Struggling to Get a Good Nights Sleep? Chinese Medicine Can Help
SLEEP PART 2:
Optimising Your Sleep & Recovery
So in part 1 of our sleep series we discussed why getting enough sleep is one of the best things we can do for our health, how much we need and how to tell if we’re getting enough. In part 2 we’ll look at some simple things that we can incorporate into our lives to help improve our sleep - helping boost our energy, memory, concentration, performance and overall health. We’ll finish up in part 3 by looking at insomnia and sleep issues, as well as treatments and Chinese medicine for sleep.
How To Start Taking Back Control Of Our Sleep
Whether we struggle with insomnia, fatigue or just plain don’t like going to bed early or at a regular time, there are simple things that we can incorporate into our routines to help optimise sleep and improve many aspects of our health.
Set A Regular Bedtime: This is possibly one of the best things you can do for your sleep quality. Setting a regular sleep/wake schedule, and sticking to it even on weekends, helps train your hormones and nervous system to initiate and maintain sleep more effectively.
You’ve probably heard of your circadian rhythm. This is your body’s internal clock, influencing the release and suppression of various hormones and neurotransmitters that ultimately govern your sleep-wake cycle. With a regular bedtime your body will learn when best to release things like melatonin that initiate the onset of sleep, and the correct timing of things like cortisol needed for alertness.
This is a habit that may take time to train. If you’re a night owl, used to going to bed at 1am, you’re probably not going to be successful shifting straight to a 10pm bedtime. In this case, your circadian rhythm has adapted to your late bedtime and so you’ll probably find yourself lying awake. Instead try for increments of around 30 minutes earlier until you reach your desired bedtime.
Aim For At Least 7 Hours Of Sleep: This means actual sleep time and not just time in bed. Most of us will take some time to fall asleep and periodically wake up throughout the night, so it’s good to set aside at least an extra 30 minutes buffer of time in bed.
How long you aim for will depend on things like your personal sleep needs, life schedule, how much sleep you’ve previously missed out on, if you’re sick or have chronic illness, etc. For most adults, we’re looking at 7-9 hours, so if you’re under more stress, have missed out on sleep recently, are suffering from acute or chronic illness, you’ll want to aim for the longer end of that scale to allow your body the time it needs to recover..
Sleep Hygiene: This includes the above two points but also all the other habits and environment you create around sleep such as:
1. Avoid bright lights and screens in the evening before bed.
Light hitting your eyes (in particular blue light wavelengths) will stimulate your brain to think that it’s still daytime, inhibiting melatonin release, delaying the onset of sleep. Some will wear glasses that help filter blue light in the evening to help combat this.
2. Get sunlight during the day.
While you don’t want it at night, it is equally important to get some light exposure during the day to help set your circadian rhythm to know your wake cycle. This can help with daytime energy as well as sleep quality.
3. Create a dark and quiet bedroom or wear an eye mask and/or ear plugs.
Ambient light and sounds during sleep can affect the quality and depth of your sleep, increasing frequency of sleep disturbances and waking.
4. Keep your bedroom cool.
The body will naturally lower body temperature as it enters sleep, so keeping your bedroom cool can help this happen faster and promote deeper sleep.
5. Make a ritual of winding down.
Take some time before bed, such as 30 minutes, to allow yourself to relax from the day. This might include avoiding all screens, reading a relaxing book, doing some light stretching, practising calm breathing or meditation, etc. Taking this time will help engage your parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest state) to help get you into gear for sleep.
6. Limit caffeine later in the day.
Coffee gives us a pick me up feeling by blocking the receptors of adenosine, which is the molecule that makes us sleepy as it builds over waking hours. This means that coffee isn’t really giving you any energy, it’s just helping you ignore how tired you are for a bit longer. When consumed later in the day or in large quantities, it can affect your ability to fall asleep and the depth of sleep. Try to keep your coffee consumption to the morning, and if you’re finding that you “need” coffee to get through the day, you’re probably undersleeping.
7. Limit alcohol consumption.
Although alcohol acts as a sedative and may help you fall asleep faster, research has shown that when it inhibits REM sleep and creates an imbalance in stages of sleep leading to lower quality of sleep. REM sleep is also the stage responsible for brain recovery and growth and so can affect things like memory and skill learning. It can also exacerbate snoring and sleep apnoea which will further disrupt sleep.
8. Get some exercise.
Exercise has been shown to help onset and quality of sleep, plus a range of other benefits. However, overexertion combined with poor sleep and high work demand is a recipe for burnout, so be sure to pay attention to how you’re feeling and moderate your exercise intensity accordingly.
We’ve talked a lot about the importance of sleep and the many little things that can affect the quality of our sleep, but it’s important not to create a lot of stress and pressure around getting better sleep. Just do your best. There will be times in life when sleep is disrupted, like when raising children, or a stressful life event, or just a period with a lot going on. Just take the small steps that your situation will allow and let go of the rest.
You won’t be able to make all of these changes at once, so take your time to experiment and feel out what helps you sleep easier, deeper and feel more refreshed during the day. Trying one or a few things for a period of a few weeks, will give you a better idea of what is useful for you and what is not.
Unfortunately, sometimes no matter how hard we try and how many things we do right for our sleep, we still struggle either with insomnia or fatigue and brain fog during the day. In part 3, we’ll look at insomnia and other sleep issues, how they’re treated, and how chinese medicine and acupuncture can help with sleep.