Ayurveda describes sleep as a basic instinct of life, essential to all living beings. We need it to rejuvenate and reenergize our body, mind, and spirit.
In Ayurveda, sleep is one of the three pillars of good health, known as nidra. Then there’s food (ahara) and control over sexual energy (brahmacharya).
The right balance of these three elements is required for a healthy life.
According to Ayurveda, sleep and other bodily functions are determined by the three constitutional types, or doshas. The three doshas are:
- vata (wind)
- pitta (fire)
- kapha (water and earth).
Sleep is dominated by kapha, which creates the heavy feeling of tiredness.
Charaka Samhita, the ancient Sanskrit text on Ayurveda, mentions six types of sleep. According to the text, sleep may be due to:
- natural sleep without external imbalances
- increased kapha caused by eating an excess of foods like chocolate, cheese, or fried food
- exhaustion of mind and body caused by excessive physical work
- chronic disease
- imbalance or injury in the body
Natural sleep follows the Ayurvedic clock, which focuses on the right time to sleep, the duration of sleep, and the ideal time to wake up.
In Ayurveda, a day is divided into 6 zones of 4 hours, each dominated by a single dosha:
|6 a.m. to 10 a.m.||kapha|
|10 a.m. to 2 p.m.||pitta|
|2 p.m. to 6 p.m.||vata|
|6 p.m. to 10 p.m.||kapha|
|10 p.m. to 2 a.m.||pitta|
|2 a.m. to 6 a.m.||vata|
According to the Ayurvedic clock, it’s best to wake up before sunrise and sleep before 10 p.m., when the kapha period has induced dullness in the body.
It’s also important to have a gap of at least 2 hours between dinner and sleep time. An ideal time for dinner is 7 p.m. If you’re eating a late dinner, aim for something light and eat 2 hours before you go to sleep.
Ayurveda suggests different lifestyle changes to improve sleep depending on your dominant doshas.
Excess vata means excess wind, which has the qualities of lightness, movement, and roughness.
It’s important for individuals with aggravated vata to eat foods that increase kapha in the body. This will increase the qualities of heaviness, stillness, and smoothness.
People with high vata should consume heavy and rejuvenating food, says Lineesha K.C., an Ayurvedic physician at Greens Ayurveda in Kerala. This can include:
- coconut milk
- meaty soups and stews
- butter and ghee
- rice porridge
K.C. recommends the following recipe:
- 8-oz warm milk (preferably a type that’s high in fat)
- 1/4 tsp nutmeg
- 2 pods cardamom
- some form of sweetener, like jaggery or honey (optional)
Varalakshmi Yanamandra, Ayurvedic health coach and director of Ayur Wellness & Pain Centre, suggests eating warm food like red rice and meat soup.
If you have aggravated vata, you may have difficulty sleeping.
To pacify vata, your body needs nourishment.
Foot massage or full body abhyanga massage with cooling oils like Mahanarayan Thailam or brahmi oil helps with better sleep. Dhanwantharam Thailam or sesame oil should be used for head massage.
Vata may get stimulated by too much activity. Try to avoid watching television and using your phone an hour before bedtime and avoid exercising in the evening if your vata is high.
For peaceful sleep, properly ventilate your bedroom and keep it dark. Lighting scented candles like chamomile, lavender, sweet orange, or eucalyptus can also help.
When it comes to sex, vata types do best with loving, nourishing intimacy. Multiple partners, vigorous sex, and frequent orgasms may be a bit much for the vata nervous system. Getting affection and rest post-sex is important too.
Steps to pacify vata
- Nourish your body and head with an oil massage.
- Eat warm food like meat soup and warm milk.
- Turn down the activity, especially an hour before bed.
- Try calming scents like chamomile, lavender, and sweet orange.
- Make sure the bedroom is properly ventilated.
- Focus on sensual, nourishing sex.
If you have high pitta, you may have difficulty falling asleep if work stress is high or there’s too much acid in your diet.
Food for pitta
If you’re pacifying pitta, eat cooling foods like fresh fruits and dates and have a moderate to heavy dinner.
Since the digestive fire is strong for pitta-dominant people, you might wake up hungry in the middle of the night if you go to sleep without having a proper meal.
If pittas eat an early dinner and feel hungry by the time they go to bed, a light snack of puffed rice or a glass of buttermilk is recommended.
Yanamandra suggests a teaspoon of Jeevantyadi Gritam or medicated ghee in an eight ounce glass of warm milk.
Sleep for pitta
Yanamandra suggests that pitta people can sleep a little later, by 11 p.m.
For better sleep, a foot massage with warm ghee is recommended. Sleep in a cool, ventilated room; use sweet, cooling essential oils like jasmine and rose; and cover yourself with a light blanket.
Cooling oil like bhringaj or amla can be used for a head massage.
Sex for pitta
The pitta sex drive is usually high due to their passion and natural reserves of energy. They may enjoy sex with multiple partners as well as a dominating role.
Still, it’s important to remember to engage in cooling, calming activities to recover after sex.
Steps to pacify pitta
- Drink warm milk with ghee before bed.
- Favor sweet scents like jasmine and rose.
- Go to bed by 11 p.m.
- Try foot massage with warm ghee.
- Eat cooling foods like fresh fruit and dates.
- Remember to cool down after sex.
Kapha types have a lot of earth and water in their constitution.
The kapha diet should include refreshing but warm foods like vegetable soup and bitter greens. Sweets should be avoided for dinner.
A light post-dinner walk will help stimulate digestion. It’s also ideal for kapha types to do vigorous exercise as part of their regular routine.
Regular dry brushing and udvartana, or dry powder massage, using a mix of various herbs may also help improve metabolism for kapha people.
Kapha-dominant people are usually heavy sleepers and may tend to oversleep. If you have excess kapha, set an early wakeup time and stick to it.
When it comes to scents, favor warming and invigorating oils like eucalyptus, rosemary, and ginger.
Sex for the kapha type can be slow to start. It may take them some time to get turned on — but when they do, they have great stamina. Sex also makes for great exercise for the kapha type.
Steps to pacify kapha
- Wake early.
- Favor light, warm, and bitter foods like vegetable soups and bitter greens.
- Avoid sweets at dinner time.
- Take a light walk after dinner to stimulate digestion.
- Exercise regularly.
- Favor invigorating scents, like eucalyptus, rosemary, and ginger.
- Sex is great exercise for kaphas.
The imbalance of doshas in the body is one of the main reasons for sleep imbalance.
“Disturbed sleep may cause headache, migraine, and even insomnia,” says Yanamandra.
This results from aggravated vata and pitta, which may be due to:
- eating too much dry, crunchy food like salads
- eating too much cold food like ice cream
- staying up too late
- experiencing work-related stress
Chronic cases of insomnia may be treated with shirodhara, a procedure where oil is slowly poured on the forehead.
For pitta pacification, try shirodhara with netra tarpana, or eye nourishment therapy, and shiro lepa, or an herbal pack for the head. These treatments should be carried out by a trained Ayurvedic practitioner.
Herbs are a highly individualized treatment that may not be right for your particular constitution. It’s important to speak with an Ayurvedic practitioner before taking any herbs and follow prescribed dosage guidelines.
“Ayurveda does not recommend diva swapna (day sleep), or what we call a nap, since it increases kapha in the body,” says K.C.
There are exceptions for those who have vata-aggravated conditions, like:
- joint pain
- nerve-related conditions
- general muscle weakness
Other exceptions include:
- musicians who often use their vocal chords
- people who are breastfeeding or chestfeeding
- those who travel a lot
It’s best to nap on an empty stomach 2 hours after lunch, so food has time to digest. Sleep for a duration of 20 minutes, sitting in a reclined chair. This helps prevent pitta from accumulating in your head.
According to Ayurveda, individuals who meet one of the following criteria should avoid naps:
- those with a kapha-dominant constitution
- those with obesity
- those who eat a diet high in oily or fried food
- those who are generally healthy and don’t have an underlying condition
However, naps are recommended in summer when the heat makes it difficult to get a full night’s sleep.
Ayurveda is an ancient system of medicine that emphasizes the balance of food, sleep, and sex for a healthy life.
Good sleep is closely tied with the three doshas and the Ayurvedic clock. While it’s not always possible to adhere to the clock with our modern lifestyle, these tips can help you strike a balance.
Shirin Mehrotra is an independent journalist who writes about the intersection of food, travel, and culture. She’s currently pursuing an MA in the anthropology of food.