Sleep Essentials

by Johanna Utter, L.Ac., FABORM

Sleep Essentials, Johanna Utter, L.Ac., FABORM in Davis, CA

All living things on earth are affected by a circadian rhythm - a 24 hour rhythm of light and dark, of activity and rest. With the advent of the industrial revolution and electricity over the past 200 years, our society has rapidly changed from an agricultural society to an industrial and technological society. Despite our living in a culture that operates 24/7, we are biological beings and our biology hasn’t kept up with technology. To balance the fast pace of the technological world in which we live, deep, peaceful, restorative sleep is more important than ever.

Sleep is just as important as good nutrition and physical activity. What happens when people don’t get enough sleep? Ask any new parent and they’ll tell you that they are exhausted and have difficulty thinking clearly. Over time, our emotions are affected and we are more likely to experience increased irritability, anger, frustration, and impaired judgment. Our culture has a kind of machismo around sleep, that somehow it's not necessary. Some people boast of needing only 5 or 6 hours of sleep a night, yet sleep deprivation is a serious problem, not only affecting an individual’s health, but also that of our whole society.

Sleep enhances our memory and our learning capacity. It inspires creativity, helps rebalance emotions, refreshes our cardiovascular health, regulates metabolic and glucose processes, boosts our immune system, resets our brain and body health. And, there is a direct link between mental health, emotional stability, and lack of sleep. Decision-making, reaction time, situational awareness, communication, and memory are impaired by 20-50% when we don’t get enough sleep.

Sleep is one of the most effective things you can do to improve your energy, mood, metabolism, and cognitive abilities. During sleep, cerebrospinal fluid circulates through the brain at a very rapid pace, washing away waste proteins that are toxic to brain cells. This may explain why we don't think clearly after a sleepless night or why a prolonged lack of sleep can actually kill an animal or a person. One of these waste proteins is beta amyloid, the substance that forms sticky plaques associated with Alzheimer’s Alzheimer's and all other diseases associated with dementia are linked to sleep disorders.

Insomnia, which includes difficulty falling and/or staying asleep, is the most common sleep disorder in adults. It affects mood, memory, fatigue, and concentration because the arousal and emotional centers remain active. It is more common in women than in men, increases with age, and leads to sadness, depression, and brain fog. Sleep insufficiency is associated with risk for the development of most psychological disorders, including depression, anxiety, and PTSD.

Conventional medicine most commonly offers some sort of sleeping pill, yet most of those have sedative side effects that linger the following day. These medications are a temporary solution as insomnia usually returns once they are discontinued. Chinese medicine, on the other hand, works to restore the body’s normal functioning, and acupuncture and herbal treatment change as sleep improves.

The other main therapy used most frequently is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and its results are longer-lasting. Although the suggestions may seem counterintuitive, most people who try them find that they make a big difference after 3-4 weeks. The principles of CBT are:

  • Reduce your time in bed.
  • Get up at the same time every day.
  • Don’t get in bed unless you’re sleepy.
  • Don’t stay in bed unless you’re sleeping.

Repeated insomnia predisposes people to adverse psychological outcomes. For example, while military veterans are trained to learn how to deal with challenging situations, they receive no training on how to calm down. Sleep hygiene or discipline can be helpful in reducing the incidence of hypervigilance.

Sleep Hygiene

  1. Regular bed and wake times.
  2. Keep the bedroom dark.
  3. Keep the bedroom cool.
  4. Keep the bedroom quiet.
  5. Keep media and technology out of the bedroom.
  6. Make the bedroom a safe haven.
  7. Avoid alcohol, cigarettes, and caffeine.
  8. If you wake, get out of bed and go into another room. Keep the lights low and do something boring until you get sleepy, then go back to bed.

Shift workers
People who work at night (swing or graveyard shifts) are more likely to have problems with diabetes, high blood pressure, and lose their body’s ability to control blood sugar properly as both insulin and glucagon are affected. Diabetes is essentially too much sugar in the blood. The body likes to regulate its blood sugar within a very narrow range. Too little of it and we lose consciousness, since sugar is the fuel of the brain. Too much of it, and it becomes toxic, destroying nerves and damaging the kidneys.

Sleep & TCM
Chinese medicine teaches us to live in harmony with our environment, which means honoring the signals of our body, as well as the season. In past centuries, people rose and went to bed with the rising and setting of the sun. Our 24-hour day is divided into night and day, and in Chinese culture, these correspond with Yin and Yang. It is normal and desirable to be awake and active during Yang time and quiet and sleeping during Yin time. Problems arise when activity and rest are not balanced.

Chinese medicine is very effective at treating insomnia, fatigue, irritability and other mood changes, unclear thinking, and can also help reduce hypervigilance.