I recently watched Russell Foster’s TED talk, ‘Why do we sleep?’ which emphasises the importance of sleep and busts some myths about how much sleep we actually need. He also offers a few tips to help improve your sleep if you’re not getting enough. I thought I’d share some thoughts about sleep from Chinese medicine and add a few more tips for those who are struggling to get a good night’s sleep.
Yin-Yang and Sleep Cycles
The ancient Chinese created the theory of yin-yang to describe the natural phenomena of the world around them. Yin is a symbol for darkness, inactivity, stillness, downward and inward movement, while Yang is a symbol for light, activity, upward and outward movement.
The cycles of the natural world are described by the taiji symbol: there is a period of increasing yang (morning / spring) – when yang reaches it’s maximum (midday / summer), yin begins and yang declines (evening / autumn) until yin is at it’s maximum (midnight / winter), and then yang begins again.
Humans are a part of nature and follow the same kinds of processes. During the day, we are full of yang activity and movement, while at night we become more yin, by being still, curling up and going to sleep. If we are not sufficiently active (yang) during the day, we will struggle to be well rested (yin) at night. Also, if we are very yang during the evening, by exercising or working for example, it is difficult to suddenly still ourselves and quickly become yin at night.
Insomnia in Chinese Medicine
When someone cannot sleep (insomnia), whether they struggle to get off to sleep in the first place, or frequently wake, it is usually because their ‘Shen’ cannot settle. Shen is translated as ‘Mind’ or ‘Spirit’, and is roughly equivalent to the concept of our ‘conscious mind’. Using techniques that work directly to calm the mind (such as meditation or qigong) can therefore be very helpful.
Sometimes the Shen cannot settle simply because our minds are kept so busy in our modern lives, but sometimes there are other imbalances underlying the problem. Acupuncture can be helpful in treating these imbalances, but treatment requires that the practitioner correctly identifies the underlying reason.
There have been a number of research studies that have found acupuncture to be at least as effective as existing conventional drugs for insomnia. The British Acupuncture Council research pages include a fact sheet on Insomnia, which you can see here.
10 simple changes to sleep better
Here are some tips based on both conventional research and Chinese medicine theory to have a better night’s sleep:
1. Don’t drink caffeine after lunch
Limiting caffeine, nicotine and any other stimulants for a period of time before you go to bed will obviously make it easier to get off to sleep. Try chamomile or peppermint tea in the evening – both are cooling and nourish your body’s yin energy, calming your body and mind.
2. Be active during the day
Activity during the day increases your body’s yang energy. When your yang energy is strong, you will naturally balance this by becoming more yin at night, allowing you to settle and rest better. Another way of saying this is: “keeping active will tire you out and you will naturally want to rest more”.
3. Don’t eat late in the evening
If you eat late at night (within about 4 hours of sleeping), you will still be digesting when you are trying to sleep. This will impair your digestion and your sleep.
4. Keep the bedroom slightly cool
People tend to sleep better in a cooler room, even if you need more covers to be comfortable.
5. The bedroom is for sleeping
Try to avoid using the bedroom for anything other than sleeping (and any other nocturnal activities..!). If the bedroom is also a place of work or TV watching, you will subconsciously associate being in the bedroom with activity. If it is just only used for sleeping, your mind will automatically begin to calm down for sleep when you enter the room.
6. Don’t go to bed too late
According to Chinese medicine theory, there is a surge in the body’s energy at around 11pm. If you tend to be tired in the early evening, but stay up late and get a ‘second wind’ (usually around that time), you will probably find going to bed earlier (while you’re still tired) helps you sleep better.
7. Have a relaxing pre-bed routine
Change and brush your teeth early in the routine so that you don’t need to go into a brightly lit bathroom just before getting into bed. You might want to have a bath, do some meditation, qigong or breathing exercises, or anything else that relaxes you. Watching TV and reading are not recommended as they are stimulating rather than relaxing activities.
8. Switch off
Turn lights off so the room is as dark as possible. This includes any blinking lights from electronics. Turn mobile phones off or keep them in another room at night. If you use your phone as an alarm clock, set it to ‘Airplane mode’ or equivalent. If there’s lots of light from outside, you might want to consider black-out blinds.
9. Keep a pen and paper by your bed
If you tend to lie awake planning or thinking of ideas, try keeping a pen and paper by the bed so you can jot them down and get them out of your head. This may help your mind to let go of these thoughts and settle down.
10. Do a Body Scan
If you are struggling to get off to sleep, this relaxation technique can be very helpful. Starting at the top of your head, focus on each body part in turn, relaxing the muscles in that area. Include areas that you might overlook such as around the eyes, cheeks, jaw, belly and lower back. Take your time in each area, moving it if necessary and not moving on until the area has softened and relaxed to some degree. You may find you’ve fallen asleep by the time you get to your hands!
Good night! (Unless you’ve got young children, in which case, as Michael McIntyre says, good luck!)