The 3 Pillars of Life: A Good Night’s Sleep
“There are three supports (pillars) of life. They are food, sleep and observance of brahmacharya. Being supported by these the body is endowed with strength, complexion and growth and this continues up till the full span of life provided a person does not indulge in regimens detrimental to health.”
Previously, I wrote about the first pillar of life and spoke to the importance of discovering the foods that are right for you and how to maintain your digestive fire in order to absorb the prana (life energy) and useful nutrients from your food. If you didn’t read the previous article, you might go back and review that before jumping into part two.
For this article, I will take you into the second pillar of life, which is sleep! Sleep is an essential part of life and has a strong influence on your physical and mental health and ultimately helps you age more gracefully. Since everyone is unique, you will all need different amounts of sleep in order to thrive, so please note that what I am offering is general support based on my experience as a nutritionist and Ayurveda Health Educator.
When sleep gets compromised due to improper diet, heat, young children, full moons, or stress, it can make everything in life feel like an uphill battle. Sleep is so important that missing even a single night of sleep can create an adverse effect on your immune system, increase your blood pressure, make it more challenging to deal with “normal” daily stress, decrease your motor skills, disrupt your appetite-depressing hormones and affect your ability to relax at night. Can you see why it is one of life’s three pillars? Basically, without sleep we quickly fall apart!
After teaching several yoga classes this week, I had numerous students mention that they were currently struggling with insomnia. In Ayurveda we look at insomnia as vata dosha (air + space imbalance). It’s not uncommon to see more insomnia in the fall as it is also considered a vata time where the air outside may be getting more active, cool, and/or dry, and more space opens in nature as the leave all fall from the trees. The new space in seasonal transition can create a surge of excess upward moving energy in a vata imbalanced person and can contribute to someone experiencing insomnia.
If you or someone you know is struggling with sleep imbalances, here are a few general suggestions that may reduce the vata condition and help restore your sense of well-being. For a more individualized version of this vata-reducing program, considering booking a private with me or your local Ayurvedic practitioner.
Vata-Reducing Routine to Decrease Insomnia
- Avoid any caffeine after 10:00 a.m. or all together until your sleep is back to normal.
- Eat your largest meal in the afternoon and eat a bowl of warm broth-based soup for dinner. It’s best if your bowl in no larger than your two palms put together and is free of spicy chili peppers or garlic, both of which are considered rajasic (stimulating).
- Avoid alcohol late in the evening. If you are going to drink alcohol, it is best to do it around happy hour time with plenty of room temperature water to help you stay hydrated and clear-headed before bed.
- Establish a healthy, warm whole foods diet for a couple of weeks, reducing all processed foods. Heated foods are an important part of a vata-reducing diet, so until your sleep pattern is back to normal, considering warming each meal and being very generous with your oils like ghee, coconut, sesame, and safflower when cooking and olive oil or flax seed when your food is done being cooked.
- Skip dessert as sugar can also be stimulating and affect your ability to drop deep into sleep.
- Exercise daily. I recommend forms of movement that get your heart rate up for 20 minutes each day and some yoga poses that emphasis forward bends, squats, and twists to encourage energy (prana) to move away from the head.
- Evening routine: Keep your computer turned off, especially one hour before bed.
- Practice moderation with electricity and embrace candlelight in your home during the evening to help slow you down.
- Treat yourself to a warm oil massage before an evening shower or bath. I recommend raw organic sesame oil or a vata blend from your favorite store that sells Ayurvedic products. Be sure to give your focused attention to rubbing the oil into your skin! Your nervous system is close to the skin so when you rub your limbs and torso with warm oil, it begins to calm the nervous system, which is essential for good sleep. A follow-up warm shower or bath will help the skin absorb the oil. Avoid washing off the oil with soap. Lastly, if you take baths at night, be sure to avoid super hot bath water or soaking too long as too much heat can be stimulating.
- There are so many herbs out there that have can have a positive effect on your sleep, the most common being chamomile, valerian, skullcap, and ashwagandha. I highly recommend taking one of them as a tea or in the tincture form before bedtime. Also, you could try abhyanga, an Ayurvedic sleep aid massage oil.
- Drink a warm cup of cow’s milk (non-homogenized vat pasteurized, chemical/antibiotic/hormone-free) or almond milk with spices before bed. Milk has special peptides and proteins that activate the brain’s receptors related to deep sleep cycles.
- For a couple of weeks, see if you can establish a sleep, exercise, eat, work, and then unwind routine that matches the natural rhythm of the day. For example, going to bed by 10:00 pm in the fall, waking up around 6:00 am, meditation followed by some yoga, breakfast, work, hydrate, lunch, hydrate, work or creative time, evening exercise outside, soup for dinner, oil massage before shower, and then read or write before bed.
Consider what might be at the root of your sleep disturbance and spend time getting the support you need to unwind from the stressor.
Did You Psychically Inherit Society's Learned Behavior?
The scientific community is often very rigid in its process and not always open to radical ideas. Rightfully so, that is the nature of science – strict scrutiny and skepticism. But what if it is limiting itself in this approach, in the sense that it has taken on some of the same parochial propensities of religion? Science is supposedly the antithesis of religion and meant to question everything with the goal of new discovery. While it is necessary to maintain skepticism to prevent charlatans from diluting the scientific process, there should be a certain level of tolerance for new ideas.
Rupert Sheldrake is one of those scientists that his community has largely shunned as a heretic. Despite studying at Harvard and graduating from Cambridge with a Ph.D. in biochemistry, the scientific community has dismissed his radical ideas as nonsensical and blasphemous. Sheldrake admittedly started his career in science as an atheist, but eventually had an epiphany about our consciousness that changed his outlook.
Sheldrake has proposed an idea he calls, morphic resonance. Essentially, the idea is that there is a collective consciousness within species that can impact disparate groups of organisms without them having to come into contact with each other. A sort of telepathic connectedness that can influence behavior and can be passed down through immediate generations.
The idea of learned behavior being inherited, or Lamarckian Inheritance, has been shown to be a pretty promising theory, if not proven. Although unsurprisingly, the scientific community doesn’t all agree on this. Regardless, this idea is fundamental in Sheldrake’s theory.
The evidence comes from a study in the 1920s, where rats were tested by being placed in a water maze they had to escape from. The rats were electrically shocked when they chose one of two exits deemed to be the wrong exit. They eventually learned which exit was the correct one over a trial of several hundred tests. As they got better, their offspring were tested, and immediately showed quicker rates of improvement compared to their parents.
This was evidence of Lamarckian Inheritance, the learned behavior of the parent rat was passed on to their progeny. What was more astonishing, according to Sheldrake, was that when these experiments were conducted in labs in other countries and on the other side of the world, rats that had no contact with the original study, essentially picked up where the improved rats left off.