacts many physical, emotional, mental and social factors, as does too much sleep.
Maharishi Ayurveda also looks at quality of sleep. If you are waking up tired or stiff, that's a sign of an imbalance. Or if you are sleeping so lightly that you don't feel rested when you wake up, that also needs to be addressed.
According to the ayurvedic perspective, sleep takes place when the mind completely detaches itself from the objects of the senses. As you start to feel drowsy, the mind is naturally able to let go of the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and feelings that grip your mind in the waking state. Then your mind and body can rest deeply.
But if your mind is not able to let go of pressing thoughts, if it is still churning, you might fall asleep, but your mind is only partially at rest. Partial detachment results in only partial rest, while complete separation of the mind from the senses results in complete rest. The deepest sleep takes place when the mind is completely detached.
There is a beautiful verse from the Upanishads that describes effortless, healthy, deep sleep: As a falcon or an eagle, having flown through the sky and grown weary, spreads its wings and glides down to its nest, even so this person hastens to that state of sleep where he desires no desires and dreams no dreams. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 4.3.19.
Q: Is the inability of the mind to detach from the senses the main cause of sleep problems?
A: It is the cause of one type of sleep problem, and its underlying origin is a Vata imbalance. There are actually three major types of sleep imbalances, according to Maharishi Ayurveda, caused by imbalances in Vata, Pitta or Kapha. I think the best way to explain these three disorders is through three case histories of actual people who were able to solve their sleep problems.
Roberta*, a manager in the computer software industry, came to me for advice because she was having a problem falling asleep. Whenever she went to bed, her mind filled with gripping thoughts about the problems she needed to solve the next day. Each night she tossed and turned for a few hours. Even when she finally fell asleep, her sleep wasn't restful and she woke up feeling groggy. She felt unable to handle even the day-to-day stresses related to her job as a manager, and was fatigued most of the time.
In order to educate Roberta in ways to manage this disorder, I first explained to her that this was a classic case of Vata imbalance, when the coordination between dhi, dhriti and smriti (learning, retention and recall) becomes weak. In this case, the mind becomes identified with the objects of the senses. For example, if you start to think about a lemon and you get a sour taste in your mouth, your mind is actually producing the effect of tasting the actual lemon. The mind is no longer acting like a mind; it has started to act as an extension of the senses.
In the same way, if you are trying to sleep and your mind is thinking about all the events of the day and reproducing the feelings and emotions that accompanied them, it is unable to detach and rest properly in sleep. Either you won't be able to fall asleep, or your sleep will be so light and restless that you'll wake up tired.
After 45 days of the following regimen, Roberta was able to fall asleep easily and sleep more deeply.
Tips for Vata Sleep Imbalance
a) Help your mind detach from the senses. Avoid too much stimulation at night. Enjoy pleasant activities like a short walk, visiting with friends, listening to music, or reading uplifting books or scriptures. Too much stimulation at night (such as watching too much TV, watching frightening or disturbing movies, or working on the computer) can cause the mind to become gripped by the senses and make it very difficult to fall asleep.
b) Massage Youthful Skin Massage Oil for Men or Women into your hands and feet. Take a few minutes to gently rub the area with the flat of your palms. This oil is non-greasy and non-staining, so you don't have to bathe afterwards if you are out of time. However, if you do have time, a warm bath before bed can help you relax and fall asleep. Use relaxing therapeutic bath salts to soothe any aches and to relax your muscles.
c) Drink Slumber Time Tea before bed. This mixture of spices and herbs is especially designed to help calm the mind and emotions.
d) Let go of body tension. It helps to have the attitude of total surrender when going to bed. Some people become so upset at the thought of not being able to fall asleep that their body becomes tense and perpetuates the problem.
Let your body surrender to the bed. Use the rest pose of Yoga Asanas, lying on your back with your hands loose at your sides. Allow tension to flow out of your body. You can also let your awareness go to your breath, or to any tight areas in your body. Paying attention to the breath also helps the mind disconnect from the senses and fall asleep. But don't strain to focus on your breath. If your mind drifts off, that's the point.
e) Let go of your problems. Bedtime is not the time to try to solve your problems. After all, you can't make a phone call or work while you're sleeping. That's why I advised Roberta to take whatever stress she was dealing with, whatever problems she had, and place them in a mental file; then hand that file over to Nature or to God, or to her higher Self, until morning. Let Nature take care of your problems while you sleep. Just having this attitude can help a lot.
An analogy explains how this works. In the summer, children play happily outside. They don't worry about the fact that the weather will change and that they will soon need winter coats. But the mother, who anticipates every need for her children, goes out and buys the coats even before the weather turns cold. The children in this analogy are the intellect, which solves problems based on the information at hand. The mother is consciousness, which can see in advance and can take all aspects of life into consideration to solve a problem. So if we bear in mind that consciousness, or Nature, is organizing everything, it may help us to stop thinking and analyzing while falling asleep. It's a common experience that when you rest deeply, you wake up feeling more clear, with a fresh insight into a problem.
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f) Eat foods that balance Vata. Because this sleep problem is caused by a Vata imbalance, it's important to correct that imbalance through diet. Eat warm, cooked, unctuous but easy-to-digest foods such as asparagus soup, lentils and rice. Eat more foods with the sweet, sour and salty tastes. Ghee, milk, rice, wheat, asparagus, zucchini and other summer squashes, melons, papaya, and cooked apple or pear are all excellent Vata-pacifying foods.
Minimize spicy, bitter and astringent foods, or foods that are too drying, like crackers or dried cereal. Raw salads and even too much raw fruit can create a Vata imbalance. Cook your vegetables and eat your fruits cooked as well. Avoid caffeinated drinks or foods of any kind, including chocolate. Even a small cup of coffee in the morning can affect your sleep at night.
g) Schedule your day so you can eat three warm, cooked meals, with the biggest meal at noon. Eat dinner before 7:00 p.m., so it has time to digest before bed. Go to bed well before 10:00 p.m.; if possible by 9:30. This allows you to use the sleepy, duller Kapha time of night to help you fall asleep. If you fall asleep before 10:00, the quality of your entire night's sleep will also be much deeper. Have a regular schedule of sleeping before 10:00 p.m. and waking up before 6:00 a.m., and this will help your body to naturally start feeling sleepy when bedtime comes. To balance Vata, a regular routine is important.
h) If you are facing mental worries or mental stress in your life, take Worry Free tablets. This is a powerful way to calm your mind without creating sleepiness during the day. Unlike tranquilizers, it actually heightens alertness while it creates a more serene mental outlook. The medhya herbs strengthen the coordination between dhi, dhriti and smriti, the three aspects of memory (learning, retention and recall). Research at the University of California, San Diego, verifies the experience of hundreds of people who have found their worries subsiding and their focus and ability to solve their problems increasing after taking Worry Free tablets. The Worry Free Tea creates similar effects.
Q: Now can you give our readers an example of a classic Pitta sleep disorder?
A: John*, a small business owner, had a classic case of Pitta sleep disorder. He had no problem falling asleep. But every night between 2:00 and 3:00 a.m. he woke up and could not fall back asleep for several hours. Worse, he was overcome with fear, making the experience even more unpleasant. This problem had been plaguing him for the past 10 years.
John had no obvious problems, no emotional trauma in his life, and no particular job stress. His problem was an imbalance in Sadhaka Pitta, the subdosha of Pitta associated with the heart and emotions.
People who are experiencing an emotional trauma in their lives, or simply people with high Pitta, are prone to this type of sleep disorder. Menopausal women often complain of hot flashes during the night, or night wakefulness associated with emotional turmoil. Other people might wake up with energy, with emotions such as anger or fear, or with a dry mouth — all symptoms of Pitta imbalance.
Within two weeks of starting the following recommendations, John was able to sleep through the night without having any emotional or Sadhaka Pitta-related emotional symptoms.
Tips for Pitta Sleep Imbalance
a) Take Deep Rest. This herbal formula is made especially for this particular problem of waking up in the early morning hours and being unable to fall back asleep. I suggested to John that he take it with a Date-milk Shake or Rice Pudding to provide additional protection from Pitta aggravation.
b) Keep your bedroom cool while sleeping. Crack the window slightly, or turn down the heat a few degrees. Research shows that people sleep deeper in a slightly cool environment. If the bedroom is too hot and stuffy, it increases the likelihood of night awakening.
c) Use Cooling Pitta Aroma Oil or Blissful Heart Therapeutic Aroma Oil when you go to bed. These therapeutic oils are both designed to pacify Pitta dosha, and Blissful Heart is especially targeted to balance Sadhaka Pitta.
During the Day
d) Eat more sweet, juicy fruits. I asked John whether he ate sweet fruits such as pears, and he said that he didn't. I advised John to eat a ripe pear each morning when he first woke up. I knew that eating sweet, juicy pears would be the answer for him, because they would provide more soma (the lunar energy element) and ojas, the substance that sustains bliss in the physiology. Whenever people have high Pitta, it can burn soma, which helps provide a good night's sleep, and also burns ojas, which coordinates the different aspects of digestion, smoothes the connection between mind and body, and allows the mind to relax for a good night's sleep. When I saw John after two weeks, he said, "The pear is like a sleeping pill for me!"
e) Eat Pitta-pacifying foods. The Pitta-pacifying diet involves eating more sweet, bitter and astringent foods. Astringent vegetables such as Brussels sprouts, cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower are suitable for Pitta types, as are sweet vegetables such as asparagus and summer squashes.
Eat less sour, salty and pungent foods. Especially avoid chilies, cayenne, and hot peppers of any kind. While sweet, juicy fruits cool Pitta and create ojas, sour citrus fruits increase heat and should be avoided. Yogurt is also sour, so should be avoided except in the form of lassi at lunch. Vinegar (as found in salad dressings, ketchup, mustard and pickles), and fermented foods such as tamari and alcoholic drinks also are extremely Pitta-aggravating and should be avoided, as should caffeinated foods and drinks. Alcohol and caffeine overload the liver with toxins, and because the liver is the seat of Pitta, it is important to avoid them if you want to balance Pitta dosha.
While ayurveda recommends cooked instead of raw foods, a person with a Pitta imbalance will probably want foods and drinks served room temperature rather than steaming hot. You can eat raw, sweet fruits and a small amount of raw, bitter greens in salads to tone your digestion.
If you feel hungry in the late afternoon and need a snack, have a cup of warm milk (boil milk and cool to drinkable temperature) with Organic Rose Petal Spread. This light snack is also suitable at bedtime (if you don't have the Rice Pudding or Date-Milk Shake then). It keeps you from waking up hungry, and the milk will help you fall asleep. Organic Rose Petal Spread is especially helpful in balancing Sadhaka Pitta, and helps prevent the kinds of Sadhaka Pitta imbalances that cause you to wake up with emotional turmoil in the middle of the night.
f) Follow a Pitta-pacifying lifestyle. One of the most important keys to sleeping well for a person with a Pitta imbalance is to fall asleep before 10:00 p.m. At 10:00 the Pitta phase of night begins, when the body needs to purify and rebuild itself. If you stay awake past 10:00, your sleep will take on the active, restless qualities of Pitta, and it will be much more difficult to rest deeply. You may also start feeling hungry after 10:00, and if you eat heavy snacks then you'll disrupt your digestion and prevent it from getting the rest and purification it needs.
For Pitta imbalances, it's important to eat a large-enough evening meal, so you don't feel hungry before bed. Other Pitta-pacifying lifestyle choices include eating three meals a day, at the same time every day, with the largest meal at noon. Skipping or delaying meals can throw Pitta out of kilter. Avoid getting overheated when you exercise, and avoid exercising in the sun. Choose cooling sports such as swimming, skiing, hiking in shaded areas or moonlight walks.
g) If you are experiencing emotional trauma in your life or find yourself getting emotional frequently, take Blissful Joy tablets to help further balance Sadhaka Pitta. This formula is extremely effective in lifting the spirit and restoring emotional equilibrium.
Q: And what about the Kapha type of sleep disorder?
A: This third type of sleep disorder is exemplified by David*, a businessman who had ama (toxins) in the mamsa and meda dhatus (the muscle and fat tissues). He was a typical Kapha type, with a large body build, a problem with weight control, and an easy-going personality. He was accustomed to eating a lot of cold, sweet foods which only aggravated his Kapha disorders further. I asked him how his sleep was, and he said, "Oh, fine, I sleep very well, nine or ten hours every night."
But when I asked how he felt when he woke up in the morning, he said, "I feel tired, and stiff. It's been almost ten years since I've felt any energy in the morning. I have to drink at least three cups of coffee just to wake up."
This is an example of a classic Kapha sleep disorder. The person sleeps long and deeply, but feels exhausted when he or she wakes up. Worse, a lethargic, dull feeling continues throughout the day.
After spending 45 days doing the following recommendations, David reported that although he still felt tired once in a while, most days he woke up feeling fresh and energetic, without a need for coffee.
Tips for a Kapha Sleep Disorder
a) Rise before 6:00 a.m. For a Kapha sleep disorder, it's absolutely essential not to sleep past 6:00 a.m., as this is the pivotal point when the Vata time of day is just ending. If you rise during the Vata time of morning (between 4:00 and 6:00 a.m.) instead, you'll feel infused with the light, alert, energetic qualities of Vata dosha. You will feel more alert and energetic throughout the day.
Sleeping past dawn, into the Kapha time of the morning (6:00-10:00 a.m.) causes ama to accumulate in the shrotas and creates a dull, tired feeling when you awaken. For any kind of Kapha disorder, it's important to be vigilant about this point, and, if you can, arise even earlier than 6:00.
During the Day
Kapha-pacifying Herbal Water
Boil two quarts of water in a large pan. Add the herbs and let them steep. Pour into a thermos and sip hot throughout the day.
c) Gradually decrease coffee consumption. For David, I suggested that he slowly convert to green tea instead of coffee. Green tea has many antioxidants and pacifies Kapha, but has little caffeine. But it is not recommended that you stop drinking it abruptly, as this can create symptoms of withdrawal. Instead, drink a little less coffee and a little more green tea every day until you have converted completely.
d) Eat a Kapha-pacifying diet. This includes avoiding desserts, especially heavy, cold sweets such as ice cream. Eat more bitter, astringent and pungent foods. Fried foods, leftovers, and any aged foods are to be avoided.
For the Kapha person, spicy foods help to invigorate the body and energize the digestion. Make sure your food is cooked and served hot. Light, easily-digestible foods such as soups, pulses and split beans, and cooked vegetables spiced with Organic Kapha Churna are recommended.
e) Follow Kapha-pacifying lifestyle tips. Vigorous exercise is essential for balancing Kapha. The best time to exercise is during the Kapha time of the morning (6:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m.). Exercising then will help wash away some of the dullness of the night and make you feel more energetic all day. If you aren't used to vigorous exercise, start with walking. Gradually increase the intensity and duration of your exercise, but always stay in your comfort zone. This means not exerting more than 50 percent of your capacity. If you exercise every day, you'll gradually and naturally increase your tolerance for exercise.
Breathe deeply and easily while exercising and throughout the day. Make a habit of breathing deeply, especially when you feel dull, as this will flood your brain with oxygen, helping you to think more clearly and feel less fatigued.
Even though a daily abhyanga is generally recommended for all body types, for a person with this type of Kapha imbalance, massage oil can be too Kapha-aggravating. Instead, use Garshana gloves (raw silk gloves) to dry-massage your body each morning. Follow with a warm bath to help the toxins flow out of the cells and tissues and into the digestive tract, from where they can be eliminated easily.
Drink Organic Kapha Tea. This will reinforce the body's efforts to remove ama, and invigorate the whole system.
Q: Is this really a bad thing, to sleep too much? It seems like it might even be healthier in the long run.
A: A Kapha sleep disorder is perhaps less common. But it is just as important to take action to correct it, because it, like other sleep disorders, can contribute to serious illness.
A recent study shows the detrimental effects of both sleeping too little and sleeping too much. In a recent study by Harvard Medical School that measured the sleep patterns of 72,000 women, women who averaged five hours or less of sleep a night were 39 percent more likely to develop heart disease than women who slept eight hours. Those sleeping six hours a night had an 18 percent higher risk of developing blocked arteries than those who slept eight hours.
This made sense to the researchers, because earlier research has shown that sleep loss causes stress cortisol levels to rise, high blood pressure to increase, glucose intolerance to increase and variations in heart rate to occur. These are all precursors to heart disease, so their study simply substantiated these claims.
What puzzled the researchers was the finding that those who slept nine or more hours a night were also at high risk for heart disease — 37 percent higher than those who slept just eight hours. The researchers could not explain this finding.
Maharishi Ayurveda offers an insight into this phenomenon of too much sleep causing heart disease. Sleeping too much creates a Kapha imbalance, causing ama to collect in the shrotas and arteries in particular. When Shleshaka Kapha (the subdosha of Kapha associated with fluid balance) mixes with ama, it creates Shleshma, a truly toxic, sticky fluid that coats the arteries and over time causes them to stiffen, narrow, and become blocked. This type of heart disease (commonly called "hardening of the arteries") is highly dangerous.
This gives us an idea why it's just as important for a person with Kapha-based sleep problems to correct them as it is for someone who has insomnia. Invariably when I ask such a person how they are sleeping, they give me the same response as David did. They say, "Oh, fine, I am sleeping well." But if they are waking up feeling stiff and exhausted after so many hours of sleep, something is wrong. They need to take better care of themselves before a serious disease develops. Following the recommendations mentioned earlier can help. It also might be possible that the person who sleeps too much has a chronic disorder, so it's advisable to consult a physician as well.
Q: What about the risk factors for heart disease that were correlated with not sleeping enough — are those also related to the doshas?
A: Yes. Irregular heartbeat is caused by an imbalance in Vyana Vata, the subdosha of Vata that governs circulation. The elevation of stress cortisol levels is caused by a Pitta imbalance, because cortisol is a hormone, and Pitta governs hormonal systems in the body. Pitta imbalance also creates amavisha, the reactive, toxic form of ama that mixes with the subdoshas and can lead to a type of "rust" or corroding of the arteries. Amavisha is quicker-acting and more irritating than simple ama.
High blood pressure is a risk factor that can be caused by an imbalance in Vata, Pitta or Kapha. It is expressed differently depending on which dosha is causing it.
So you can see that all three of these sleep disorders, Vata, Pitta, or Kapha, should be taken seriously. If the underlying imbalances that cause them are left unchecked, over a long period of time health problems could develop. And getting too little sleep or too much sleep can in turn aggravate those health imbalances and quicken the development of disease.
Q: What if someone has more than one sleep disorder? What do you suggest in that case?
A: Then they should take the Blissful Sleep tablets, which contain ingredients to help all three sleep disorders. This product is also helpful if someone needs a stronger approach, as it will enhance the effects of Deep Rest.
Finally, for any type of sleep disorder, practicing the Transcendental Meditation® program is extremely helpful. Research shows that the Transcendental Meditation technique is a significant aid in treating insomnia. The TM® technique balances the entire mind-body system, calming the mind and reducing anxiety; lowering blood cortisol, which is related to stress; balancing the emotions; increasing energy and eliminating fatigue. Most importantly, it trains the mind to identify with the bliss of pure consciousness. This provides a deeper, ojas-producing quality of sleep, which is nourishing to the mind, body and emotions and removes the origin of disease.
Q: I can see that sleep really is a basic component of health. How do you know if you're sleeping enough?
A: Recent research shows that most adults need between eight and eight-and-one-half hours of sleep each night. Some people need less.
You can tell if you're getting enough sleep if you feel light and energetic when you rise. If you find it easy to awaken, and have blissful mornings, those are other signs. Balanced emotions, ease in concentrating, and energy to accomplish the things you need to do are other indications.
If you depend on coffee to feel alert, if you feel groggy or out of sorts all morning, if you feel more alert at night than during the day, if you frequently feel the need to nod off while driving or working, if you are having emotional ups and downs or difficulty concentrating, these are all signs of sleep disorders of some kind. As we have seen, sleep disorders take several forms depending on the doshic imbalance that causes them. Some of these symptoms could even be caused by sleeping too much.
Q: Yet so many Americans actually choose not to sleep long enough. A recent survey by the National Sleep Foundation reported that adults on average sleep under 7 hours during the work week, and 33% sleep only 6 1/2 hours or less nightly, putting them in the high-risk group for developing heart disease. And nearly half of these adults said that they chose to sleep that little in order to accomplish more during the day! What can Maharishi Ayurveda offer to people who simply choose to feel less healthy or rested?
A: First of all, it's important to recognize that no one accomplishes more when they are tired. Impaired driving, costly mistakes on the job, and an increase in anger and depression are just a few of the documented results of sleeping too little.
Secondly, Maharishi Ayurveda does offer solutions in this area. The entire science of ayurveda, the science of life, is about organizing your life in order to create balance. I invite all Americans to learn the principles of Maharishi Ayurveda in order to learn how to choose the behaviors, foods and lifestyles that will make them feel healthier and happier. Maintaining balance in your sleep and waking cycles is one of the major principles of Maharishi Ayurveda, because when you coordinate your internal biological clock with nature's rhythms, you gain exponentially in health and productivity.
So educating people in the theory and practice of Maharishi Ayurveda is one way to resolve this tendency of Americans and other nations to abuse their bodies by not sleeping enough. Secondly, if someone does all of the ayurvedic practices — eating an ama-free diet designed to balance their particular doshas, following the ayurvedic daily routine, practicing Transcendental Meditation, observing the behavioral rasayanas — they will soon begin to experience the power of nature's perfect balance in their own body, mind and emotions. Then they will find it easier to make the right choices, to choose to go to bed rather than watch one more TV show.
Q: That's beautiful. In the statistics gathered by the National Sleep Foundation, it emerged that teenagers are even more sleep-deprived than American adults, with significantly more drowsy drivers (and more fatal accidents), more nodding off while on the job, and even more daytime sleepiness than shift workers. Do teenagers need more sleep than adults? How does Maharishi Ayurveda explain this prevalence of sleep problems among teenagers?
A: Yes, teenagers do need more sleep than adults, since they are more active. The reason they don't get as much sleep is, in most cases, due to choice. The teenage years are dominated by Pitta dosha, which governs hormonal systems and the period of puberty. The behavior of many teenagers reflects an imbalance in Pitta, which can manifest as skin problems such as acne, attitudes such as "I am right and the adults around me are wrong," and extreme emotional ups and downs. Unfortunately, the lifestyle of American teenagers only makes this imbalance worse. Skipping meals, staying up well into the Pitta time of night (10:00 p.m.-2:00 a.m.) and eating a diet of Pitta-aggravating fast foods and pizza all aggravate Pitta dosha.
Establishing healthy sleep patterns, as described in this article, could go a long way toward balancing a teenager's emotions, improve grades and relationships, and prevent emotional imbalances.
Q: Do you have any advice for parents of teenagers, to help them guide their kids?
A: The most important way to influence your children is to practice these principles yourself. If you are saying to your kids, "Go to bed early — you'll feel better," but they see you watching TV until late at night, they are going to notice the discrepancy. They'll most likely end up doing what you're doing.
So parents need to follow these recommendations themselves, and when the children see them living a balanced life, with good judgment, balanced emotions and clarity of thinking resulting from that, they will feel inspired to follow your advice. You can also help by cooking regular Pitta-pacifying meals for your teenage child. This will help balance the doshas and smooth the hormonal changes that can make life challenging for both teenagers and their parents.
* The names in this article have been changed.
The sole purpose of these articles is to provide information about the tradition of ayurveda. This information is not intended for use in the diagnosis, treatment, cure or prevention of any disease. If you have any serious acute or chronic health concern, please consult a trained health professional who can fully assess your needs and address them effectively. If you are seeking the medical advice of a trained ayurvedic expert, call or e-mail us for the number of a physician in your area. Check with your doctor before taking herbs or using essential oils when pregnant or nursing.