When I was in college, between family stress, school stress, and work stress, it wasn't uncommon for me to go for nights without any solid sleep. I might doze off fitfully for a few minutes, but then was up again, staring at the ceiling. I stole naps mid-day between my class and work schedules when I could, but I was exhausted and often sick.
Nearly half of Americans have trouble sleeping, according to the National Sleep Foundation, and over a quarter toss and turn for over half an hour before falling asleep. Insomnia is the chronic inability to fall asleep or three sleep-deprived nights a week for at least three months, while good sleep quality is defined as falling asleep within 20 minutes of going to bed, waking no more than once per night.
Lack of night-time sleep is associated with a host of ills, from heart disease and obesity, to depression and anxiety, to lack of focus and creativity. Although many people believe that depression and anxiety can cause insomnia, the opposite may be true. A National Institutes of Mental study found the risk of developing depression was nearly 40-times higher for those with sleep problems. And every year when our clocks shift with the Daylight Saving calendar, incidents of car accidents spike.
Though throughout the 20th century we saw many advances in sleep medicine, we still don't fully understand the purpose of sleep. For about a third of our lives, we are largely unaware of our surroundings. In our evolutionary past this would have left us vulnerable to predators and other threats, but sleep persists in nearly every animal, and even some plants appear to have periods similar to sleep. Recent research suggests it may be a part of our body's natural cleaning and repair system.
According to traditional Asian systems of medicine, insomnia and other sleep disorders are the result of an imbalance of vital energy, or qi.
Qi is believed to flow through the body in specific ways and promote healthy functioning of the organs, which are associated with specific “meridians” or “chakras.” Of these focal points, half are “yin” and half are “yang.” During the course of a day, those energies wax and wane, and can sometimes become “blocked” or unbalanced, which is believed to be the source of ailments.
Traditional systems of medicine are found across the Asian continent and each has unique features, practices, and ideas, but many traditional Asian systems of health and medicine trace back to ancient Taoist teachings. In the United States traditional Asian health practices, like the use of teas, yoga, meditation, and acupuncture, are most commonly grouped under the heading of Traditional Chinese Medicine. These practices are based on ideas such as that the human body represents the universe in microcosm, the importance of balance between the opposing energies of yin and yang, the idea that the mind and body are interconnected and inseparable, and the steady flow of qi, the vital force that promotes and sustains life. These concepts can be useful metaphors when thinking about health and many traditional methods can be useful complementary supports in symptom management.
In fact the idea of the rhythms of yin and yang cycling through the body each day is quite similar to how we talk about circadian rhythms. Circadian rhythms are the natural cycles that all living things go through in the course of a day. They inform our sleep-wake cycle, when we get hungry, and our peak productive times. They also are tied to fluctuations in core body temperature, brain wave activity, hormone levels, and cell regeneration – or, the body's ability to heal itself. We don't talk about circadian rhythms being “blocked,” but they are entrainable, which means they can be disrupted or reset by external stimuli – such as how with too much screen time before bed, your brain gets the signal to “wake up” instead of “wind down.”
For most adults the biggest circadian energy dip happens in the middle of the night, between 2:00 and 4:00 in the morning, with the second major dip happening right after lunch, between 1:00 and 3:00. That makes after lunch the best time to grab a coffee, or have a nap if you can!
During the average sleep cycle, the brain begins in what is known as NREM, or non-rapid eye movement sleep. The body goes through several stages of NREM sleep, the third being the period of deeper sleep that is necessary to feel rested the next day. NREM sleep is where memories of the day are initially replayed.
REM or rapid eye movement sleep is also known as paradoxical sleep because brain wave patterns, blood pressure, heart rate and respiration are all so similar to those during wakefulness, but the brain shuts down the body's ability to move during this time. If people experience sleep disruption at this time, without fully awakening, they may experience sleep paralysis, feeling aware or conscious, but unable to move. Sleep paralysis is often accompanied by hallucinations or dreaming, and many cultures have stories of malevolent creatures that sit on the chest of a sleeping person and prevent them from moving to steal their life force, to explain this often frightening experience.
REM sleep alternates with NREM sleep in ninety-minute cycles. REM sleep is the time most associated with dream states, and on average we spend about two hours each night dreaming. Studies are beginning to find that this cycle promotes creative thinking and problem solving.
The belief that sleeping uninterrupted for eight hours straight is normal and ideal has come under recent scrutiny from researchers, largely led by historian Roger Ekirch. It seems historically people would sleep in two separate periods of about four hours, with an hour in between, that would be used for a variety of things, including sex, prayer, dream interpretation, writing, even visiting with neighbors. Anthropologists find that communities that are isolated from artificial light have differing sleep patterns that rarely match up with our Western standard, and Ekrich suggests that it's our modern use of lighting that deprives us of this period of nightly productivity. Participants in some sleep studies, after an initial period of extra long “catch up” sleep, adopted similarly diverse sleep patterns.
Eventually the stresses changed, got better, and I got better at managing them. Though my old friend Insomnia does still show up, particularly at times when I have a lot going on and am not doing the things I know I need to for good sleep hygiene, it's much less often now. I take comfort, too, in knowing that studies show that even when we don't feel like we're sleeping well, we're often getting more sleep than we think, and closer to what we need. If you're struggling to sleep soundly through the night, remember that doesn't necessarily mean something is wrong. You might be better rested than you think, and gaining back that watching hour lost to many of us in modern society!
Things that May Help
1. Walking barefoot.
Practitioners of Chinese Medicine, believe that walking barefoot massages the meridian points in the feet, which are associated with sleep
2. Cut back on caffeine.
Try green tea during the day, and chrysanthemum tea, or chamomile tea before bed, and limit caffeine after lunch. Remember caffeine isn't just in coffee, but also found in tea, soft drinks, chocolate, and other sports drinks. Even some medications have caffeine, so make sure you check ingredients and talk with your doctor.
3. Have a regular bedtime.
Ever notice how you're still hungry right about noon even if you had a late breakfast? Your body thrives on routine, and giving it regular habits and patterns lets your brain know what to expect next and prepare for it. Set up an evening routine to start getting ready for bed and winding down at the same time each night. Before long you'll start feeling sleepy and ready for pajamas, a book, and a cup of tea without even looking at the clock.
4. Cut out blue light an hour before bed.
That includes televisions, computer screens, phones, tablets, and even e-readers! That blue light mimics sunlight and signals our brains to produce hormones that encourage wakefulness. Pull out an old fashioned paperback instead.
5. Avoid alcohol before bed.
That nightcap may help you fall asleep, but as your body processes the alcohol, it causes your system to warm up, disrupting the natural cooling down of your body at night, and can wake you up.
Sitting quietly for a few minutes each day is good for you, whether it's spent listening to your breath, or to a recorded guide. Meditation trains your brain to calm itself, which can help to turn down all the chatter in your mind about that argument from earlier in the day, or all the things you have to do tomorrow. A simple exercise it to breathe in for a count of five, and breathe out for a count of five, for five breaths. Try it and see if you don't feel more relaxed!
Before embarking on any new health regimen, remember to consult with a medical professional!
Kiyomi Appleton Gaines writes about work, life, culture, and fairy tales. Read more at a work of heart and follow @ThatKiyomi on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.