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Yoga Myth #1247: all yogis wake up at 4 a.m., positive and perky, and leap out of bed onto their yoga mat into a one-armed balancing pose.
Hooray! Another day to experience this wonder called life.
False. So utterly false. Some of us don’t do that. Any of it. At least I didn’t before.
I used to wake up with the alarm and hope for the worst things imaginable: illness, emergency, loss of power, natural disaster, any reason to stay in bed for even another five minutes. I never felt ready to get up with my 6 a.m. alarm. It didn’t matter how sweet the sound was, how softly it played, or even if the coffee was already brewed.
I didn’t so much greet the morning as grudgingly allow it, sort of. It wasn’t that I hated my day job, or that I didn’t feel ready for the oncoming onslaught of getting myself ready for the day and out the door, or that I wasn’t fulfilled by my daily life. While some of that was true, the issue was mainly this: I was always tired in the morning and never felt rested when I woke up.
I’m sure some of you can relate to this. According to sleephealth.org, “It is estimated that sleep-related problems affect 50 to 70 million Americans of all ages and socioeconomic classes.” That’s a lot of people; I know I wasn’t alone. Take a moment and think about your sleep. You may be having the same issue I was, at least some of the time.
I knew I didn’t want to start taking medication, other than the occasional over-the-counter nighttime sleep aid, and while I sometimes took melatonin, I also knew it wasn’t a great long-term solution.
The Vedic tradition of Ayurveda has some ideas about sleep that don’t involve taking supplements or long, drawn-out before-sleep rituals, although the latter can help too. The biggest factors for sleep, according to Ayurveda, come down to timing—when you eat your last meal before sleep and what time you get to bed. Sounds simple enough. As it turns out, this thousands-of-years-old system had it right, and this is now backed by modern scientific research.
Eat a lighter dinner and eat it early.
What does this mean? It’s a simple concept, but it goes against a societal norm. We typically eat a large, heavy meal at the end of the day, often in a group or as a social gathering. As it turns out, this isn’t great for our digestion. It leaves a lot of work to do as we prepare for sleep, which is not what our digestive system is designed to do. We can alleviate some of that by moving our dinner time earlier and changing what we have for dinner.
I tried eating the last meal of the day by 6 p.m. or three hours before bed and also eating a lighter meal if possible, either a smaller amount or lighter in general with a focus on vegetables and less meat, dairy, and grains. Soups, smoothies, or salads worked well for me, and I started to see some changes in my sleep patterns.
Why does this work? Our parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for two things: rest and digest.
This means that at night if we are digesting, we aren’t really resting. With less or no food to digest, our digestive system has a longer period of rest. This is also when it does detoxification processes, such as managing toxins or sloughing off dead cells. If there is food in the system, it will work on that rather than the detoxification that we all need to maintain long-term health and well-being.
An empty digestive system allows for better sleep—ideally both longer and deeper.
Circadian rhythm studies show that eating at certain times can help or disturb our natural timing. Long-term interruptions of these rhythms have also been linked to cardiovascular disease and cancer.
As an added bonus, eating this way naturally leads toward intermittent fasting (more on this later!). This is eating during limited hours of the day and is proven for weight control, diabetes, inflammation reduction, and perhaps longevity. These are just a few of the reasons I found to try to eat dinner by 6 p.m.
Early to bed.
Eating earlier also helped me get to bed earlier. I wasn’t rushed with getting household tasks or work emails done, since I had time after dinner to do these things. I even started fitting in an after-dinner walk or a short restorative yoga practice.
There is a strong body of evidence to support going to sleep by 10 p.m. According to sleep researcher Dr. Kelly Bennion, Associate Professor of Psychology at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, studies show that people who go to sleep earlier get more slow-wave or deep sleep, which happens in the first half of the night—starting around 10 p.m.—and is critical for our physical health, immune system, human growth hormone release, muscle and tissue repair, and waste clearance. Other studies show that earlier sleep is good for heart health.
This is connected to optimal synchronization with our natural circadian rhythms. There are times of the day when our bodies are meant to do certain things. For example, most bodies release melatonin, a sleep-inducing hormone, around 9 p.m., which supports the idea of being asleep by 10 p.m. Bodies release cortisol around 6 a.m., which helps us wake up. When we shift our sleep to later at night and in the mornings, this clock starts to function differently and less efficiently.
In our modern world, things are happening at all times of the day: we have access to light and electricity into the night, food is available 24 hours per day, and there is social media to keep us awake and engaged any time of the day or night.
We’ve lost touch with the rhythms of the natural world, and it’s affecting us in all kinds of ways. Pay attention and you’re bound to notice more people with all types of mental and bodily health issues. There is a benefit to connecting to those rhythms and getting back to the cycles of nature.
According to Ayurveda, there is a time for everything based on the doshas or elemental makeup. Going to bed by 10 p.m. honors the Pitta dosha, made up of fire and water, which helps our organs to detoxify between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. If we stay awake too long past 10 p.m., we may get a second wind based on this inner fire, which could affect the detoxification process.
Waking up by 6 a.m. or with the sunrise honors the Vata dosha, made up of air and space, which brings us into a lighter space with a clear mind. If we sleep too far past sunrise, we are moving into the Kapha dosha, made up of earth and water, which will make it heavier and more slow-moving. When I sleep in past sunrise, I often have a hard time getting started and will want to stay in bed even longer.
The sleep cycle begins during the day. Trying to eat dinner earlier and keeping it smaller leads to an earlier bedtime and deeper, more nourishing sleep. This leads to waking earlier, often with the beauty of the sunrise. I have found that mornings are nicer this way.
Try this for yourself and see if you notice any changes. And go easy at first. Move your dinner time up by 5-10 minutes, and your bedtime the same way. Go slowly and remember to aim for most of the time, not instant perfection. Sleep well and enjoy your mornings.