There are very few people lucky enough to be able to say that they have never lost a night’s sleep for one reason or another. Even if you are one of the fortunate few and fall into a deep slumber the moment your head hits the pillow, worry, unfamiliar surroundings, noise and pain are just some of the reasons why almost everyone experiences insomnia (sleeplessness) on occasions.

Sleep gives our bodies the opportunity to repair themselves and our minds a chance to rest. Without enough sleep, we feel irritable and inefficient, and we are less able to concentrate on our daily tasks. Each individual needs a different amount of sleep, ranging from a brisk five hours to an indolent 12, although seven hours is about the average. The amount of sleep we need to revitalize and function efficiently during the day also changes as we grow older. Young babies sleep for up to 18 hours each day, but by the time we are elderly, this total has been cut to somewhere in the region of five or six hours. We also tend to wake more during the night as we age and take longer to get to sleep in the first place.

These are normal sleep patterns that alter as progress through life. Insomniacs, on the other hand, have regular difficulty in falling asleep, wake frequently and are restless throughout the night, and often wake early only to feel tired during the day. The effects of a few broken nights are not serious but, for insomniacs, sleeplessness can last years. They frequently find themselves in the relentless, vicious circle of overtiredness and worrying so much about the need for sleep that they cannot relax enough to drop off.

Sleeplessness, unless very prolonged or total (no sleep at all), can safely be assessed by Ayurvedic practitioners initially. The approach to insomnia looks at the reasons behind a patient’s inability to sleep properly; we will advise an appropriate treatment that addresses the root causes of this problem, so that long-term improvement can be brought about.

As with many illnesses, a good place to start is with nutrition. Certain foods such as coffee can act as stimulants which keep us awake, while adequate intake of vitamins and minerals can be important in helping us get a good night’s sleep. Allergic reaction can affect sleep – a certain food eaten at 7.30pm can activate adrenaline, which will wake you up at two in the morning.

There is a range of supportive treatments and self-care advice detailed in this section, which will further enhance the quality of sleep.

According to the principles of Ayurveda, the causes of insomnia may be physical, mental or environmental. If the cause is physical, treatments to reduce Vata (the driving force which controls the nervous system and all energies in the body) are indicated. Ayurvedic oral preparations to maintain good bowel movements and special herbal preparations, which have a hypnotic effect or are calming to the nerves, are given. Shiro Dhara (herbal oil treatment to the scalp) is recommended, together with a special oil massage. Detoxification of the person should be must before main therapy.