by Dr Arun K Tomson, Director of AyurMa, Wellness Coach and Naturopathic Physician
This article was also published in WellSpa360 in April, 2023
Quality sleep is an important pillar of health—a period of reduced activity and decreased responsiveness to external stimuli to restore our body and mind. As physiological demands reduce, body temperature and blood pressure decrease, stabilizing brain activities and allowing body and mind to recharge. The interaction of sleep-wake homeostasis and our circadian rhythm—internal body clock—determines the timings for sleep and wakefulness.
It is important to understand the science behind sleep, starting with the basic structure of the normal sleeping process known as sleep architecture. During sleep, an individual cycles repeatedly through two types of sleep: REM (rapid eye movement sleep), and NREM (non-rapid eye movement sleep). The first part is NREM sleep, comprising four stages. The time spent in each stage depends on age, ethnicity and body constitution (genetic profile).
Stage-1 (NREM sleep): 1-5 mins duration. Known as “drifting off”, or “light sleep”, this stage occurs between all stages of sleep and wakefulness. Muscles start to relax, body temperature drops, and brain waves slow from the rhythmic alpha waves of wakefulness to the mixed-frequency theta waves of “drifting off” in the light phase of sleep, or just before waking up.
Bursts of alpha wave activities in brain cells can be seen in this stage. Duration of this stage increases with age, making it harder to fall and stay asleep.
Stage-2 (NREM Sleep): 10-60 mins duration. Body temperature continues to drop, eye movement stops, breathing and heart rate slows, and awareness of surroundings lessens. A new pattern of brain waves—sleep spindles—occur, thought to be a feature of memory consolidation, when your brain gathers and processes new memories acquired the previous day. Increasing with each cycle, this stage comprises up to 50 per cent of total sleep time.
Stage-3 (NREM sleep): Deep sleep; the hardest to wake from. Delta brain waves are produced. Body and mind repair, restore and reset for the coming day. The day’s memories and experiences are processed. Growth hormones are released to repair muscle tissues, regrow bone cells and strengthen the immune system. Deep sleep delta wave is a marker for biological youth. A lack of ‘delta sleep’ can increase the aging process (plus memory and creativity capacities) as the body fails to fully repair and restore.
REM Sleep: The deepest stage of sleep. Begins approximately 90 mins after falling asleep. The body is relaxed and immobilized, breathing increases alongside irregular, rapid eye movements. Brain wave activity is similar to when awake, and dreams occur. An individual enters into REM sleep three to five times each night, approximately every 90 mins. Experts believe this is when the brain is restored and prepared for the next day, with new learnings and motor skills processed and committed to memory or cleared away.
These three NREM and one REM sleep repeat in a cyclical fashion throughout the night. Each cycle lasts for 90-120 minutes.
Failure to obtain enough of stage-3 (NREM) sleep and REM sleep can affect our thinking, emotions and physical health.
Natural Ways to Improve Your Sleep Quality
While ideal sleep hygiene is individual, it universally includes the following:
The establishment of a regular sleep and wake cycle
Bedroom optimisation: comfortable mattress, pillow, room temperature, lighting and noise level
The removal or reduced use of electronic devices. Light and sound can disturb sleep stages and electromagnetic fields may influence brain activity during sleep.
Research shows that external stimuli like smell can influence dreams; smells with positive associations promote happier dreams and ‘positive aromas’ boost the chance of building useful memories during sleep cycles. Essential oils can be used aroma therapeutically via different methods: directly inhaled (drops on pillow or a tissue); indirectly inhaled (oil burners or steamers) or applied to the skin in a carrier oil.
Try a few drops of these essential oils on your pillow to improve the quality of sleep:
Lavender: Contains chemical compounds linalool and linalyl, which calm the nervous system and increases deep sleep
Bergamot: Can lower blood pressure and improve mental health
Chamomile: Helps reduce anxiety and pain
Cedarwood: Contains cedrol, which activates the parasympathetic nervous system and increases total sleep time
A blend of lavender, bergamot, sandalwood and jasmine essential oils has been found to enhance sleep quality.
Yoga Therapy at AyurMa
Ten minutes of yoga before bed is a great way to prepare yourself for sleep, calming the mind and activating the parasympathetic nervous system. Slow, controlled breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, enhancing involuntary actions like digestion, cardiac and respiratory function, skin and muscle sensations, urine output and immune responses.
Try this short sequence at bedtime:
2 to 3 minutes of gentle Cat Cow spinal stretching
1 minute of Child’s Pose with normal breathing and focus on abdominal movement
3 minutes of Chandra Anuloma Villoma Pranayama: Close right nostril with right thumb; inhale and exhale through left nostril. Exhale twice as long as you inhale
3 minutes of Chandra Bhedana Pranayama: Close right nostril with right thumb; inhale through left nostril; close left nostril with left ring finger; exhale through right nostril
1 minute of Child’s Pose (as above)
Studies show that breathing through the left nostril stimulates the parasympathetic branch of
the autonomic nervous system, reducing breathing rate, blood pressure and heart rate in
preparation for stage 1 of NREM sleep.
To achieve good sleep, avoid or limit stimulants like caffeine, found in coffee, tea, sodas, chocolate, and some medicines.
Magnesium-rich foods: legumes, seeds, dark green leafy vegetables, wheat bran, almonds, cashews, Brewer’s yeast, whole grains
Tryptophan-rich foods: chicken, eggs, cheese, fish, peanuts, pumpkin, sesame seeds, milk, turkey, tofu and soy
Glycine-rich foods: bone broth, spinach, asparagus, cabbage, legumes
Cut sugar in the evening; uneven blood sugar levels disrupt sleep
Try a tablespoon of ghee at bedtime
Eat a small dinner at least 3 hours before bed for optimum circadian rhythm
Researchers have asserted that in the case of insomnia, “there is practically no single measure of treatment so valuable as the neutral bath”. The immersion of the body in water of a neutral temperature (34-37°C or 92 97° F), a ‘neutral bath’ can be a bath or shower for 20- 30 minutes, known to equalise and regulate blood pressure, and induce drowsiness.
Acupuncture at AyurMa
Research has shown that acupuncture can result in a nocturnal increase in endogenous melatonin—the ‘sleepy hormone’. Toning down the perception of sensory signals enhances blood flow to sleep-inducing regions of the brain.
The following Ayurveda treatments have been found to improve sleep quality:
Nasya: In Ayurveda, the nose is considered the direct route to the brain, the doorway to consciousness, and the entrance for prana (life force), which is carried into the body through breath. This practice improves breathing and has a calming effect on the nervous system.
Try this at home:
Lie on your back and tilt your head back with the nostrils facing the sky. If you are on a bed, try hanging your head off the edge, or place a pillow under your neck for support. Put 2-4 drops of Nasya oil (recommended oils of Anu Thaila and Kheerabala) in each nostril. Inhale deeply through the nose and rest for a few minutes.
Ksheeradhara: Medicated milk poured over the forehead stimulates and soothes the hypothalamus, which in turn regulates the pituitary gland and induces sleep.
A soothing cup of infused tea before bed helps you relax and unwind.
Try these sleep-boosting blends:
Valerian: a natural sedative that helps reduce toxins and boost neurotransmitter GABA in the brain, which helps you fall asleep faster
Passionflower: relieves anxiety and acts as a sedative
Chamomile: contains antioxidants that can promote sleepiness
A good night’s sleep improves immune function, problem-solving, social skills, and our ability to process emotions while reducing the risk of cardiac diseases, progressive neurodegenerative diseases and type-2 diabetes. Sleep is the body’s innate mechanism to heal and repair itself, and the most effective way to reset the health of body and brain.
For a tailored holistic wellness plan to improve your sleep quality, contact the AyurMa team here.