Sound Sleep Part 1 by Grace Calihan, ND, LAc

Ancient Chinese medicine uses yin and yang as a way to compare concepts.  Sleep is a yin activity; it’s quiet, dark, and passive.  Waking hours are comparatively yang; they are bright and active.  The balance of yin and yang is very important.  Without enough yang, yin will suffer, and without yin, yang will deplete.  The sleep-wake cycle is a very nice example of this.  We can’t expect a lot of energy during the day if we didn’t sleep well at night.  Conversely, you may have noticed that sleep is much more difficult if you have had a particularly inactive day.  One feeds the other, keeping you both energetic and rested.

Unfortunately, one third of working Americans are getting less than 6 hours of sleep per night, instead of the 8-9 hours recommended.   For some, this is all the sleep their busy schedule will allow, but for many of these heavy-eyed Americans, sleep deprivation is not for lack of time or inclination.  Insomnia is the inability to fall asleep or stay asleep or not feeling refreshed in the morning.  Remember, sufficient and high quality yin (sleep) promotes abundant yang (wakefulness).  So let’s discuss one common sleep (or, non-sleep) pattern.

The inability to fall asleep can be maddening.  You’ve allotted a certain, precious number of hours for sleeping, and yet you lie there, awake.  Here are some things to consider:

Have you been active today?  As described in the yin-yang illustration above, if you haven’t been very active during the day, the body has trouble distinguishing wake from rest.  Getting in a light workout has many benefits beyond sleep, but you may find that 30 minutes of activity will dramatically shorten how long it takes you to fall asleep.  Having a consistent bedtime will also help your body know when to wind down each night.

Do you use electronics late into the evening?  Ninety percent of Americans do, so it’s no wonder we spend over $250 million on over-the-counter sleep aids each year.  What happens is that the blue light emitted from cell phones, TV, e-readers and computer screens stimulates the pineal gland, which tells the rest of the brain that it’s morning.  You can see how this is counter-productive at bedtime.  The most straightforward fix is to ban electronic use one hour before getting into bed.  If you simply can’t give this up, try blocking the blue light.  There are programs you can install onto your computer to do this (f.lux by stereopsis) or you can purchase a blue blocking filter screen for your handheld.  Additionally, by increasing blue light exposure in the morning you can help reset the rhythm of your pineal gland.  Do this by taking off your sunglasses for part of the ride to work, or invest in a full spectrum light box for morning use.

Are you exhausted, but your brain just won’t shut off?  Whirring mind and repetitive thoughts are a common pattern of insomnia.  If you are prone to making lists in your head, it may help to set aside a few minutes each evening (not in bed) to write down your to-do list.  This way, when your brain is going a mile a minute in bed, you can give yourself permission not to engage in list-making, because you’ve already worked on your list earlier in the evening and you will again the next day.  Practicing meditation at any time of the day can also help quiet your mind in the evenings.  Nighttime rituals, like a cup of chamomile tea or some gentle stretching will help get your thoughts into a more productive routine.

Finally, the inability to fall asleep may be indicative of an endocrine disorder involving your thyroid gland, adrenal glands, or even your sex hormones.  As always, consult your naturopath if you are suffering from chronic or even occasional insomnia.  There is no reason to be subjected to the many detrimental health effects of poor sleep.

Next month we will look another common (and equally irritating) disordered sleep pattern: the inability to fall asleep.

All new patients who want to get their sleep back on track this winter will receive 10% off their first visit.   




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