Sleep, as any new parent or person suffering from sleep deprivation will tell you, it is essential for normal day to day mental and physical function.
While we have a tendency to focus on the numbers of hours of sleep we have, it’s more about the quality of sleep and the hours during which we are resting that makes the difference.
Chinese Medicine theory is firmly of the view that for optimum health we are sleeping by 10pm and up are with the sun. Yes, 10pm. The hours between 10pm and 2am are the time of up most Yin. Yin is our cool, moist nourishing energy. If we are not resting during these hours we are burning Yin, not replenishing it, accelerating the ageing process. From a western perspective these are the hours when we enter our deepest sleep. Our melatonin production steady rises after sunset making us sleepy. By 10pm the melatonin levels have really kicked in, peaking at 12pm and declining around 2am where we shift into a different phase of sleep. Melatonin is a strong antioxidant, clearing and repairing the cells after a hard days work. It is this repair function that is so essential to our health, both mental and physical. Its interesting to note that many IVF doctors are now prescribing melatonin supplements to improve egg quality. Make the most of your natural melatonin and jump into bed that little bit earlier.
Getting less than 8 hours sleep will put us into sleep deficit. We can function, but how well? Memory, cognition and ability to focus are all affected by poor sleep, not to mention moods. Grumpy before your morning coffee anyone? Chronic sleep deprivation is much more serious and can contribute to health problems such as weight gain, high blood pressure, impaired immunity, increased risk of cancer and heart disease to name a few.
In Chinese Medicine when we talk about sleep we talk about Heart function and Shen. Shen is often translated as spirit, it is associated with our conscious awareness, our ability to perceive the world around us and communicate with those in it. The Heart is responsible for housing the Shen. If the Shen is unable to reside peacefully in its palace it will result in insomnia to a greater or lesser degree.
In clinic an inability of the shen to settle at the appropriate time for sleep comes from 3 main pathologies:
Firstly a deficiency of Blood and Yin. Think of a big fluffy sleeping bag whose feathers have not been refilled leaving a thin, uncomfortable shell. This stems from a deficiency in digestive function and its inability to create enough Blood to nourish the Heart. It will result being unable to fall asleep in particular having a hard time”turning off the mind”.
Secondly too much heat in the body. Think a fire under your bed. This can stem from either an excessive or deficient syndrome, but the end result is agitation and restlessness. A totally inability to settle into any sleep at worst, or frequent waking feeling hot, often with trouble falling asleep again.
Thirdly too much stress or tension. Think of a bed to small, a feeling of being locked in. This is usually diagnosed as LR qi stasis (hyper link) and will result in waking in then early hours of the morning, particularly around 3am. It will be aggravated by stress, frustration, anger, and emotional turmoil.
There are many things that can help improve sleep quality, acupuncture and herbal medicine are excellent for calming the shen and correcting any imbalance resulting in insomnia.
Things that you can do for yourself:
Get into bed on time Beat that second wind, maintain a regular bedtime of 10pm. If this seems like an impossible feat, just bring your current bed time forward by 15mins over the next few weeks, e.g. if you are in bed at 12pm at the moment, tomorrow go to bed at 11.45 for a few nights before bringing it back to 11.30pm and so on.
Practise a “Darken Down” routine By reducing the number of lights on in the house 2hrs before bed and turing off any screens 1/2hr before bed will promote the natural increase of melatonin, making you sleepy at the appropriate time. Don’t forget to make sure your room is totally dark, blackout curtains or a sleep mask are good options.
Slow the mind if your mind is still active at bed time, listen to a guided meditation for a few minuets as you relax in bed.
Ditch the Fitbit You do not need a bracelet to tell you if you are having a good nights sleep, it just adds to the anxiety.
Cool the body If you are overheating at night, swap the dooner for sheets and blankets, this way you can layer appropriately to the ambient temperature and allow for better air circulation during the night.
Get active some vigorous physical activity during the day, ideally in the morning but no later than 6hrs before bed time.
Limit Caffeine (including chocolate and soft drinks) if you can’t cut it our altogether definitely keep caffeine consumption to before lunch only.
Eat early late meals will disrupt sleep and leave you feeling groggy in the morning. Choose light evening meals high in magnesium. A magnesium supplement in the evening can also be beneficial.
Food to Promote Sleep
Bananas, spinach, kale, cherries, raw honey, fish, chickpeas, sunflower seeds, pistachios and avocado, whole grains and almonds.
Sleep and insomnia can be very overwhelming and Chinese Medicine is very effective in treating these issues so please don’t hesitate to seek treatment.
If you are interested in what happens to the brain when we sleep, you can view below a great T.E.D Talk from neuroscientist Jeff Iliff.