Why Is Sleep So Important To Our Health?
Why do we need sleep? The topic of sleep has been subjected to decades of research approached from a number of different angles, yet this simple question has been difficult to answer clearly. While there are several promising theories, one thing is sure; sleep is one of the cornerstones for health and wellbeing.
According to data from the National Health Interview Survey, sleep deprivation (less than 6 hours) affects nearly a third of American adults. In fact, Americans are among the world’s top leaders in sleep deprivation. We just have too many things to do, places to be and people to see. However, all those sleepless nights do not bode well for our health.
Interrupted or impaired sleep can contribute to:
- Dramatically impaired immune system
- Accelerated tumor growth
- A pre-diabetic state leading to weight gain
- Impaired cognitive performance (including memory, judgement and problem-solving)
- Impaired physical performance
- Irritability, anxiety and depression
- Risk for cardiac issues
- Low libido
- Premature aging (by interfering with your production of growth hormones and melatonin)
Persistent lack of sleep has a cumulative effect and can wreak havoc on your personal and professional life. If you are one of the 70 million Americans who suffer from chronic sleep problems, then consider incorporating some of these 20 tips to deepen your sleep and reap its health benefits.
- Reserve your bed for sleeping – keep your bedroom for rest and sex only, so that your mind associates that space with a relaxed state of mind. Avoid doing work, dealing with bills or any other stimulating activities.
- Avoid harsh lights – prior to sleep. Blue light in particular emitted from electronics is especially disruptive to sleep. As you begin to wind down, dim the lights around you to encourage melatonin production for a more restful night of sleep. (Red light is a good alternative – doesn’t disrupt melatonin production)
- Follow the sun’s circadian rhythm – (go to sleep around 10 and not later than 11) wake up with the sun (try an alarm clock that wakes you up naturally by simulating the rising sun)
- Get to bed as early as possible; preferably by 10 pm and not later than 11. Your body (especially your adrenal system) does most of its recharging between the hours of 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. In Chinese Medicine, the this is the time that the blood returns to the liver and nourishes it. In addition, if we don’t provide the opportunity for detoxing and regeneration, our liver becomes backed up with toxins leading to further health disruption.
- Avoid late night exercise – opt for morning if possible when energy is highest. Exercising at night can interfere with sleep by elevating adrenaline, heart rate and body temperature. However if you cannot exercise during the day, try to do so at least three hours before bedtime. Exercise in general promotes better sleep.
- Avoid watching TV right before bed – the stimulation disrupts pineal gland function and sleep.
- Avoid eating heavy meals at night – particularly rich, fatty, spicy and heavy foods put more stress on the digestive system and disrupt sleep.
- Eat a high-protein snack a few hours before bed. This can provide the necessary amino acids such as L-tryptophan needed for your melatonin and serotonin production.
- Avoid processed before-bed snacks, especially grains and sugars. These will raise your blood sugar and delay sleep. Later, as is typical in high sugar snacks and its resulting blood sugar spikes, blood sugar can drop too low (hypoglycemia), and cause you to wake up and be unable to fall back asleep.
- Take a hot bath, shower or sauna before bed. When your body temperature is raised in the late evening, it will fall at bedtime, inducing sleep. The temperature drop from getting out of the bath signals your body it’s time for bed.
- Try some Aromatherapy – Add a few drops of essential oils to a bath for some relaxing aromatherapy. From personal experience, this approach has knocked me out cold in the middle of the day! I had a very deep and restorative nap.
- Put your work away at least one hour before bed. This will give your mind a chance to unwind so you can go to sleep feeling calm, not hyped up or anxious about tomorrow’s “To-Do” list.
- Read something spiritual or uplifting. This will help put you in a relaxed and positive state of mind easing away the stress and tension.
- Do some relaxing activities – meditation, yoga, light stretching, breathing exercises all help calm the nervous system and slow down brain waves to prepare for sleep.
- Drink relaxing beverages – drink to promote sleep (kombucha, herbal tea, warm organic milk).
- Avoid caffeinated drinks – This is an obvious one; consumption of stimulating drinks like black teas, sodas and coffee especially later in the day can really get in the way of restful sleep. It works by increasing adrenaline and blocking sleep-inducing chemicals in the brain.
- Avoid alcoholic beverages – alcohol interferes with the sleep cycle by reducing REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep which is thought to be the more mentally restorative type of sleep.
- Avoid Nicotine – It is a stimulant which can impede sleep and can also cause some mild symptoms of withdrawal closer to the morning, by increasing the autonomic response. Research shows smokers spend less time in deep sleep compared to non-smokers.
- Avoid sleeping around your cellphone or other electronics (EMFs) – This “electro-pollution” can disrupt the pineal gland and hamper the production of both melatonin and serotonin.
- Increase your melatonin – supplement with small dose of external sources of melatonin.
- Make sure your diet consists of nutritionally dense foods – certain nutrient deficiencies of either amino acids or various vitamins and minerals undermine melatonin production and may play a role in insomnia.
- Sleep in COMPLETE darkness – this will help facilitate the production of melatonin (both a hormone and an antioxidant) which promotes deep sleep and regeneration, as well as powerful anti-cancer and anti-aging activity.
- Cut down on drinking 1-2 hours before bedtime – to prevent sleep disruption from getting up several times at night to urinate.
- Keep the room temperature below 70 degrees if possible. Studies show that the optimal room temperature for sleep is fairly cool, between 60 to 68 degrees F.
- Set a sleep schedule → try to keep a consistent sleep and wake up schedule. Go to sleep and wake up around the same time every day, ideally even on the weekends. Irregular bedtime and wake-up hours can contribute to poor sleeping patterns.
From The Viewpoint of Traditional Chinese Medicine
According to TCM, your sleep patterns tell you a lot about your health. If there are any disturbances with sleep, it indicates that there is an imbalance somewhere in the body. Generally, difficulty falling asleep (due to anxious thoughts) points to an excess condition such as heat pathogens building up and disturbing the balance in the LV and GB meridians. However, when the body is lacking nourishment, or is in a deficient state, that person will wake up easily throughout the night (the “light sleeper”) and have difficulty falling back asleep. This typically indicates a deficiency of blood and qi (a person’s energy or life force).
A disruption in sleep can greatly affect the mind and heart. A person suffering of improper sleep is more susceptible to anxiety, stress, worry, over-thinking, pessimism, and mood swings. Restless sleep in turn affects emotions, clouds thinking, and leads to fatigue which further weakens a person’s ability to resist the daily stressors.
Nourish the Heart using Chinese herbs.
Chinese herbs have thousands of years of clinical use and are frequently used to aid in restoring restful sleep. These Chinese herbs nourish the Heart and calm the mind so sleep is easier to achieve.
- Lotus Seed (Lianzi)
- Longan Fruit (Long yan)
- Biota Seed (Bai zi ren)
- Lily Bulb (Bai he)
- Pearl Powder (Zhen zhu fen)
- Schizandra Berry (Wu wei zi)
- Ganoderma Mushroom (Ling zhi)
- Jujube Seed (Suan zao ren)
- Poria (Fu ling)
Restore energy after staying up late.
Now we can’t all be perfect every day. Sometimes deadlines for projects come up or final exams that necessitate staying up long hours. To offset some of the consequences of such events, one may drink American Ginseng or Chrysanthemum tea to help restore energy (qi), supplement body fluids and suppress the body’s internal heat (due to lack of sleep).
Acupuncture and Moxa (Mugwort) for Chronically Light Sleepers
Ai ye which is the Chinese name for Mugwort has been utilized for centuries in Chinese and Tibetan medicine. Acupuncture also has a 5,000 year old history. Both therapies have been successfully utilized to help treat sleep problems by strengthening the body and harmonizing its imbalances. While you should certainly seek a professional acupuncturist physician to perform an acupuncture treatment, you can still gain some benefit to self treatment by learning a few good points for acupressure.
Ultimately, problems with sleep may either indicate an imbalance or worsen one. That is why you should be very mindful of your lifestyle choices so that you can benefit from a deeply restorative sleep and have the energy to get the most out of each day!