Is your sleep supporting your health?
When it comes to sleep, it is very important to consider quantity, quality, timing, and position. Sleep is linked to all health. Even in Ayurveda, sleep is among the four pillars of all health.
I see a lot of people who look towards complex treatments, protocols, and supplements before ensuring the basics of healing are in place. This includes sleep! Lack of sleep, both quantity and quality, and improper timing of sleep is linked to excess huger, blood sugar fluctuation, insulin resistance, poor nutrient absorption, yeast overgrowth, build-up of toxic waste, low melatonin, higher inflammation, intestine permeability, fatty liver, hormone imbalance, and mental health disease. The verdict is out. Focus on sleep restoration before you think of navigating more complex protocols.
Someone recently told me that I should only sleep eight hours, not more, not less. This is not true at all.
The amount of sleep you require is very much dependent on your body constitution, season, state of present health, nature of work, your diet, and lifestyle.
However, let me provide some guidelines for you to understand this. Those who have nervous system imbalances or adrenal issues might get away with sleeping just 6-7 hours, but they need much more to restore healthy balance to the nervous system. If you are someone who jumps out of bed after six hours, you need more, to help you calm down. If you are someone with liver issues, which include hormone imbalance, skin issues, irritability, and anger, you probably need closer to 8 hours of sleep. If you are someone who has excess weight, water retention, bloating, and puffiness, you might be comfortable sleeping for even 9-10 hours.
However, you could do better with keeping it to around 8 to avoid the lethargy that comes from excess sleep. As you can see, there is a whole lot more to this. This is just a general guideline.
During a good night’s sleep, you pass through different stages of sleep, known as 1,2,3,4 and rapid eye movement (REM). You keep moving from 1 towards REM, and the cycle repeats. A majority of sleeping time is spent in Stage 2, while the rest of the time is spent between the other stages and REM.
All deep sleep stages are critical for repair, brain healing, memory formation, hormone optimisation, and detoxification. It is not how much you sleep, but how much you stay in deep sleep that matters.
Typically Stages 1 and 2 should be around 60 percent, stages 3 and 4 around 20 percent, and REM 20 percent. That means that you have entered all stages of sleep adequately to repair and rejuvenate.
Sleep trackers are tricky. Most of them have settings where they assume someone sleeps at a specific time, say 10 pm. Therefore, even if someone sleeps much earlier, it collects data from that time. This provides partial information, which can be flawed. You need to be careful with how you track. Even if you do not track, you can gauge sleep quality by how you feel in terms of health, energy, mood, digestion, and mental health.
It is important to have a clear time limit to cutting off interaction with work and social media and reducing your exposure to devices (Image: Shutterstock)
Sleep timing is something that is very important. In our modern world, there are many people who speak about differing circadian rhythms, and some people who are meant to be a night owl. This must be considered carefully.
In Ayurveda, pitta time of the night is between 10 pm and 4 am. This is a time when the liver is detoxifying. It also means that if you do not sleep before 10 pm, then your body starts getting alert and it can get harder to sleep, or to have deep quality of sleep. In the morning, 6 am to 10 am is kapha time. This means that when you wake up after 6 am, you are more likely to feel lethargic, dull, and slow.
Sleeping before 10 pm and waking before 6 am does help to feel more vibrant, radiant, and productive. This shift in timing of sleep to earlier is also correlated in research with less obesity, lower insulin resistance, and better parameters of health.
Sleeping on your back is possibly the healthiest position as it maintains a neutral position of the spine. It is not ideal if you have sleep apnea or difficulty breathing as it can close the airway and increase snoring. It’s not the most popular position. It is ideal for those who are vata, or for those who need to calm down the nervous system. It is best if the head is covered in this position. Lying on the abdomen can feel safe for many. While this is good for easing snoring, it’s bad for your neck. You may wake up stiffer. Breath and the spine are impaired.
Understanding the science of the breath is important to this as well. Your right nostril represents the sympathetic nervous system. When you are sympathetic dominant, your heart rate is high, breathing rate is high, body temperature elevates, pupils dilate, and is more active. The left nostril represents the parasympathetic nervous system. When this is active, your heart rate slows down, breathing slows down, and it should predominate at night to help you sleep.
Sleeping on left with your right nostril facing up promotes lymph drainage from the brain and especially useful if you are prone to lymphatic congestion and even depression. It is easier on you heart and helps bile flow better. It is wonderful if you have a full stomach. But active mind and digestion that is quite done? Then you may have an easier time falling asleep lying on the right. If you have a full stomach, then you should lie down with right nostril up. If your mind is too alert and sympathetic dominant, lie down with left nostril up to activate the parasympathetic.
Applying warm oil based on body constitution and then having a bath calms down the nervous system, helping you to fall asleep without any sleep aids or supplements (Image: Shutterstock)
Tips to help sleep quantity and quality
You can do so much with gentle shifts to help your sleep, and therefore, your overall health. I might place calming down the nervous system at the top of that list.
1. Abhyanga or oil massage either in the morning, or before dinner is a wonderful tool, whose power is often ignored today. Applying warm oil based on body constitution and then having a bath calms down the nervous system, helping you to fall asleep without any sleep aids or supplements. I always suggest starting with this before researching sleep supplements.
2. The magical sleep plate begins at breakfast. Setting your blood sugar up to remain balanced all through the day, is what culminates at night into great sleep. Making sure that your meals are warm and have a balance of protein, fibre, and healthy fats is part of how you sleep well.
3. Have a clear time limit for cutting off interaction with the world of work and social media and reducing your exposure to devices. This must be 3-4 hours before bedtime for optimal sleep. For me, 5 pm is an absolute cut off. If that is too early for you, consider sunset. It does make a huge difference to sleep. You could still wake up early and work.
4. Avoid bright fluorescent lights at home in the evening. Even if you do not have the adequate red lighting needed for better sleep, you could do so much with keeping lights soft. In many homes, I see fluorescent white lights, and parents talking about how their kids only feel sleepy past 10 pm. This is just because their physiology is responding to the cues of their own environment.
5. Vitamin D plays a big role in sleep quality. Making sure that you are not deficient, having the right dose based upon your constitution, and at the right time will all support sleep. Work with your health practitioner to navigate this area.
These might seem simple interventions, but you’ll be surprised by how much changes from these recommendations. Add them one at a time, and observe how you sleep, and also, how you feel when you wake up the next day.
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)