Stress busting with Ayurveda
Life is stressful! And stress is part of life. We can’t control life… and the quality of our life depends on how we ride its waves and how quickly and efficiently we recover from continuous stressors.
What is stress?
Stress is a natural response to evolutionary adaption. Stress initiates a cascade of hormonal responses known as the ‘fight and flight’ feedback loop which triggers, amongst other hormones, adrenaline and cortisol needed for survival.
However, when the body is subject to continual stress, this loop negatively affects the digestive, cardiovascular, musculoskeletal and reproductive systems. If stressors continue, this further affects the mental and emotional aspects of the nervous system, which can affect immunity.
To withdraw stressors associated with our fast-paced lifestyles, we need to consciously change our relationship with stress. This can simply be achieved by observing nature’s circadian rhythms, and by balancing activity with rest. Allocating 12 hours to ‘doing tasks and fuelling’ and 12 hours for ‘resting, digesting and restoring’ will, over time, recalibrate hormones, rebalance physiology and recuperate health.
How we honour the circadian rhythms intricately connects to how we support our physiology and determines how we ride the wave of life. Supporting our physiology helps establish a level playing field, from which we can be more equipped to manage any additional stressors that life inevitably throws at us.
What is the circadian rhythm?
A key feature of life on Earth is environmental adaptation. As changes in light and temperature are a daily consequence of the Earth’s rotation on its axis, most organisms have evolved an internal biological clock to adapt to such changes.
The 24-hour day/night, light/dark cycle (which directs behaviour and affects physiology) is known as the circadian rhythm. Although the circadian rhythm has been recognised for thousands of years, groundbreaking research into ‘Circadian Medicine’ was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 2017 (Hall, Rosbash and Young, 2017).
What is an Ayurvedic dosha?
Ayurveda, the traditional healthcare system of India, is one of the oldest systems of medicine accepted worldwide. Going back more than 3000 years, Ayurveda offers the concept of 'dosha' to understand physiology. The five elements which create the universe, in varying combinations, make up the doshas. These are:
- Kapha (earth and water)
- Pitta (water and fire)
- and Vata (air and aether)
Each dosha is recognised by the qualities of its elements. For example, Kapha is cold, heavy, slow, liquid, oily, smooth, dense, soft and static. As individuals, we generally present with two or more imbalanced doshas, so our unique ‘innate’ constitution is mainly a combination of either Kapha-Pitta, Pitta-Vata or Kapha-Vata.
How to balance symptoms of stress
Physiological symptoms of stress are seen as indicators of imbalance in our innate constitution. Ayurveda treats these symptomatic imbalances by applying the concept that ‘like increases like and opposites balance’. So, using the Kapha example above, opposite qualities are balanced by using warmth to counteract cold, lightness to counteract heaviness and mobility to counteract static immobility.
Circadian rhythms in Ayurveda
An individual’s dosha then needs to be considered in relation to the environment. Here, Ayurveda offers the concept of the ‘Doshic Clock’, which uses nature’s circadian rhythms to guide daily activities in support of homeostasis.
The cooler, lighter, slower part of the day from sunrise (around 6 am to 10 am) is Kapha time. The most productive part of the day, when the fiery sun is highest on the horizon from 10 am to 2 pm, is Pitta time. From 2 pm to 6 pm is the creative, airy, spacey Vata time. This is repeated with the dark aspect of the 24-hour clock with 6 pm to 10 pm being Kapha time; around midnight being Pitta time and the early hours before sunrise being Vata time.
Then, instead of just surviving, we begin to thrive.
Daily routines in Ayurveda to manage stress
Ayurveda indulges in self-care practises to balance the fast pace of modern living through Dinacharya (daily routines) aligned with the Doshic clock. Waking with nourishing gratitude practices can counteract the pace of the forthcoming day.
- Kapha morning routines include meditation, cleansing practices and moderate self-supporting exercise.
- Mid-afternoon is active Pitta time, for work and regular balanced meals.
- Late afternoon balances rest with activity during Vata time. Here, creative activities, including spending time in nature, activate the 'rest and restore’ aspect of the nervous system.
- Evenings, during nourishing Kapha time, are for light meals, positive self-reflection, inspiring reading and sleep preparation.
- Bedtime, during Pitta time, enables the assimilation of the experiences of the day and assimilating digested meals.
- This is followed by physical rejuvenation in the early Vata hours, during deep sleep.
Generally, Kapha types may be more lethargic in the morning. They often enjoy a routine which should include vigorous morning yoga asanas and breathing practices (pranayama) to counteract inactivity. They do well with a variety of spiced warm food as their main meal around midday. They benefit from a light, early evening meal making time for positive self-reflection and meditation before an early bedtime. This supports a restorative sleep cycle, waking up around sunrise, and feeling refreshed.
Pitta types are generally active, wake early to evacuate and enjoy moderate exercise, followed by a hearty breakfast. They do well learning how to manage their natural ability to multitask by practising mindfulness. Constant activity drives their need for a main, heavier, ’un-spiced’ lunchtime meal. They thrive in the late afternoons if they recalibrate their nervous systems by scheduling regular restorative time in nature. They usually eat again around sunset and benefit from a short walk to aid digestion. A relaxing bath, positive self-
reflection, journalling and/or meditation sets them up for rejuvenating sleep if they get to bed around 10 pm.
Vata types are generally sensitive and spacey in the morning and find it hard to maintain a regular routine, even though their physiology craves it. They eat little and often which can result in snacking, which inevitably leads to an afternoon energy slump. Through managing regular meals and walking in nature, they can be particularly creative in the afternoons, although eating after sunset will mostly disrupt their sleep. Being particularly affected by electronic stimulation, they need to regulate screen time. They do well to indulge in an evening foot massage, a milky night drink and yoga nidra to prepare for essential therapeutic sleep around 10 pm.
Regulating physiology reduces stress
Observing regular times for sleeping, waking, eating and eliminating keeps physiological stress at bay for all the doshas. Adapting each individual’s innate constitution to the environment, through dinacharya and the doshic clock, supports behaviour that reduces physiological stress. From this level playing field, it becomes easier to learn to ride the tsunamis that life randomly throws at us.
As we balance our lives more and more, we recover more quickly and efficiently from life’s waves to become less susceptible to the long-term effects of inevitable stressors. By regulating and rebalancing our physiology daily, we reduce our negative response to stress. Then, instead of just surviving, we begin to thrive. This leads to developing and enjoying an enhanced quality of life, which in turn improves immunity and the longer-term benefits of health and well-being.
Hall, Rosbash and Young (2017), 'The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2017' (Press release) Available at: https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/medicine/2017/press-release/