The importance of sleep in our lives is well established by research and our own experiences. We just don't function well if we haven't slept enough. It seems simple, you get tired, you lie down and ... sleep. Sleep like a baby. Well, as simple as that sounds a surprisingly large number of people just can't get it..
Sufficient sleep helps us be more alert, generally people have better memory, concentration, more joy and even improved sex life and yet how many of us sleep as the proverbial baby?
It's not helping. There are plenty of stories we all hear about - so and so that only sleeps for 5 hours or even less and then there's that guy in India that hasn't slept for 10 days.... I have yet to meet such an individual and if in fact they do exist, I hazard to say, they do not lead an intensive city life. Studies clearly show that 90% of the population needs 8 + hr of quality, deep, undisturbed sleep per night and 9 + hours for adolescents to completely recharge. These are averages with research now moving towards new thinking - each person's requirements are determined by load the individual's brain.
What is consistant is that lack of sleep has severe implications on daytime function such as cognitive functioning, immunity, hormone regulation, moods and even digestion all in agreance with Chinese medicine theories*.
So what's behind our inability to rest? Chinese medicine can shed some important insights into this paralysing situation.
In a clinic situation I differentiate from difficulty getting to sleep, difficulty staying asleep and difficulty waking from sleep. These point to different conditions that require different approaches to restoring your balance. There are many more important aspects but in this article I will go over the basics.
Sleep hygiene is the term that is used well here. Basically we establish what habits are at play. Do you have a late night TV or computer habit? These stimulate your mind with intellectual pursuits, vibrant colours and sounds. This is not the way to ease your mind to sleep.
Early, light dinners.
These allow our digestion system to be at rest
8 Points for a great night.
when it comes time to sleep and this is important as in Chinese medicine Liver becomes energetically active at this time. It has a harder time doing so if the body is active.
Late or heavy evening meals are a frequent cause of sleep problems as are stimulating drinks. Ideally we should have a 2-3hr gap between your last meal and bed time. It is best to keep the evening meals light. Our Spleen and Stomach are thought to be connected to our sense of grounding. If they are overtaxed with a heavy meal this is likely to be overwhelm them giving rise to vivid dreams or nightmares.
Quiet activities slow down our active minds.
I briefly mentioned working late before sleep but this also includes exciting games and thriller novels and movies. Consuming these, particularly before sleep, will stimulate your mind and get your adrenaline pumping just at a time when it's natural cycle is to be winding down.
Your biorhythms rely a lot on daylight exposure, withdrawal of it so ensure your day includes as much full daylight exposure as possible and your bedroom doesn't have much light shining in during the night. A little goes a long way to get your rhythms in sync with the day. The biorhythms also use activity levels for their reference so get some active exercise in during the day. Sedentary jobs do not offer much contrast to nighttime rest and can be a factor in this regard. Walking on a sunny day perhaps during your lunch is a great way to release tensions and allow your mind some welcome rest. This not only gives you a dose of vitamin D (sunshine) but also gives you added mental clarity so that when you do return to work you are far more efficient and full of fresh inspiration. Body movement gets your circulation going so even if all you can squeeze in is the walk to the train station it is far better than putting it off for that stint in the gym.
While we are on the subject of rhythms it is very important is to establish regular sleep and wake patterns. Go to bed early and at a regular time. If you can't fall asleep don't fret, just pick up a quiet activity like meditation on the breath or soothing reading. It is surprising how well these can work. The wakefulness at early morning is very fragile and any attention span is very limited so it wont be long before you put the book down. Set your clock to wake you at a suitable time and do get up. This may be difficult if you have been up all night but bear in mind that you are establishing a rhythm which may be quite an adjustment for your body. It will take some time. Napping at this point may seem highly desirable but should be kept to minimum, 5-15 minutes should be ok in most cases.
Caffeine is not your friend
We like to adopt that Mediterranean ethic of morning coffee ritual, the image is so hip. The trouble is that combined with a high pressure lifestyle and lack of sleep will easily push us into a unhealthy merry-go-around. It goes like this, I feel tired so I'll just grab the second cup - to keep me going. In the afternoon, when the tip of the owning high is worn away somewhat, we talk our selves into another, our third. Now this is a quite late in the day and the cumulative caffeine will take many hours to be excreted out of the system. What ends up happening is us going to bed still hyper from the residual caffeine and a frenetic day. Of course this ends up a very late night and the next day the situation is complicated further by this and we pick up our fourth. What we really need is to cut back to none so that we can return our sleeping cycles to normal.
At this point it is good to look at your day too. Has it been simply manic for far too long? Exhausting work frequently depletes our energy stores as it exceeds what we are able to extract from our meals and what restoration we can do through sleep. Our Kidney is thought to be the store of our energy and once it's running low will give rise to a type of nervousness that can make sleeping difficult.
This is just an overview of some common pitfalls, more severe symptoms can benefit greatly from treatment through Shiatsu. It's ability to work with internal energies is excellent in restoring your internal balance. In practice accupoints are used for specific work in addressing symptoms and conditions with thumb pressure, cupping or moxa as required.
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* 5 Element diagnosis and theories - Kaptchuk, Ted J. The Web That Has No Weaver: Understanding Chinese Medicine. New York: McGraw Hill, 2000