I know perfectly well the principle of ayurveda that one of the worst things I can do for my health is to go to bed after 10 pm. At both mid-day and midnight, the hours between 10 and 2 are pitta time — the natural principle associated with metabolism. Pitta is strongest at noon and midnight. That’s why it’s best to have your biggest meal of the day at noon, when your digestion is strong. And you have fuel for the rest of the day’s work. Midnight pitta functions like a self-cleaning oven, burning off impurities. However, if you are awake at this time, the rise in pitta will make you hungry and if you eat, your body will have to metabolize the food and will miss its chance for housecleaning. The increase in pitta between 10 pm and 2 am also increases your energy and alertness, which is what makes many people feel they’ve gotten a second wind and convinces them that they are night owls, especially if their mind-body type is predominantly pitta.
However, knowing this has not helped me cure my night owl ways. Well, that’s not entirely how it goes. Often, I’m falling asleep around 9 pm, but I have to stay up to see my father to bed. He’s usually not sleepy until 10 pm. By the time he’s tucked in, because pitta has started to come up, I feel alert and can’t sleep. If I start to read blogs, I’m often up until 2 am (and if I start to write a post in response to something I’ve read, then I can be up until 4 am or later). Then I can get a full night’s sleep but still feel not quite awake during the day. I have not been able to break this cycle.
However, now I think I can break the cycle because now I don’t just know what to do: I know why. Recently I’ve been reading The Ageless Woman by Dr. Nancy Lonsdorf, whom I have known since she was in medical school at Johns Hopkins. She points out that one powerful ayurvedic remedy is accessible and affordable for almost everyone: a morning walk. It supports and balances prana vata, which governs the functioning of the mind. I did try a morning walk, and it was wonderful. But I didn’t realize how important a morning walk could be in helping me to break my night-owl cycle, recover my clarity and be fully alert and energetic all day until I read this at Caring.com (boldfacing mine):
7. You get a full night’s sleep but feel groggy all the time or get sleepy while driving.
What it’s a symptom of: This signals circadian rhythm problems or, more simply, getting out of sync with night and day. Irregular sleep patterns, staying up late under bright lights, working a shift schedule, using computers and other devices in bed, and having too much light in the room while you sleep can disrupt your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle.
Why it interrupts sleep: The onset of darkness triggers production of the hormone melatonin, which tells the brain it’s time to sleep. Conversely, when your eyes register light, it shuts off melatonin production and tells you it’s time to wake up. Even a small amount of ambient light in the room can keep your body from falling into and remaining in a deep sleep. The use of devices with lighted screens is especially problematic in terms of melatonin production because the light shines directly into your eyes. This light is also at the blue end of the spectrum, which scientists believe is particularly disruptive to circadian rhythms.
What to do: Try to get on a regular sleep schedule that’s not too far off from the natural cycle of night and day — and preferably the same schedule all week. (Experts recommend 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. or 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. every night, but that’s just a general outline.) If you struggle with not feeling alert in the morning, go outside and take a brisk walk in daylight to feel more awake; you’ll find that it’s much easier to fall asleep the following night. This is also a trick experts recommend to help night owls reset their internal clocks. Force yourself to get up and get into bright light one or two mornings in a row and you’ll be less likely to get that “second wind” and burn the midnight oil or experience nighttime sleeplessness.
As much as possible, banish all screens (TVs, computers, and iPads) for at least an hour before bed. Reading is much more sleep-inducing than looking at a lighted screen, but make sure your reading light isn’t too bright and turn it so it doesn’t shine in your eyes. Remove night-lights; if you need to get up in the middle of the night, keep a small flashlight next to your bed, being careful to turn it away from you. Check your bedroom for all sources of light, however small. Does your smoke alarm have a light in it? Put tape over it. Use an alarm clock without a lighted dial, or cover it. If your windows allow moonlight and light from streetlights to shine in, install blackout curtains or shades tightly fitted to the window frames. Don’t charge laptops, phones, cameras, and other devices in your bedroom unless you cover the light they give off.
Regarding the advice about blacking out all the lights in your bedroom while you sleep — this is real. Research shows even a pinpoint of light disturbs your sleep. My sleep improved dramatically about four years ago when I began to sleep with eyeshades, so if you can’t get your room completely dark, I suggest they’re worth a try.
I’ve been trying to get Dad out in the sunlight, especially to go swimming, but mostly I can only get him to sit on the front porch and listen to “Prairie Home Companion.”