Four Ways to Master Your Sleep
Sleep is one of those priceless golden nuggets in life. Consistent good sleep can make you feel full of energy to give to your day, have endless possibilities of amazing experiences, can make you feel on top of your game and on top of the world. Bad sleep can suck the life out of you, and can make you feel a zombie, unmotivated and unwilling to do anything but the bare minimum.
Western medicine offers various pharmaceuticals like Ambien, which could potentially cause side effects like depression, dizziness, difficulty breathing, unusual excitement or irritability, and even rebound insomnia.
What Happens During Sleep & What Can Affect Sleep?
According to the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, sleep is an important function for cell repair and growth, and creates balance and homeostasis within the body. Sleep was once considered a time when your body and mind “turn off,” and science has proved otherwise. Some processes are most active during sleep, such as the increase of growth hormone. Muscle growth, tissue repair, and protein synthesis also occur during sleep.
Stress is the biggest factor that I see in practice that interferes with people’s sleep. Overthinking, worry, fear, and anxiety can disrupt and disturb your sleep. Our bodies are programmed to respond in stressful situations, so if you are stressed, your body prevents itself from going into deep sleep as a protective mechanism.
Pain is the second biggest factor, where pain prohibits you from sleeping in certain positions or the severity of pain actually wakes you up. Medications such as beta-blockers or antidepressants, alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, hormones, diet and exercise can also affect your sleep cycles.
Sleep and Disease Risk:
Harvard Medical School Division of Sleep Medicine explains that lack of sleep on a regular basis is linked to many long-term health conditions such as obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease.
Obesity: People who sleep 8 hours have the lowest BMI (body mas index), and those who sleep 6 hours or less have higher BMI’s. Poor sleep leads to an imbalance of important hormones that balance the control of appetite, energy metabolism and glucose processing. It leads to an increase in the production of cortisol, or the “stress hormone.”
It also increases insulin release after a meal, which is responsible for glucose metabolism and fat storage. Lack of sleep is linked to lower levels of leptin, a hormone that tells your brain you’ve had enough food, and higher levels of ghrelin, a biochemical that stimulates appetite. All of this can lead to food cravings and overeating.
Diabetes: Researchers have found lack of sleep linked to Type 2 diabetes because it influences the way the body processes glucose (the carbohydrate that cells use for fuel). Numerous studies have found that adults who sleep less than 5 hours per night have an increased risk of having or developing diabetes.
Heart Disease and Hypertension: Studies have shown that even 1 night of poor sleep in someone who already has high blood pressure can cause elevated blood pressure the entire next day. Studies have also shown too little (less than 6 hours) or too much (more than 9 hours) can increase the risk of heart disease in women.
Mood Disorders: Chronic bad sleep can potentially lead to long-term mood disorders, and have been linked to depression, anxiety, and mental distress.
Immune Function: Substances produced by the immune system to help fight infection also cause fatigue, so it makes sense to sleep more when you are sick. It is believed that during sleep you are better able to fight the infection. Lack of sleep can inhibit these processes and may take longer to get well.
Four Ways to Master Sleep
There is not one “prescription” for sleep problems or insomnia in Chinese Medicine. Instead, we look at the symptoms and factors of each individual as a whole and treat the pattern. Symptoms arise if there is an imbalance somewhere in your body.
We use points on specific channels and specific organ systems to help correct that imbalance. The idea is by allowing the energy in the channels to be unblocked or re-directed, your body will correct itself, and your sleep patterns will be resolved.
The great thing about acupuncture is there are no side effects. Most people also report less stress overall. Acupuncture literally calms your nervous system, reduces cortisol, and regulates proper hormone and biochemical function.
A 2004 study showed that in patients with anxiety, acupuncture increased nighttime melatonin production and total sleep time, fell asleep faster, and were less restless during the night.
A 2008 study concluded that acupuncture plus medication was superior to medication alone for insomnia.
2) Sleep Herbs:
Many people underestimate the power of herbs. Herbal medicine has been around for thousands of years, and the University of Maryland Medical Center explains how ¼ of all prescription drugs come from botanicals. Many clinical trials are emerging showing their effectiveness, and some countries in Europe even classify herbs as drugs and are regulated.
Similar to acupuncture, TCM uses a variety of herbal formulas for different patterns of sleep. Depending on the root of the problem, people with insomnia will have various symptoms such as trouble falling asleep, trouble staying asleep, and/or waking up early, which call for different herbs to re-regulate their circadian cycle.
One of my favorite sleep formulas is a variation of Suan Zao Ren Tang, which helps with trouble falling asleep and promotes a calm and restful mind. Consult with your acupuncturist about either recommending a good formula for you or customizing a blend of herbs to fit your needs.
NOW® Sleep : My favorite sleep herb formula that I take every day! It has Valerian, Hops, GABA, and passionflower – Western herbs that are all really great to promote restful, deep, good sleep.
Chamomile is a sedative herb that helps with restlessness and irritability, especially in kids. Chamomile tea is the most common, while the oil can be diluted and used in a bath or massage oil.
Hops (found in beer) has long been used for sleeplessness, nervousness, and is often added to other herbal formulas for sleep. They also make hops pillows! For fun, you can always make your own.
Lavender: I always use lavender oil in my practice for its calming and soothing effects. You can make a bedtime spray out of a few drops of lavender oil mixed with water and spray on your sheets before bed. You can also massage your feet using lavender oil which will have a grounding and calming effect.
Passion flower, Valerian, and Kava Kava: used on their own or often combined with other herbs and are great for insomnia caused by nervous exhaustion, trouble falling asleep, mental worry, and restlessness.
3) Sleep Supplements:
Dr. Hyman MD describes magnesium as the “most powerful relaxation mineral available.” It is responsible for over 300 enzyme reactions found in all of your tissues, but mostly bones, muscles and your brain. Most people are deficient in magnesium because our typical diet lacks enough seaweeds, nuts, greens, and beans. Most people can take 400-1000mg per day. The most absorbable forms are magnesium citrate, glycinate taurate, or aspartate. Avoid the others which are the cheapest and found and found in most supplements.
* Supplement Tip! One that is highly advertised for sleep, but that I don’t really recommend that often is a melatonin supplement. Melatonin is what your body naturally produces to control your sleep-wake cycle. However, I’ve found that for many people (not all, but many), melatonin only works initially: for 1-2 weeks or if you are jet-lagged. In the long-term, it can put you to sleep initially, but it actually wakes you up, and you are so wide awake you are unable to fall back asleep.
- Potassium as an important complement with magnesium. This also helps with nighttime leg cramps! Citrate or potassium bicarbonate are recommended. Don’t megadose on this one – all potassium supplements affect the heart, but 100-200mg is safe for most people. Consult your health practitioner.
- GABA is what your brain uses to shut itself down, so it’s really great to use for relaxation before bedtime.
4) Night-Time Environment & Routine
These three were the last addition to my list, but by no means the least important.
- Screen Off Rule: You need to phase out your day from blue-screens from computers, phones, and ipads that mess up your melatonin production, and prevent you from getting sound sleep. I turn off or turn down all lights an hour before sleep and turn off all screens 30 minutes before sleep. This really helps my body get ready for bed. I have zero electronics in my bedroom.
- Black out Curtains: I have also recently purchased black out curtains, which makes my room completely pitch black when I sleep, and allows my body to feel like it should be asleep, and not awake with outside lights.
- Temperature control: Your body sleeps better when its comfortable. Although this may vary from person to person, most people sleep better in cooler temperatures. Get a fan and/or a temperature topper on your mattress to keep it cool and comfortable.
Seems like a lot of changes, but trust me a few small shifts will make a world of difference. Don’t get intimidated by the suggestions, but pick one or two to start with that resonate with you. Like most things, it’s the culmination of many things, versus one single thing, that gives you the result you are looking for. In a nutshell, reduce stress and pain, customize your night-time routine, eat well and promote a lifestyle that supports a good sleep system, and be open to trying a few supplements along the way.