A Guide to Better Sleep

By: Amanda Gawrysz, L.Ac, MSOM

The American Sleep Association states that 50-70 million adults in the United States have a sleep disorder. The Journal Science has called the function of sleep one of the 125 unsolved mysteries of science.

Are you one of many Americans experiencing poor sleep? The amount of hours we should sleep change with each age bracket, but the quality of our sleep and the things we do to prepare ourselves for a good night's rest are even more crucial for our health and well-being. Hundreds of biological processes occur while we snooze and not getting the quality of sleep that we need causes stress on our immune system, slows down our metabolism, decreases our cognitive function, and triggers emotional instability.

A conventional doctor will most likely go straight towards a pharmaceutical prescription usually consisting of benzodiazepines which are psychoactive drugs commonly used for anxiety, nervousness and panic disorders. These are extremely addictive drugs and withdrawal symptoms can be extreme.

A fairly new topic of discussion for sleep problems has been melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone secreted by our pineal gland that helps regulate our circadian rhythm. Meaning that it plays a role in our natural sleep-wake cycle. Is supplementing with melatonin really the answer to an improved nights rest? Many patients claim that it helps them drastically, but it does not seem to be eliminating the root causes of why you are not sleeping in the first place. Melatonin seems to be overly prescribed these days. It should be considered more of a sleep aid and not something that should be taken long term. It is a hormone after all and side effects can include headache, dizziness, nausea, and even drowsiness if taken during the day.

How can we improve our quality of sleep with natural lifestyle changes? After all we want to resolve the issue for the long-term and at its root.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) looks at each patient individually. Each and every one of us is different and our sleep disturbances may be caused by different reasons. Women have a tendency to have more sleep disorders than men. In TCM, women are considered to be more blood based and men are considered to be more Qi (energy) based. Qi is yang energy and blood is yin energy. They work together as a team to create balance within us. The concept of blood in TCM shares a close relationship with the western concept in that it has both a nourishing and moistening function. However, with the concept of blood deficiency, emphasis is placed on your body’s Qi. Blood is seen as a condensed form of Qi, with Qi playing a vital role in helping the blood to circulate to where it is needed.

Through childbirths, menstrual cycles, weak constitutions, or donating blood when over the age of 50, women can cause a deficiency in the blood within their bodies. In TCM, the heart is known to “govern the blood” and “house the mind.” The mind is unable to quiet itself when we are unable to create enough Qi because of a deficiency in our blood. The heart, where the mind is stored, is not being nourished by blood. Additionally, constant stress affects the nervous system. This leads to excess heat in the Liver and Heart organ systems.

Going for acupuncture treatments regularly and eating blood nourishing foods can help build up your deficiencies and clear out heat from your organs and meridians. Some blood building foods include goji berries, dates, figs, mulberries, almonds, beets, artichokes, avocados, black beans, kidney beans, dark leafy greens, and all red meat.

TCM practitioners also utilize an organ clock that dictates which times of day each organ is functioning at its strongest and weakest. As we sleep, numerous biological processes of repairing and detoxing are being completed. These processes are typically performed by the liver which has its peak energy between 11pm-1am. Ideally, we should be in bed between 10:00 and 10:30pm to help our body undergo these natural repairing activities.

Below is a list of 10 simple lifestyle changes that can be made to help you fall and stay asleep more easily:

  1. Stick to a schedule: Go to bed and wake up around the same time every day trying to be asleep by 10-10:30pm.

  2. Create an electronic sundown: An hour or two before bed turn off all your electronic devices. Electronics emit a blue light that prevents melatonin from being released by our pineal glands. If you are unable to unplug entirely, there are light-dimming apps like f.lux for Apple or Twilight for Android available for download.

  3. Establish a ritual: Practice restorative and self-care practices such as taking a warm bath, reading a book, or meditation.

  4. Clear your mind: It is important to let go of everything that happened during the day and go to sleep positive. If your mind tends to stay busy even when your body is trying to rest, try getting into some simple habits like prepping breakfast for the next day, making a to-do list, or jot down your worries in a journal.

  5. Relax your body:  If stress keeps you awake at night, the rhythmic stretching and relaxing poses of yoga can help you fall asleep faster. You may also find this releasing technique helpful: starting at your feet and working up to your neck, slowly tense each of your muscles for 5 seconds, then release for 5 seconds. Repeat 3 times.

  6. Diffuse therapeutic grade essential oils: Lavender, vetiver, roman chamomile, ylang ylang, sandalwood, and cedarwood are a few that can help make falling and staying asleep easier. 

  7. Eat heavy meals during the day: try to avoid eating heavy meals late at night. Our metabolisms need to rest while repairing and detoxing is occuring.

  8. The bedroom is your sleep sanctuary: Your bedroom is just that, a BEDroom. Leave your desk work, papers, and stacks of books in another room. Keep this room dark and quiet while you sleep or wear an eye mask and ear plugs. It is also very important to avoid watching TV and reading in bed.

  9. Limit stimulants: avoid ingesting stimulants including coffee, energy drinks, and chocolate after 3pm. It is also best to avoid alcohol and nicotine closer to bedtime.

  10. Review your medications: There are many prescription meds that can interfere with your sleep. These include antihistamines, asthma medications, diuretics, and medications for blood pressure.

The efforts we put in to improve our lives should include self care that promotes quality sleep. We cannot control the circumstances around us, but we can control how we respond to them. It is essential that we learn to calm our mind and body every single day for the sake of our overall well-being. A good night’s rest is not only important for the healing of our internal systems, but it also improves memory, mood, vitality, and creativity. Find rituals that serve you or reach out for more help when nothing seems to be working.