Sleep—An Ayurvedic Perspective


According to an ancient authority of Ayurveda, Caraka, sleep occurs when the mind is tired and the sense organs withdraw from their objects. Dependent upon sleep are happiness, misery, corpulence, leanness, strength, weakness, potency, impotency, intellect, non-intellect, life, and death. Caraka says diet, sleep, and spiritual awareness are the three pillars of life providing strength, complexion, and development (Ca. Su. XI.35). Sleep observed untimely, excessively and negatively takes away happiness and life like the other death-night. The same, if properly observed, provides happiness and life like the flashed true knowledge providing accomplishment to a yogin. That sleep which is normally occurring in the night is regarded as supporting of life.  Sleep observed untimely, excessively and negatively takes away happiness and life itself. In the summer because of roughness due to adana, increase of vayu and shortness of nights, day-sleep is recommended. Further, day sleep other than in the summer increases pitta and kapha. Obese should never day-sleep. Those engaging in day-sleep might expect the following:  chlorosis, headache, cold sensation, heaviness in the body, body-ache, loss of appetite and digestion, plastering of the heart, edema, anorexia, nausea, rhinitis, migraine, urticarial patches, pustules, boils, itching, drowsiness, cough, disorders of the throat, derangement of memory and intelligence, obstruction of channels, fever, incapability of sense organs, intensity in effect of poisons (Ca. Su. XXI.35-48).  For good sleep Caraka offers—massage, anointing, bath, meat-soup of domestic, marshy, and aquatic animals, rice with curd, milk, fat, wine, mental ease, pleasant smell and sound, gentle rubbing, saturating drops and paste on the eyes, head, and face, well-covered bed, comfortable room and proper time (Ca. Su. XXI.52-54). Another authority, Vagbhata, says that sleep, food, and properly indulged non-celibacy are the pillars of life.


Now that the rishis have had their say we will try to analyze their counsel in more detail. Ayurveda says that all of nature operates in cycles of rest and activity. Each serves the other by making the other necessary and possible. Rest in a body gives it the ability to perform or to act. Rest means dynamic activity gives way to more subtle processes of recovery, regeneration, house cleaning etc. Without rest we become run down, exhausted and even sick. With too much rest the body muscles atrophy, lose tone and metabolic wastes accumulate in the cells, tissues, and organs causing physiological stagnation.. Activity keeps muscles strong and flexible and the entire physiology is maintained and protected by releasing toxins and the metabolic waste products.


Sleep is that behavior which is dedicated to gaining rest, but it must be understood that rest does not require unconsciousness. While we think of the lack of awareness in sleep as the critical component of rest this is not so. Only the inactivity--mental and physical-- is the rest. During wakefulness such as insomnia we can still benefit from the inactivity of the body and mind perhaps to even 80’% of that gained by natural sleep itself. Unconsciousness does promote rest of the mind and emotions and this allows the nervous system, generally, to function in a calm state. A calm nervous system is associated with parasympathetic activation—functioning necessary for peristalsis, digestion, elimination, abdominal breathing, and other processes.


Ayurveda says that when the body feels fatigue it should take rest. This means that after strenuous activity, when the body has run out of energy one should allow the body to recharge its batteries, so to speak.  For some this implies napping during the day or at noontime maybe eating is appropriate and at night it means that total inactivity, or sleep, is proper. The best time to start sleep is an hour or two after sunset. Nature provides for deep, sound sleep by slowing all bodily processes during this time. The body and mind feel heavy, dull, lethargic, described as kapha Dosha, and research shows that sleep begun during this time produces the deepest and most restful sleep. That is, the processes of regeneration, repair, and house cleaning, taking place at this time, are more profound and beneficial than at other times.


Ayurveda recognizes the uniqueness of every individual but holds that there are universal processes operating and governing every person. In the context of rest this means that sometime during the evening the bodily processes best support inactivity in the form of sleep. After this period the body wants to change its style of functioning and this new physiology promotes mental alertness—a kind of second wind. It is often heard that a person is a self-described “night person.” This occurs because the house cleaning activity (increased metabolic rate) affects mental functioning and is experienced as mental alertness. Those who lay down to sleep within this mental alertness period will tend to require more time to fall asleep than if sleep were begun in the earlier period of physiology characterized by heavy, slow, dull qualities. Ayurvedic doctors have reported that making a simple behavioral adjustment of an earlier bedtime (even as little as 15 minutes) may cure insomnia. Most experts suggest that this means getting to bed before 10 PM but the yoga tradition suggests that the event of sunset with its seasonal changes is a more accurate indication for retiring. Thus the clock times vary seasonally and daily, according to need.


The maxim of etiology in Ayurveda is one symptom many causes thus sleep disorders have many causes. The doĂas express as disturbed sleep at different times of the night—vata preventing onset, pitta midnight to 2 AM, kapha after sunrise. The qualities of light and mobile, belonging to vata and pitta doĂas will likely be the agents for most sleep disorders and may be experienced in the following partial listing of mental, emotional, physical causes:

·         Time of retiring  to bed   

·         Large evening meals

·         Foods ingested such as sweet, pungent, oily; stimulants in caffeine or alcohol, etc. 

·         Indigestion or imbalanced digestion

·         Nocturia from prostatic or kidney dysfunction

·         Pain,  chronic or acute

·         Nutritional deficiencies such as calcium may lead to muscle cramping 

·         Changing bed times from day to day 

·         Chemicals in bedding, floor coverings, paints, etc.

·         Engaging in mentally or physically stimulating activity in the evening hours

·         Improper bedroom temperatures and drafts/ventilation

·         The presence or absence of light and sound 

·         Illness such as colds with cough and  fever

·         Extreme fatigue  

·         Emotions such as worry, anxiety, fear, anger

·         Mental factors as judgment, criticism, competitiveness, control, ambition (excessive drive)

·         Lack of pillow or too high a head support may yield neck and shoulder muscle tension thus disturbing sleep.


Thus it is important to isolate the causative factor and avoid it as much as possible. For pitta interruptions debilitated liver function (debilitated bhutagni) may cause some people to wake up around midnight. Sweets, alcohol and pungent foods may trigger this. Kapha disorders tend to express as too much sleep. Heavy foods such as sweets, oils, pastas promote hypersomnia. Ama in the body tends to promote extended sleep as well.


While avoiding causative factors is important there are many simple techniques to aid sleep. These may be grouped as herbal, dietary, and behavioral.

1.      Herbal strategies such as sedatives, hypnotics, analgesics, anti-spasmodics may be taken internally, as teas or powders, etc., and externally, as aromas or lotions/oils, etc.

·       Herbal infusions, decoctions taken before bed aid in sleep—chamomile, basil, skullcap, jatamamsi, brahmi, licorice root, tagara, sarasvati, and bhringaraja may be used in combination or individually.

·       For pain herbs that have analgesic value are mustha, tagara, nirgundi, and ginger may be useful.

·       Essential oils may be placed on the third eye, temples, throat cakra, heart cakra—lavender, sandalwood and others according to their action (such as sedative, hypnotic, analgesic) may be useful for this.

·       A gentle scalp and sole massage with bhringaraja oil helps release stress and calm the nervous system.

·       Aromas from essential oils or incense such as sandalwood or lavender are useful. Again the action of the scent is to be noted and this should considered in the context of the doshic principle which is out of balance.

2.      Dietary

·       Drink hot milk with or without spices like saffron before retiring for vata or pitta.

·       Calcium or salt supplementation may have some value in the context of cramping.

·       Light evening meals with digestives for kapha hypersomnia.

·       For ama digestives are indicated—hot water, ginger tea, etc.

3.      Behavioral

·       Honor the body bio-rhythm discussed above and get to bed before 10 PM (for some be horizontal by 9 PM).

·       Take hot shower or bath before sleep. Herbalization with valerian, chamomile, lavender, lime blossom, elder flowers, rosemary leaves, gotu kola, brahmi helps calm the nervous system.

·       Vedic music such as Gandharva Veda played during the day and night may assist sleep.

·       Listening to Vedic chanting in the form of Sama Veda before bed helps calm the nervous system.

·       Some find that a meditation at bedtime brings immediate sleep.

·       Sleeping on one’s right side is considered superior, on the left side inferior, and on the back and stomach detrimental according to Dr. Lad.  Metabolic processes may become disconnected from their mental control systems. Some Vaidyas do recommend alternating right to left side during the night, however.

·       During sleep the body should be oriented in an east-west axis with the head at the east pole.

·       Room ventilation and temperature should be proper; for extreme insomnia try candle lighting only after dark.

·       Consider using heavy blankets for vata and light ones for kapha imbalances.

·       Avoid use of electric blankets and electric heating pads.


© Copyright 1997 Michael S. Dick All Rights Reserved