If I could make one health-related wish, it would be eight-hour bouts of deep, uninterrupted sleep every night for the rest of my life.
Western medicine and ayurveda, the traditional medicine of India, agree - sleep is crucial to thriving.
As with many health quests, I turn to ayurveda, often called the sister science to yoga. Used for thousands of years, the system seeks to balance the body through diet, herbs and lifestyle choices.
Quality of sleep is the first thing that clinical ayurvedic specialist Carly Beaudin asks her clients who are embarking on the ayurvedic path.
"Ayurveda says the three pillars of life are sleep, digestion and sex," said Beaudin, owner and founder of Ancient Heart Ayurveda. "In our world, sleep is huge. It's a huge point of rejuvenation and detoxification. It's such an important part of healthy immune function. We prize it at the top."
Most of us don't get nearly enough shut-eye. In Beaudin's experience, it's rare to find somebody who gets too much sleep, so the following information is aimed at the majority of us - those who either struggle to fall asleep or stay asleep throughout the night.
Her first recommendation? Stop Googling how much sleep is perfect. While we all know the ideal number is often reported as eight hours, it's not one-size-fits-all. Each individual must decipher how much sleep is ideal - what makes you, not your partner or your child, feel nourished and rested.
It also can be helpful to understand your primary dosha, or bodily constitution. There are three: vata, pitta and kapha. Each one sleeps a little differently, and if they're not balanced, sleep and other issues can get out of whack.
Kapha folks are those (lucky ones?) who could easily sleep 12 hours straight and still need to have their eyelids peeled and spackled open. Vata dosha equals an excited nervous system with quick-moving thoughts. It's hard for those types to slow down and get still. It's similar to those with pitta dosha, often an intensely focused person who can have a hard time resting when the to-do list is a mile long.
Online tests can help you determine your primary dosha or doshas, and a visit to a clinical ayurvedic specialist can nail it down.
If your sleep is poor, don't despair. Beaudin has a number of suggestions that can help. If the list feels overwhelming, choose one thing to do differently. Even that can help.
- Follow the natural rhythms of the day and go to sleep by 10 p.m. (I can attest to this): Ayurveda breaks the day into chunks of either vata, pitta or kapha-dominated time. Pitta has that strong mental activity and rules the 10 p.m.-to-2 a.m. and 10 a.m.-to-2 p.m. slots. It explains why you can catch a second wind if you procrastinate going to bed. Pretty soon you're up Marie Kondo-ing your closet at 11:30 p.m.
Vata can be overactive, ungrounded and anxious. It peaks from 2 to 6 a.m. and 2 to 6 p.m., the time of night when Beaudin sees the most disrupted sleep.
"Between 2 to 3 a.m. is always the reported time of sleep disorder in my world," she said. "That time of night is when people get in the habit of waking up and have a hard time getting back to sleep."
Slow and heavy kapha peaks from 6 to 10 a.m. and 6 to 10 p.m., making it a naturally auspicious time to wind down and fall asleep.
"If you can go to sleep in kapha time, that heaviness will be more likely to carry you through," Beaudin said.
If you do manage beddy-bye before 10 p.m., that means waking up during the prime stretch of vata, when the energy is more active and conducive to rising and shining.
- Create a nightly routine (my forte!). A solid pattern of sleeping times is a must for those who struggle with sleep, Beaudin said.
"Our physiology likes to be trained and likes to know what to expect," she said. "If I do the same thing every night at 8:30, my body knows, 'Oh, this is what we do before we go to sleep.'"
- Turn off the TV, computer and phone. You've no doubt heard it a kajillion times, but it bears repeating. Beaudin recommends shutting down the outside world by 8 p.m. I can hear the protests now. If that seems beyond the realm of possibility, at least observe what you're ingesting, so to speak. A scary, violent or tense Netflix original is too much stimulation. It can keep the mind in full bloom well past the time you need to start calming your nervous system.
- Watch your food intake. Eat at least three hours before bed, so ideally by 7 p.m. (my Achilles heel). It's unfortunate that our society races through breakfast and lunch and insists on making dinner the biggest meal and gathering of the day, because our body wasn't designed to digest big meals and sleep at the same time.
- Make sure you move your body enough during the day. When someone is having trouble sleeping, Beaudin inquires about physical activity and whether the person is moving enough to get physically tired. She recommends more time in nature, and not hiking around with earbuds in your ears, but actually listening to the crunch of the leaves beneath your Nikes and the woodpecker working away on that old, dead tree.
- Herbs can help. Although Beaudin considers them a crutch and prefers lifestyle changes, she can recommend a couple that are good for long-term use in most people. The adaptogen ashwagandha is nourishing, and gotu kola is good for balancing the nervous system.