In this chit-chaat with NAMA certified Ayurveda Doctor, Victor Briere, co-founder of Pacific Coast Ayurveda in Gualala, CA, we talk about the relationship between digestion and sleep. The impact they have on each other and our holistic well-being. If you experience trouble sleep throughout the night, are your mental, emotional or physical digestion playing a role?
A chit-chaat with Victor Briere, AD
How does poor digestion keep you up at night?
When the moon is up your body wants to heal repair and rejuvenate its energy. When the sun is up your body wants to act and utilize its energy. During the day the body is converting whatever you put into it primarily towards outward action and activity. At night the body is converting whatever you put into it primarily towards inward repair. This isn’t to say you can’t override this tendency, but it is to say that this is the natural tendency of the body and how it operates most efficiently.
Digesting what is in the stomach and small intestine requires a large amount of the body’s resources. Whenever you eat your body prioritizes the digestion of that food and sends large amounts of blood, enzymes, hormones etc. to the major digestive organs – stomach, small intestine, liver, and gallbladder. It prioritizes this because if the substances you consume do not get digested then they cannot be properly absorbed into the body throughout the remainder of the GI tract and toxify the entire system. The body knows this innately, and so it is good for us to know this too so that we can honor it throughout our lives.
When your body is digesting food it is not prioritizing repairing tissues and synchronizing bodily functions. You can throw the entire clockwork of your body off by eating at inopportune times (keep reading to see what those are). So, put simply, when digestion is off, sleep becomes both more necessary to repair the damage caused by improper food habits and more impaired due to the lack of resources the body has to perform its healing functions while sleeping. It’s a one-two punch and it certainly feels that when it is happening to us.
Generally speaking, through the lens of Ayurveda, what is occurring when a person is having trouble sleeping at night?
There can be a number of factors contributing to sleeplessness. The major ones are poor digestion, aggravated vata, high levels of stress, an overstimulated nervous system; the list goes on. What all these things have in common is that they are caused by lifestyle choices that do not encourage calm and steady body rhythms and function. We forget how much excess we partake in while living our modern lives so the imbalanced state has become normal and average.
Now, on top of healing, which is challenging enough, we have to simultaneously fight cultural and social norms inside ourselves and others to fully embrace a balanced lifestyle. An example helps illuminate this. It is normal and overwhelmingly prevalent for people to stare at the screen for hours in the evening. This is excessive and imbalancing. Not only does someone desiring healing have to do the hard work of breaking their own habit around this, they often have to enter into conflict with a spouse, child or friend who certainly DOES want to stare at screens for hours at night and is not yet suffering from sleep issues so is not acutely motivated to change. The desire to heal can create a challenge in relationships. That is what truly makes it difficult. It is certainly surmountable, but we can’t underestimate the force of that when dealing with health issues and making lifestyle changes. I can’t stress the importance of this enough.
How does a lack of sleep, or restful night of sleep play a role in our wellbeing?
If the body cannot repair itself, especially the nervous system, then it will begin to draw upon its emergency resources in order to function. A good example of this would be the release of adrenaline. Doing so taxes the nervous system, the glandular system, and digestion dramatically slows. The immune system will kick on in a stronger more acute way to attempt to speedily repair the damaged tissue. This creates inflammation, which, is a positive response in the short run, but in the long run impairs the function of the tissue(s) or organ(s) affected. The primary function of sleep is to give the body the time and space to repair itself in a graceful and complete way so that your emergency resources stay just that – emergencies only. It gets challenging when substances like coffee, energy drinks etc. come into play because we are prompting our bodies to enter into a stress response so we can perform quickly and effectively. This works for a short period of time but ultimately destroys the optimal functioning of the body. It’s a negative feedback loop that replaces sleep for rejuvenation with stimulation for performance. We can only do that for so long before we run out of resources to keep the ball in play. Ayurveda would say, don’t run at a loss. Prioritize the long term benefits of healthy sleep habits over the short term gains of adrenalized performance.
Can our digestive health, our gut impact how well we sleep at night?
The better and more completely you digest your food, the more efficient your body will be while it heals itself at night while asleep. Those who have strong digestion often require less sleep because their bodies complete its healing process in a shorter amount of time. Everything about life improves when we are rested and rejuvenated. Life feels better. The cornerstone of this is the strength of agni, digestion, in the system.
How can we tell if our insomnia is related to our digestive system?
There are a few tell-tale signs that your sleep issues are related more directly to a digestive issue. If you have little to no appetite then you can be sure of it. If you suffer from any kind of acid reflux, at any point in the day or night you can be certain that your impaired digestion is influencing your quality of sleep. If you start craving food after 6 pm then your digestive rhythms are out of balance and will contribute to sleep quality. Since insomnia is primarily a vata issue and excess vata weakens the agni, then most sleep disorders are also an indication that the digestive system is out of balance as well.
Can what we eat for dinner or late-night snacking keep us at night?
Absolutely. When you have a full stomach while getting in bed you are asking for trouble. The body digests best in an upright position, either sitting or standing. By laying down with a full stomach you are prompting the body to begin healing, but it isn’t ready. It has to deal with what is in your stomach first. Since laying down is a less than optimal position for digesting it has a more difficult time processing the food and will ‘rebel’ so to speak. In general, it is best to stop eating solid food between 5 and 6pm. If you get a little hungry at night then drink warm liquids. Golden milk is a good idea. If you have issues digesting dairy then you can prepare golden milk using soy or almond milk as a substitute.
What are some approaches used in Ayurveda to help clients sleep through the night?
The main contributor to healthy sleep is to make sure that you have no solid food after 6 pm. Secondarily is to encourage the body to begin resting when the sun goes down. Ideally, no computer, phone or TV use once the sun goes down, especially, for someone who has sleep issues. The light from the screens stimulates a lot of nervous system function. Screens agitate the mind too much which then stimulates the nervous system as well. More often than not, the content on these screens is geared to both subtly and overtly mobilize your entire body which is the opposite of what you want right before going to bed. Meditation and pranayama are extremely powerful tools to induce a state of rejuvenation and calm prior to sleep. Doing 11 minutes of deep breathing prior to going to sleep can be life-changing for those who practice it daily.
What are some daily steps we can take to help sleep through the night?
- Eat no later than 6 pm
- Eat your largest meal at around 12 pm
- Avoid caffeine completely
- Wake up and get out of bed by 6 am
- Practice deep breathing 11 minutes or more before bed
- Avoid screens at least 2 hours before bed
- Practice yoga asana or a similar physical practice prior to eating in the morning
- Be in bed with the lights out by 10 pm
At what point, do you recommend seeking professional support when it comes to insomnia?
Prevention is always better than cure. If you are struggling with either acute or it is a good idea to see an ayurvedic professional who can pinpoint the root cause of your specific imbalance and give you the tools to heal.
Victor Briere has an Ayurveda practice, Pacific Coast Ayurveda, based on the belief that a healthy body and mind are the pillars for a life full of spirit and joy. True health is the bi-product of conscious life. Victor aim is to teach you the principles of health and guide you towards balance that can be self-sustained and generated from the inside-out.