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What is Insomnia?

Ideally, each night a person goes to bed they fall asleep, remain asleep, and only wake up when they feel refreshed and healthy the following morning.  This is ideal, but according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, over 60 million people in America suffer from some sort of sleeping disorder and at the heart of it is insomnia.

When someone suffers from insomnia, they have difficulty falling or staying asleep, feel tired during waking hours, are lethargic and not rested when waking up in the morning, and wake up throughout the night.  Some people suffer from insomnia without an apparent cause, which is known as primary insomnia, and some people suffer from this condition in relation to another health problem such as depression or restless legs syndrome.

Insomnia is also cited as being caused by the intake of caffeine, alcohol, or certain medications, or experiencing jet lag, stress, anxiety, mental distractions and afflictions, or pain in the body.

Western medicine considers a case of insomnia to be chronic if a person suffers from symptoms for a month or more.  Practitioners of Western medicine suggest the elimination of alcohol, caffeine, late-night eating, and erratic sleep habits as well as advocating bedroom modification and soothing before-bed activities as ways to prevent insomnia.  Along with these types of therapies, more than nine out of every ten insomnia sufferers are prescribed medication such as hypnotic medication (like Ambien), antidepressants (like Doxepin), and antihistamines (like Tylenol PM).

How Does Ayurveda View Insomnia?

People with aggravated Pitta energy may experience digestive problems (like irritable bowel syndrome and acid reflux disease) and people with aggravated Kapha energy may have respiratory ailments (like asthma and bronchitis).  People with aggravated Vata energy, though, experience health problems that relate to elimination (such as constipation).  This relationship with elimination is based on how Vata energy is responsible for movement both of and within a person’s physical form.  This action ultimately stems from the downward movement of the stool out of the body.  Excessive movement through too much travel and too much activity of the mind will dry the body out.  When the body is dry, the stool ceases to move, and this reverses the downward movement of energy.

This reversal of energy delivers toxicity to the blood and the upper parts of the body, including the mind. The anxious, fluctuating thoughts that result from the above-mentioned reversal of Vata energy can often cause insomnia.

Ayurvedic practitioners often cite the presence of insomnia in a patient’s life to be an indication of other Vata-related health problems and conversely refer other Vata-related health problems as the cause of insomnia.  Typical causes of this ailment include the body being artificially stimulated through drugs, staying up late and keeping the mind active through entertainment or physical movement, and, most commonly, dwelling on the same thoughts over and over again.

How Does Ayurveda Treat Insomnia?

When a person settles their aggravated Vata energy, they are more likely to enjoy regular, restful sleep. An Ayurvedic practitioner will guide a patient through a Vata-balancing diet, healthful consumption and application of appropriate oils to moisturize the body and promote regular elimination, herbal therapies to balance the Vata dosha, and other lifestyle changes that reduce the likelihood of light and interrupted sleep. Certain yoga postures and breathing exercises can also be prescribed to settle the nervous system and reduce the anxiety and mental distress that often triggers insomnia.

Lifestyle Changes for Insomnia



When we neglect to establish the root cause of one illness, it can turn into another, stronger illness in the future.  The first step in resolving a specific ailment or disease in the body is to assess the nature of our lifestyle and make general modifications.  Living our day-to-day life with a deliberate intention to improve our health will help us to both resolve the disease we are suffering from and prevent further incidence of it and other diseases in the future.  Several of the following lifestyle changes overlap with Western suggestions of how to reduce the incidence of insomnia:

  • Eat a Vata-reducing diet of cooked foods and oils, and avoid cold, dry items that will further aggravate Vata energy.
  • Favor ghee as a source of oil and fat to help lubricate the colon and ensure regular movement of bowels.
  • Create a regular sleep routine that follows the same bedtime and wake-up time every day.
  • Avoid eating at least three or four hours before going to bed, as the body’s struggle to digest food during sleep will possibly lead to disrupted sleep.
  • Eliminate caffeine and other stimulants, no matter how early in the day they may be consumed. People with aggravated Vata energy are often more sensitive to stimulants than other people.
  • Eliminate alcohol and other toxic substances so as to promote more regular, healthful elimination and clarity of mind.
  • Avoid TV, movies, and too much time using computers and other electronic devices, as this can over-stimulate the mind and lead to disrupted sleep habits.
  • Avoid vigorous exercise and too much running about.
  • Favor slightly heavier foods and drinks to help the earth element settle the mind and body.


Better Foods For Insomnia

Ayurveda teaches us that disease and sickness are derived from poor digestion and inappropriate food choices. We then have the opportunity to make deliberate and more conscious decisions as to what foods we do and do not put in our body which increases the chance of resolving the body’s imbalance.

Food needs to be in season, in moderate combinations of one or two food groups, not too hot or cold, in a modest enough quantity to allow for room in the stomach later, consumed without too much liquid which hinders digestive power, and should be fresh and not left over for more than a few hours.  The following list provides foods for a Vata-balancing diet and eating habits to avoid when looking to resolve insomnia:



Sweet potatoes

Rice (white basmati)
Oats (cooked)
Cow’s milk
Olive oil
Sesame oil
Nuts and seeds (in moderation)

Foods To AVOID In Response To Insomnia

While some foods can help to balance an aggravated dosha, other foods can cause further imbalance. Dry and cold foods as well as pungent, bitter and astringent tastes will dry out the body and aggravate the Vata dosha. Sour, salty and pungent tastes as well as spicy foods will add more heat to the body and aggravate the Pitta dosha.Sweet, sour and salty tasting foods will add heaviness to the body and aggravate the Kapha dosha. The following foods will aggravate Vata energy and therefore should be avoided in response to insomnia:



Oats (dry)

Dried fruits
Raw and cold foods
Most legumes including green lentils and garbanzo beans

Beverages For Insomnia

Generally, Ayurveda discourages the consumption of too many cold beverages, as doing so hinders the strength of the body’s digestive fire.  Instead, favors room temperature or hot beverages to encourage the strength of the digestive fire.

  • Hot water, especially during meals and first thing in the morning.
  • Mix a teaspoon of the powder of calamus root with a cup of warm water or milk and consume three times a day.
  • Avoid cold and frozen drinks
  • Avoid sugary or fizzy drinks that blend with the digestive juice and make it weak.
  • Avoid alcohol, coffee, and black tea.


Herbs For Insomnia

Herbs are used in the Ayurvedic system much like Western medicine utilizes drugs and vitamins and can be taken like tea 2 to 3 times a day. Herbs aid in the digestion of food, the breakdown and elimination of toxins, and help to strengthen the cellular structure of our system for greater vitality. Herbs become more potent once mixed with other herbs of similar properties. Mix together 2 to 4 different herbs from the below list by adding a quarter to a half teaspoon full of each, for a total of 1 teaspoon. Drink these in half cup of hot water. The following herbs will help resolve the heat in the body associated with acid reflux disease:

Poppy seeds
Valerian root

Camphor oil
Hawthorn berries

Mix ginger oil with aloe vera juice and apply to hair
Brahmi oil (apply to head region)
Sesame oil (place a few drops in the ears and nose before bed time)


Yoga Postures For Insomnia


When applied therapeutically to specific ailments, yoga postures provide an opportunity to strengthen the body, rid it of toxic matter, and restore balance. The postures included in this section can be practiced as part of a more general sequence or can be focused on in short sessions. When first exploring yoga postures, it is best to only practice them for twenty minutes or so per day and buildup from there once the body becomes more flexible.


Shoulder stand



Aromatherapy For Insomnia

Aromatherapy utilizes the fragrances of essential oils when applied to the skin.  Essential oils can burn the skin and therefore must be diluted with a base oil such as sesame, coconut, sunflower, canola, or mustard oil.  Mix 1 fluid ounce of base oil with about 12 drops of essential oil before applying to skin. You can also just mix 5 drops of base oil to one drop of essential oil if using on one spot.

  • Insomnia can be treated with basil, camphor, cedar, eucalyptus, frankincense, ginger, cinnamon, lavender, lily, lotus, musk, myrrh, patchouli, or sandalwood oil.
  • Use a sesame oil base.
  • Apply oil on the skin between the eyebrows.

Mantra Therapy For Insomnia

Ayurvedic tradition suggests that repeating certain words or sounds can help a person suffering from an ailment to restore subtle balance to nerve tissue and enhance one’s mental clarity.  Different sounds are prescribed to either repeat mentally or chant outwardly.  These sounds are also used and repeated in the mind for the purpose of spiritual growth.

  • To help control and resolve insomnia, repeat the syllable “Ram” for several minutes a few times a day and build more practice over time.
  • As a Vata-related disorder, it is helpful to internally repeat this syllable for the duration of time it is practiced.

Breathing Practices For Insomnia


Controlling the breath is a central practice toward developing peace and stillness in the mind and body. When the breath is under our control, we are no longer at the mercy of the senses that are stimulated by everything and lead to greater fluctuations of the mind. When applied to the context of resolving specific ailments, the breath is used as a tool for developing lung capacity, heating and cooling the body and resolving mental afflictions like anxiety and stress.



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