The story of plants promoting wakefulness is an old one. Purportedly, the first discovery of the coffee plant’s wake-promoting ability came from an Abyssinian (modern day Ethiopia) shepherd who noticed his goats stayed up all night after eating a particular berry.
Ayurveda, with its thousands of years’ worth of accumulated knowledge of plants and their various effects on the human body, has many similar remedies for the problem of lack of sleep.
This problem has many manifestations: One is narcolepsy, a chronic sleep disorder that leaves those suffering from it in a perpetual state of tiredness. Another common ailment is insomnia — a state marked by the inability to sleep, tiredness, hallucinations, cataplexy (sudden muscle relaxations during wakeful time, usually triggered by strong emotions) and sleep paralysis.
Narcolepsy is sometimes managed by wakefulness-promoting agents like nootropics or sleep-inducing supplements like melatonin. But certain ayurvedic remedies may also prove beneficial.
What causes narcolepsy and insomnia?
Narcolepsy is usually caused by the death of hypocretin-producing cells which are responsible for sending signals to the rest of the brain and help to regulate the body’s circadian timing – mental, physical and behavioural changes that follow the sleep-wake cycle.
Insomnia, by contrast, may have a variety of reasons: from stress to excessive caffeine intake, to work-related conditions like shift-work sleep disorder. Multiple neurological sleep disorders can result in insomnia including central nervous system hypersomnia (a condition where one faces excessive sleepiness during the day), central sleep apnea (breathing irregularities during sleep), circadian rhythm disorders (when your body’s internal clock is out of sync with your environment), fatal familial insomnia (an extremely rare genetic disorder that results in progressively-worsening insomnia followed by death), parasomnias (disorders that disrupt sleep, such as sleepwalking, sleep terrors) and REM sleep behaviour disorder (where you end up physically responding to your dreams).
In Ayurveda, lack of sleep is termed Nidranasha. There, too, it is attributed to multiple factors including diet, sleep, celibacy as well as aspects such as one’s job, age, sleeping habits, diseases, and an individual’s unique ratio of vata (air) and pitta (governing heat, metabolism and transformation).
Since Ayurveda is often a custom-made form of medicine, no single prescription can work for everyone, and only an ayurvedic practitioner can diagnose the exact cause of insomnia a particular person may be encountering. However, over the years, some ayurvedic therapies have stood out for their evidence-based properties.
India’s National Health Portal (NHP) refers to insomnia as Anidra or disturbed sleep. The Ayurvedic texts referenced cite the cause of insomnia as faults of pitta or vata (fundamental humors of the body), psycho-social stress (Manasantapa), injury or trauma (Abhighata) or other debilitating factors (Kshaya).
Diet, lifestyle and therapy
As with many ayurvedic remedies, the first line of treatment is usually preventative. This can entail avoiding certain foods and lifestyle habits that can trigger insomnia, such as smoking, reducing consumption of caffeine or alcohol, reducing time spent working on a computer or watching TV.
This is usually followed by Panchakarma therapy, a detoxification and purification regime for the body. For insomnia, this would include emesis (inducing vomiting, i.e., Vamana), laxatives (Virechana), intranasal therapies with oils and decoctions (Nasyam) and the pouring of liquids like oils, milk or water on to one’s forehead (Shirodhara).
A team led by Japanese researcher Akiko Tokinobu looked at the efficacy of ayurvedic oil-dripping treatment Shirodhara for sleep problems with a randomised, single-blinded crossover study in 2016. The team identified quantitative benefits in the participants’ sleep quality, concluding that Shirodhara could be a potentially safe treatment for people with sleep disorders.
Ashwagandha, too, has been demonstrated to help with sleep quality, insomnia and anxiety.
Other ayurvedic remedies for treating sleep disorders include:
- Sarpagandha (Indian snakeroot or the root of Rauvolfia serpentina.) has been shown to improve sleep in an uncontrolled trial.
- Ghrita or Ghee-based formulations.
- Brahmi (Indian pennywort) which is often prescribed as a memory-enhancing agent is also given for Anidra.
The NHP also recommends yogic practices like Pranayama, Suryanamaskara and Yoga Nidra. In addition to promoting relaxation, Yoga has been shown to help reduce symptoms of stress and anxiety through the suppression of sympathetic activity – the part of your nervous system that regulates your stress response.