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Using Ayurveda and science for restful sleep

Beyond soft pillows, dim lights and sleep supplements, the solution for restful sleep may lie in listening to our bodies

Allied functional medicine and Ayurveda agree on one thing, that good sleep is essential for overall health.(Unsplash/Somnox Sleep)

By Mahalakshmi Prabhakaran

LAST PUBLISHED 23.01.2024  |  08:00 AM IST

“There are hundreds and thousands of people who wear their sleepless stressed state as a badge of honour. I am guilty of that as well!" It is an incongruous statement for an author of a book on sleep, but that’s precisely what Deepa Kannan, author of How to Sleep Better, says in an interview with Lounge. An allied functional medicine and Ayurvedic health counsellor and yoga teacher in Bengaluru, Kannan shares how she has had to grapple with sleep issues as much as anyone else. “At one point of time, when my son was ailing from some health issues, I realised that I hadn’t prioritised my own sleep. We think we have infinite resources and can get past it," she wryly observes. 

Also read: Decoding the role of sleep in weight loss maintenance

The sixth edition of Wakefit’s Great Indian Sleep Scorecard (GISS) report released last year, revealed some concerning figures. The findings of this survey, conducted only in Bengaluru, showed that 91% of Bengalureans used their phones before bedtime “despite knowing the importance of switching off from digital devices at least one hour before bed". The report also found that 60% of the city’s workforce felt sleepy during work hours and 26% people believed they were suffering from insomnia. 

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“Driving sleepless is as bad, if not more, as driving drunk because no one’s going to stop and check if you are driving sleepless," notes Kannan while underlining how pervasive the problem of sleep deprivation has become. Research and surveys similar to Wakefit’s may be on the rise but for Kannan, the subject deserved a closer, more in-depth look, one that went beyond analysing the impact of external factors like light or noise pollution on the quality of sleep. “If you look at the sleep space, you will find that the priority is on light optimisation and circadian rhythm, but no one is really talking about the physiological chaos in the human body that is preventing an individual from sleeping," she says.

Addressing a person’s problems with shut eye, as Kannan points out, cannot be solved with a mere suggestion to ‘switch off the light and quieten the mind’. This is impractical if the body is in utter chaos, she says. “I felt we would have to look at sleep itself individually, and find a framework where we can pinpoint different permutations and combinations of every person’s unique sleep challenges," reveals Kannan. It is this framework that is positioned front and centre in Kannan’s book. Conceived by Kannan, the protocol combines yoga, physiology and Ayurvedic practices to offer an organic solution to attain elusive sleep. “I scripted it out into a 10-step, four-weeks-long protocol that anyone can follow from the time they wake up till the time they go to bed," Kannan adds.

Where science and ancient wisdom intersect
The twain may, by the looks of it, not meet (particularly on X), but if there’s one viewpoint they agree on, it is about the role of sleep in overall well-being. “In functional medicine, they tell you that for any treatment to be effective, irrespective of the disease, you need to have three basics in place: blood sugar balance, system of elimination and sleep. In Ayurveda, the three pillars for good health are ahar (food), nidra (sleep) and brahmacharya (chastity, sexual health and relationships)," Kannan reveals, noting that if a venn diagram were to be drawn of science and ancient wisdom, the two would harmoniously intersect while advocating for sleep as one of the cornerstones for good health. 

Also read: How toddlers’ screen time is linked to atypical sensory behaviours

Everyone’s in fight or flight mode
As a long-time practitioner of allied functional medicine and Ayurveda, Kannan has clients coming to her with their chronic sleep issues. While every individual may have problems unique to them, Kannan agrees that there are common issues. “Globally, all of us today are in an excessively sympathetic ‘fight or flight’ mode, or what in Ayurveda is referred to as a ‘vata aggravation’ state". Inundated with constant stress, our bodies pump excess adrenaline and cortisol hormones, which results in nervous system dysregulation. 

“Adrenaline is not bad but your body is supposed to release the hormone once it has served its purpose. But today, being in a state of high alert translates to stress hormones remaining in our bodies for longer," says Kannan. Besides weakening the digestive, reproductive and immune systems, being in perennial fight or flight mode affects the quality of our sleep. In this state, it is difficult for us to slow down automatically, Kannan observes adding, “We push our bodies more and don’t sleep enough. Is it any wonder why we hear of heart attacks and early deaths?"

24/7 light disrupts sleep
If a new study by researchers from Drexel University is to be believed, staring at screens causes behavioural problems in children as young as two years old. As per the findings, children exposed to TV viewing by the time they turn two were likely to develop atypical sensory processing behaviours such as being disinterested in activities and seeking more intense stimulation. In the context of sleep, Kannan concurs that we are turning insomniacs today because our lives are surrounded by light throughout the day. 

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“There are conflicting views about the impact of blue light on sleep. There is, for instance, a researcher who refutes this theory that blue light is disrupting our sleep, but if you were to ask me, I’ll say that working in an LED environment throughout the day or working out of sync like doing night shifts affects the quality of sleep." The solution? Currently, while sleep science advocates a return to living by the body’s circadian rhythm, Ayurveda, Kannan points out, recommends living in sync with the earth’s diurnal rhythm of light and darkness: be awake when it’s light, sleep when it’s dark.

For a good snooze
While her book lays out a 10-step protocol for sleep, here are a few favourite practices that Kannan recommends. 

  1. Eat the right way: Begin your day with a light breakfast, a wholesome lunch to keep your blood sugar stable, and a light dinner around sunset.
  2. Get some gentle movement: Practice gentle exercises like walking (aim for 10,000-15,000 steps daily), swimming, yoga or strength training. I should add here that I advise my clients who have sleep problems to avoid doing heavy, intensive exercises like running, HIIT or Zumba. 
  3. Practice yoga nidra: Lay on the ground in shavasana and practice yoga nidra or meditation, ideally between 2pm to 6pm. It’s a great grounding practice. 
  4. Have a switch-off time: Have a daily switch off time from work and access to your gadgets and stick to the schedule. Limiting access to mails or messages that can cause you stress helps calm your mind.  
  5. Abhyanga: Apply warm oil to your body and lie on the mat for 60 minutes, once a week. It is an effective way to keep your nervous system balanced.

Also read: Early birds have healthier hearts than night owls: Study