Ayurvedic Wisdom for Night Owls: How to Reset Your Sleep Clock

Kripalu School of Ayurveda

Are you a dyed-in-the-wool night owl? It might be time to make a change. According to Ayurveda, your happiness depends on how much sleep you get.

Here’s what the classical Ayurveda text Ashtanga Hrdayam has to say about sleep: “Happiness and unhappiness, nourishment (good physique) and emaciation, strength and debility, sexual prowess and impotence, knowledge and ignorance, life and death—all are dependent on sleep.” Ayurveda teaches us that sleep (nidra) is one of the three pillars of health, along with food (ahara) and energy management (brahmacharaya).

Meanwhile, Western science has proven that not getting enough snooze time leads to an increased risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and stroke, and ages us more quickly. Sleep deprivation also makes us more prone to accidents, cognitive dysfunction, and depression. And, when you don’t get enough sleep, you eat an average of 500 more calories per day.

The 2017 Nobel Prize in Medicine went to three Americans for their work on circadian rhythms. They studied fruit fly genes to find out more about how internal clocks and biological rhythms govern human life, including the best times of day to eat and sleep. This is great news for Ayurveda: It means that Western science is using technology to prove what Ayurvedic practitioners have understood for thousands of years.

Eight Is Not Necessarily Enough

Experts in both systems of medicine recommend an average of eight hours of sleep. But it’s not just about how many hours you get; it’s about when you get them. If you go to bed at 10:00 pm and wake up at 6:00 am, you get eight hours of sleep. If go to bed at midnight and wake up at 8:00 am, you get eight hours of sleep. But they are not the same quality of sleep.

Western science and Ayurveda agree that the hours of sleep before midnight are more restorative. The amount of non-REM sleep—deep, dreamless sleep—is greater in the earlier part of the night. The closer we get to daybreak, the more dream-filled REM sleep we get, which is more restless and less restorative. Ayurveda supports this theory because the vata dosha governs the time between 2:00 and 6:00 am. This is when vata begins to stir in the nervous system, causing lighter sleep, more dreams, a drop in body temperature and the desire to stir and, ultimately, wake up. The more hours of sleep you get on the early side of midnight, the more restorative non-REM sleep you get. So, hit the hay early for sleep that will help you look and feel great.

Our Phones Are the New Caffeine

It may seem odd to go to bed two hours after sundown, but the only reason we stay up so late is the invention of artificial light. When we’re exposed to light, our body produces the hormone cortisol, which tells the brain to be alert, active and productive. As the sun sets, the body produces the hormone melatonin, which tells the brain to wind down and go to sleep. Electronics, especially phones, emit more cortisol-stimulating light rays than the sun itself. Looking at our phones and screens late into the night is suppressing melatonin and making our brains think that it’s still sunny out.

I know some of you are saying right now, “I’m just a night person, I always have been, and I always will be!” Well, it’s not true. You are not nocturnal, you are not a cat, you are a human—and humans are diurnal mammals. We are meant to be awake in the daytime and asleep in the nighttime. A study from the University of Colorado at Boulder proved that spending just one week in natural light while camping allowed participants to reset their internal clocks and lose their membership card to the night owl’s club. All the participants went to bed at sundown and woke with the sunrise.

Not into camping? That’s okay. Here are a few tips you can try at home.

Five Ways to Reset Your Sleep Clock

  • Try the Step-Down Plan: Start weaning off late nights one step at a time. Go to bed 30 minutes earlier every night for a week, and then push that back another half hour the next week. For example, if your usual bedtime is midnight, on week one, go to bed at 11:30 pm. Do that for seven nights, then go to bed at 11:00 every night for the next week. Then 10:30 the next week, then 10:00, and so on, until you reach the goal: to be in bed by 9:30 and asleep by 10:00.
  • Unplug: Turn off electronics at least one hour before you want to fall asleep. This includes phones, TV, tablets and computers. Pick up an actual book—preferably a boring book.
  • Give yourself an oil massage: Do a self-massage using Sleep Easy Oil from Banyan Botanicals, or coconut oil if you tend to run hot. Plain almond oil or sesame oil (not toasted) work great, too. Spend 10 minutes massaging your feet, the crown of your head and your ears. This will relax you and prepare you for a sound sleep.
  • Do an electricity fast: Spend an electricity-free weekend at home. Use only candlelight and firelight—no electric or battery-operated lights, phones, TV or computers. If you have an electric stove, turn off the stovetop light if possible.
  • Drink warm milk: Before bed, try your grandma’s sleep remedy: a glass of warm milk. Warm eight ounces of dairy or non-dairy milk on the stovetop with a sprinkle each of cinnamon, cardamom, and ground nutmeg. Sip it one hour before bed. Nutmeg helps to induce sleep while lengthening the duration of your sleep time. The cinnamon and cardamom promote healthy digestion, which will also help you sleep.

Night owls, get ready to become early birds and to discover the joys of getting more of the healthiest kind of sleep.

Find out about upcoming programs with Erin Casperson at Kripalu.

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Erin Casperson, Lead Kripalu Faculty and Director of the Kripalu School of Ayurveda, is passionate about sharing how the ancient practices of Ayurveda can be applied to modern-day living.

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