Sunday, March 10, 2013

Nighty Night: Attending to Digestion for Better Sleep

An ever growing catalog of research shows diminished sleep is associated with poor performance, memory loss, weight gain, more accidents during the day, depression, slower healing, aging skin, and in some cases serious diseases. This is not a happy list.

In Ayurveda, digestion is key to restful and satisfying sleep. While these may seem unrelated, completing physical, mental, and emotional digestion in advance of going to bed can make it easier to fall asleep and facilitate complete rest.
Here’s how the Himalayan Institute’s Carrie Demers, MD, who uses Ayurveda in her medical practice, explains problems with sleep: “At some level—whether it’s physical, mental, or emotional—we haven’t finished extracting what is helpful to us and eliminating what is indigestible."

In Western culture there is a constant gnawing to consume more, when often what we need is to digest what’s already there. Whatever we take in through our senses—food, experiences, sounds, visual stimuli, information, conversation, and more—requires assimilation. Sifting needed nourishment from what is not serving us is what brings eventual release from “stuck-ness” in the mind and body.

The Roots of Physical, Mental, and Emotional Indigestion 

At the physical level, sleep can be hampered when we haven’t fully processed the foods we’ve eaten during the day. Late night eating, unhealthful foods, or weak digestion can result in heartburn, gas, or some other discomfort. While this is going to happen occasionally, a regular practice of too much food or drink, foods that are too spicy, greasy, or rich, especially just before bedtime, can interfere with sleep. Learn more.

Sometimes, we simply have trouble letting go of the day and its tasks. Mental indigestion is when the mind keeps working, unable to shut off the day’s activities, or continues to replay some event that happened during the day. Usually it’s something we can’t settle or let go of to allow for mental satisfaction or release. This circular kind of processing or anxiety may result in trouble getting to sleep and then waking up between 2:00am and 4:00am and finding it hard to fall back to sleep.

Finally, undigested emotions, perhaps grief, anger, or other strong and painful feelings, can pop up just as we get in to bed. These often unpleasant or unresolved emotions may be the residue of events that have occurred some time ago, but continue to keep us awake at night. Loss of a loved one, a relationship, a job, or regrets about something in the past can resurface when we come to rest. These undigested experiences may cause resistance in going to bed, insomnia, or restless and fitful sleep.

Bed Time “Digestive” Practices for Better Sleep

Bring awareness to what is preventing sufficient sleep. Then begin to establish consistent digestion in all areas. Give one or more of these a try. Start with the one that resonates for you.
  • Stick to lighter meals in the evening. This includes ending meals 2-3 hours before bedtime. Replace spicy foods or other foods that create discomfort or take a long time to digest with lighter fare. And make sure you are sufficiently hydrated throughout the day.
  • Avoid mental and physical stimulants. Power down all screens—computer, smart phone, television, etc. Leave difficult discussions or problem solving for the morning when you are fresher. If you worry that you’ll forget something that has to be done or feel overwhelmed, organize tasks for the next day and then be present for sleep. And avoid caffeine and alcohol several hours before bedtime.
  • Start the process of getting to bed earlier. While this may not be possible for everyone, the goal is to be more in sync with the Ayurvedic clock to take advantage of natural, healing rhythms. Begin to wind down starting at 6:00pm culminating in bed around 10:00pm, avoiding the “second wind” that can begin around the same time. The time between 10:00pm and 2:00am is when the body does much of its physical digestion and rebuilding of tissue, followed by an active dream period from 2:00am and 6:00am when more mental and emotional thoughts are digested.
  • Try a restorative yoga pose. In general, a regular yoga practice or exercise routine is helpful for more restful sleep. And walking or running outside takes advantage of the natural healing powers of the sun. If you’re having trouble settling before bed, try viparita karani (in photo above) or “legs up the wall.” As it is calming to the nervous system and restorative, it will immediately take anxiety down a notch.
  • Apply soothing strategies. Massage the soles of the feet with a warm, aromatic essential oil. The bottoms of the feet are connected to all parts of the body so a foot massage is especially calming. A hot bath, with essential oils, such as lavender, can also allow for deep relaxation and “letting go.” Or try a warm, non-caffeinated beverage, like Almond Milk.
  • Let go to the lull of your breath. Instead of counting sheep, try a variation on Diaphragmatic breathing, or “belly breathing.” It’s an easy way to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and tell the body it’s safe to rest. Place your hands on the navel center to feel the expansion in the abdomen and lower ribcage. Slowly begin to extend the exhale until it becomes twice as long as the inhale. This 1:2 breath is especially helpful for insomnia. Then begin the following (from the Himalayan Institute):
    • Take 8 breaths lying on your back
    • Take 16 breaths lying on your right side
    • Take 32 breaths lying on your left side. 
Finally, there’s nothing quite like climbing in to a freshly-make bed with clean sheets to make you feel all is right with the world. Yum.  

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