Written by John Douillard, DC, CAP
Rasayanas, or ancient Ayurvedic strategies and rituals for longevity and rejuvenation, help you live in sync with nature’s seasonal and daily cycles for better health and happiness. This article explains how to incorporate them into your life.
The Science of Circadian Rasayanas
In 2017, research explaining the underlying mechanisms of how plants and animals adapt to circadian rhythms was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology.
After nearly 200 years of exploration by scientists, the impacts of circadian rhythms, created by the Earth’s 24-hour rotation, were recognized by the world’s top scientific institution.
Sadly though, modern medical recommendations for how to live in balance with circadian cycles of light and dark and seasonal change are still a topic of debate and confusion.
Ayurveda and circadian medicine
Enter Ayurveda. For thousands of years, this ancient mind-body healing system has integrated circadian medicine into protocols and treatment plans.
The foundational strategies in Ayurveda that relate to circadian medicine are called rasayanas. Rasayanas are lifestyle protocols that promise rejuvenation, longevity, and higher states of consciousness.
Ayurvedic textbooks describe four major categories of rasayanas:
- Vihara rasayana – having to do with lifestyle or aligning your biological clocks with nature’s circadian rhythms through balanced daily and seasonal routines.
- Ahara rasayana – having to do with food
- Acharya rasayana – having to do with behavior
- Aushadha rasayana – having to do with herbs
Ayurveda makes the case that rasayanas support health, longevity, and spirituality by maintaining a connection to nature, or circadian rhythms. These four main rasayanas could live under a larger umbrella called circadian rasayanas. These ancient practice suggests that living seasonally offers an opportunity to align yourself with nature.
For example, in Ayurveda, winter, or vata season, is cold and dry, and naturally balanced by heavier and fattier foods. Spring, or kapha season, is heavy and damp and naturally balanced by a harvest of bitter, astringent, and dry foods. Summer, or pitta season, is balanced naturally by a harvest of cooling fruits and vegetables.
Vihara (Lifestyle) Rasayanas
Vihara rasayana describes lifestyle rules for healthy daily, nightly, and seasonal rituals or routines, also called dinacharya in Sanskrit and Ayurveda.
To understand vihara rasayana, it helps to understand the circadian science behind how different frequencies of light during different times of day affect our bodies and minds.
At sunrise, the sun’s rays prepare your body for the day. The sun’s infrared, red, orange, and yellow light have long wavelengths and are able to penetrate the Earth’s atmosphere and your body, while the sun’s faster-frequency blue light is scattered and less direct.
The light at sunrise and sunset are mostly free of damaging ultraviolet rays. In fact, morning infrared rays, which penetrate deeply into the skin, help you endure the damaging UV light of the day. Research has also shown that infrared light from sunset can help heal your skin after a full day of UV exposure.
Exposure to scattered blue light, as well as its contrast to yellow, orange, and red light, at sunrise prompts your biological clocks to stop producing melatonin, which helps us sleep, and start producing cortisol for coping with daily life stressors.
Research suggests that the overwhelming amount of near infrared and red light that accompanies the sunrise stimulates the mitochondria in each of our cells to amp up production of cellular energy, sharpening your eyesight and providing the fuel your body needs for the day’s activities. This may have been more relevant to our distant ancestors, who needed to get up and hunt and gather for survival.
Research also shows that the contrast between the fast blue and slower yellow, orange, and red light at sunrise keeps the biological clocks of mammals in rhythm with nature’s daily and seasonal light and dark cycles, helping us and other animals wake with the sun and spring into action. In fact, researchers believe that before mammals had color vision, it was the contrast alone that triggered a biological response to sunrise.
The physiological changes that take place at sunrise are the drivers of an Ayurvedic morning routine.
The sunrise turns on biological clocks that spark hunger for breakfast. This sunrise circadian boost explains why gyms are packed in the early morning hours, which is the kapha time of day and naturally supports building muscle strength. Starting the day with the sun is a zeitgeber, or external stimulus, that synchronizes your biological clocks to nature’s rhythms. From here, if you listen closely to your body’s signals, Ayurvedic daily and seasonal routines are as natural for us as they are for migrating birds and whales.
Synchronizing our biological clocks to the light of sunrise is the most important aspect of vihara rasayana.
Of course, to get these benefits, you have to be up to witness the sun rise. Ayurveda prescribes numerous sunrise rituals and routines, or dinacharya, including waking up with the sun and doing yogic Sun Salutations and pranayama (or breathing exercises) and meditations. These practices encourage us to bath in morning red and infrared light.
See also Ayurvedic daily routine (Dinacharya)
Ahara (Dietary) Rasayanas
Ahara rasayanas are dietary plans prescribed according to the season. They can be further modified based on a person’s unique constitution, or Ayurvedic dosha.
In Ayurveda, the qualities of prescribed foods provide a natural antidote to the extremes of each coming season. For example, a high-fat fall harvest of nuts and seeds prepares the body for the cold and dryness of winter. A harvest of cooling fruits and vegetables, as well as astringent and bitter roots, in the wet, rainy, and muddy season of spring prepares the body for hot summers.
According to the Caraka Samhita, one of the Ayurveda’s main texts, eating seasonal foods will keep you healthy:
“A person who has the knowledge of appropriate food articles and activities applicable to specific seasons and the discipline and inclination to practice them (in accordance with those seasons) stays healthy. Whereas a person without knowledge (or with limited knowledge) of wholesome regimen for different seasons or without the discipline or temperament of following these seasonal practices is likely to suffer from various diseases.”
Even the potency of vegetables changes throughout the day. In one study on vegetables from the cabbage family, immune-boosting phytochemicals were released at greater rates during midday, then severely declined in the evening. This was found even after the vegetables were picked.
Emerging science suggests that it is not only seasonal qualities that help maintain health and balance, but also the synergistic relationship between a plant and its microbiology, which also changes with the seasons.
Studies on one of the last remaining hunter-gatherer tribes, the Hadza, show that their gut microbes change with each season. In winter and early spring, their guts host a greater number of actinobacteria, which effectively break down fat and fiber – naturally harvested in colder months. In summer, their gut microbiomes shift to predominately bacteroidetes, which better break down a diet of carbohydrates – abundant at summer’s end.
In a 2021 study, researchers determined that the circadian rhythms of soil have a broad influence on the health of plants and those who consume them. The soil microbes attached to the organic and whole foods we consume carry circadian-synched microbes that support our health.
See also Should you eat for your Ayurvedic body type (vata, pitta, kapha) or the season?
Acharya (Behavioral) Rasayanas
Acharya rasayanas are the behavioral and ethical codes of Ayurveda. Two of these rasayanas relate specifically to circadian rhythms:
1. Be balanced in sleep and wakefulness. This suggests that the routine of going to bed early and waking up early are fundamental practices that, beyond being vihara rasayanas that help us connect with nature, are also lifestyle prescriptions that regulate behavior. The more aligned a lifestyle is with nature’s rhythms, the more natural it is for behavior to be of a sattvic altruistic nature.
2. Knowing the measure of time and place with propriety. This acharya rasayana suggests that the ability to adjust your routine according to the seasons can mitigate the type of stressors we now call social jet lag, nightshift work, and travel jetlag. Studies suggest that circadian stress not only affects health but behavior and aggression as well.
See also What are Rasayanas? Ayurvedic’s sacred longevity therapies
Aushada (Herbal) Rasayanas
Medicinal herbs, much like foods, are intimately tied to nature’s circadian rhythms. Herbs are harvested seasonally, while their associated soil microbes also change from season to season.
Every plant and its related soil microbiome carry unique biochemical and microbial blueprints that combine to support the medicinal intelligence of that plant. For example, in the case of ginseng, which is known as a brain and nerve tonic, the plant gleans some of its unique brain-function benefits from the synergistic root bacterium rhizolutin.
Preserving the biochemistry and microbiology of a plant when processing and formulating herbs ensures the delivery of the most benefits.
There are many stand-alone herbs and herbal combinations that are considered rasayanas. The following individual herbs and substances actually help to reset biological clocks and help you live in sync with nature’s circadian rhythms.
Melatonin does the lion’s share of the work when it comes to keeping the body in line with circadian rhythms. Consuming more melatonin-rich foods and herbs, such as tart cherries, walnuts, corn, rice, asparagus, and tomatoes, will help you keep melatonin levels in balance – a challenge in the modern world because of light pollution.
In general, diets rich in vegetables, fruits and grain products contain considerable levels of dietary melatonin. Vitamins and minerals from these foods contribute to the synthesis of melatonin and the regulation of circadian rhythms.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
Ashwagandha is a rasayana that has been extensively studied. It is an adaptogen, supporting the body’s ability to adapt or cope with stress. Stress disrupts circadian cycles by raising cortisol levels and inhibiting melatonin production when the sun sets. Research shows that ashwagandha supports healthy cortisol levels and circadian alignment.
Science also shows that ashwagandha can boost energy, muscular strength, stamina, and endurance in the mornings, while supporting deep sleep in the evenings.
Ashwagandha also supports nervous system repair by boosting brain derived neurotrophic factor, a protein responsible for building new brain cells. When we take away stressors and cellular damage, the body more naturally aligns with the light and dark cycles of nature, helping us wake up and sleep in alignment with the sun and circadian rhythms.
Turmeric (Curcuma longa)
Bacopa (Bacopa monieri)
Bacopa may alter the genes responsible for regulating circadian rhythms. Research suggests that Bacopa can mediate cell survival and cell death in neural cells by altering nerve growth factor receptors that govern the body’s biological clocks.
Researchers have also found that bacopa supports cognitive function and mood. In a 28-day study of 100 adults, study subjects either received a placebo or 150 mg of bacopa twice a day. The study concluded that taking bacopa resulted in a 14 percent improvement in emotional wellbeing, a 12 percent improvement in general health, and a 16 percent reduction in pain, compared to a 6 percent improvement, 4 percent improvement, and 3 percent reduction, respectively, in the placebo group.
In another study, researchers investigated the connection between the body’s circadian clocks and damaging oxidative stress. Bacopa, an antioxidant, helped to restore healthy circadian rhythms. After altering the circadian rhythms of fruit flies with hydrogen peroxide (oxidation), researchers administered bacopa and saw a significant restoration of the circadian rhythms. Researchers identified the abundance of antioxidants in bacopa as the mechanism for the restoration of normal circadian rhythms post oxidative stress.
The importance of seasonal herbs
In nature, the roots of turmeric, ashwagandha, and bacopa are all harvested in the fall and best taken during the winter months, when there is less sunlight and it is harder to maintain a good mood. Research shows that during the winter months, levels of brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and serotonin naturally decline, but increase again in the spring and summer.
The three herbal circadian rasayanas described above offer natural support for better mood and cognitive function by boosting winter serotonin and BDNF levels.
Rasanayas to the rescue
Rasayanas are Ayurvedic tools for rejuvenation and longevity. They are strategies that help the body support optimal health, longevity and higher states of consciousness. Underlying lifestyle, behavioral, dietary, and herbal rasayanas is a key Ayurvedic principle that is often overlooked: the importance of aligning with circadian rhythms. When we align ourselves with the light and dark cycles of nature, maintaining a healthy lifestyle in accord with these rasayanas becomes natural and spontaneous, rather than a struggle or chore.