Ever wonder why Acupuncturists always inquire about sleep? With every new patient’s health intake, I make it a priority to ask about quality and quantity of their sleep. It is important information – even if the main issue does not appear to be sleep related. Often sleep may not even be on the person’s radar.
Research shows poor sleep is related to more than we think. It can link to premature aging, chronic, pain, anxiety and a reduced immune system. It can affect our hormone levels and pretty much any system in the body, including reproductive health and fertility. Basically, you are how you sleep.
How sleep relates to overall health
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the time spent sleeping is when body and mind are meant to rest and repair. Trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or having troubled dreams all reflect the state of our health. They are also all indications that are considered in a TCM diagnosis and treatment plan.
Even if you think you can naturally get by with just a few hours of sleep – your body disagrees. Good sleep is needed to function properly, and there are no shortcuts about it. In modern science, much has been written about the amount of sleep children, youth and adults need to function and thrive. Although we as a society are only now starting to “wake up” to the power of sleep, scientists have known this for a long time.
“If you are operating on less than five hours of sleep for less than five days in a row, you are actually functioning as if you were legally intoxicated”, says Lt. Gen. Patricia Horoho, former US Army Surgeon General.
So whether you are focused on repairing health, boosting fertility, slowing down the aging process or just feeling better – sleep quantity and quality must be addressed as part of the approach.
Both sleep quality and quantity are important
Unfortunately, as many insomniacs know – the number of hours logged in bed doesn’t mean much if you aren’t sleeping. Even getting the recommended eight hours of sleep may not be enough, especially if it only happens with poor timing or frequent interruptions and wakefulness. The things that matter for healthy sleep are:
The time you get to sleep is as important as how many hours you spend asleep. In TCM, the actual hours of the day and night are assigned to specific organ systems. Each organ system has its own time slot on the “body clock”, which also relates to the natural circadian rhythms. 11pm is the start of the time slot for Liver and Gallbladder organs, and it is when these organ systems begin their work of detoxifying body.
In TCM, these organs also relate to healthy emotional processing, which is also a crucial component of good sleep. This may show up as dreaming, or you can think of it as the body’s natural clearing and sorting of emotions. According to modern research, this is the time of our deepest, most restorative sleep. It is also the important sleep time in terms of health.
Getting to bed by 10.30pm and falling asleep before 11pm is ideal, as it works with the natural cycles of nature and also our own endocrine rhythms. Regularly staying up past midnight can eventually alter our hormonal communication, even if we are still sleeping long enough.
Your sleep environment
A dark bedroom is best, without any lights on at all during the night. Light interrupts the body’s production of melatonin – the hormone that regulates the sleep-wake cycles. Even if you are getting up to use the bathroom, try to keep the lights off or use a small nightlight if possible. Small amounts of light from our appliances – or cellphones – can also disrupt sleep by signalling to the brain that it is time to wake up. Ideally use an alarm clock and charge your phone in another room if possible.
A cool environment is also optimum, as our body temperature also drops at night. Taking a hot bath or shower 30 minutes before bed is an effective way to wind down, but be sure to allow for a return to normal body temperature before getting into bed.
Acupuncture can help with sleep
Acupuncture works on many levels, including helping to reduce the effects of stress on the body. It can also help to support the body systems that are being affected by lack of sleep. Sleep quality can be greatly improved with acupuncture and some small shifts to daily routine. Even if your main health concern is not sleep, consider that making sleep a priority can have a cascade of health benefits elsewhere.