The past year has wreaked havoc on our sleep. Our routines are out of sync, and ongoing stress caused by the pandemic and politics continues to cause anxiety and worry, which makes it hard to relax enough to fall and stay asleep.
Lack of sleep isn’t just annoying; it’s a national public health crisis. Between 50 to 70 million Americans suffer from sleep disorders, according to the American Sleep Association. Not getting restful sleep can impact every aspect of your life, from your mood to your ability to function effectively in your day.
See also: 7 Yoga Sequences for Better Sleep
Identifying Sleep Disruptors
Raj Dasgupta, MD and professor of pulmonary, critical care and sleep medicine at the University of Southern California, says many things can contribute to a poor night’s sleep and cause excessive daytime sleepiness and fatigue. Here are some of the biggest culprits:
- Getting too much stimulation before bedtime (TV, iPad, phone)
- Consuming too much caffeine or alcohol late in the day
- Sleeping in a noisy environment
- Sleeping too much during the day
- Lack of exposure to sunlight
- Some prescription medications
- Stress, worry, depression, and anxiety—hallmarks of the COVID-19 pandemic
- Underlying sleep disorders such as insomnia, sleep apnea, or restless legs syndrome, which can be diagnosed by a sleep specialist.
Easy ways to improve your sleep
Improving your sleep doesn’t have to be difficult. One easy change that can help you sleep better: Don’t doom-scroll the news before bed. “Even though nighttime might seem like the perfect time to catch up on the latest COVID-19 information, you should try to avoid things that can cause anxiety before bed,” says Dasgupta.
Hearing or reading about all the bad things happening in in the world is a bit like watching a horror movie right before bed, he says. Images and information regarding violence or fear can stimulate your mind and prevent you from having a smooth transition into sleep. Simply put: “No more binge-watching Stranger Things and worrying if Eleven will be OK,” says Dasgupta.
Blue light from screens also suppresses the body’s release of melatonin, the hormone that makes you feel sleepy. A better approach: Turn off screens at least an hour before bedtime and instead read an uplifting or non-triggering book.
If those changes don’t help—or you’re looking for other ways to get better nightly rest—the ancient Indian science of Ayurveda can also help.
See also: Yoga for Insomnia
Ayurveda practices for restful sleep
Svastha is the Sanskrit word for health. In Ayurveda, svastha means bringing the body and mind into equilibrium for optimal well-being. “One of the major pillars of health in Ayurveda is proper sleep,” says Anita Sundaram, Ayurvedic educator and lifelong practitioner. “Sleep is a natural time for our body, mind, and spirit to rest, detoxify, and reset from the day’s activities.”
Ayurveda offers many practical tools to balance sleep cycles, ground the mind, and embrace daily routines, all of which can result in better rest, says Sundaram. “It comes down to lifestyle and reclaiming and supporting our system’s natural rhythms.” Here are some of her favorite ways to establish a daily routine that embodies stability and balances the nervous system:
- Practice Abhyanga: The Ayurvedic ritual called Abhyanga—self-massage using a warm herbal oil all over the body—can bring better sleep. If massaging the entire body seems too daunting, start with the scalp and feet. Before or after a shower, give yourself a soothing foot massage with a few drops of warm organic sesame or almond oil (I like M.S Skincare’s Aum Restorative Lavender Body Oil, a company owned by a woman of color and Ayurvedic practitioner). The head is full of nerve receptors, so a little oil on the scalp sends a message to the brain that it’s time to turn off. The warmth of the body helps to ground vata, the dosha associated with air and movement.
- Drink spiced warm milk: Scald—do not boil—your choice of milk, add a pinch of cardamom, nutmeg, cinnamon, or ginger. You can even add a little ghee to the milk (try Cinnamon Ghee Butter from the women-of-color-owned Gourmet Ghee Company). Savoring this treat an hour before bed can help promote digestion and sleep.
- Dim the lights: As the sun goes down, dim your lights at home to signal your brain that the frenetic pace of the day is coming to an end.
- Use essential oils: Invest in an essential oil diffuser and high-quality essential oils like a sandalwood or frankincense, which are calming and grounding for the mind and spirit.
- Make your bedroom a sacred place: Having a soothing sanctuary will help you rest better. Invest in cozy bedding, soft lighting, and a white noise machine or app.
Anusha Wijeyakumar is a wellness consultant at Hoag Hospital in Orange County, California, and author of Meditation with Intention.