Dear Holistically Speaking, I’m finding it much harder to fall asleep and stay asleep now than I do in the winter. It seems like it never gets dark, and I have trouble winding down. I wake up earlier too, with the sun rising so early. Do you have any suggestions to sleep better?
Wide-eyed and weary
Dear Wide-eyed and Weary,
Sadly, you’re not alone. It is estimated that one in six Americans, or 40 million people in the U.S., suffer from chronic or intermittent sleep problems, ranging from insomnia to sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome, among others. The impact of sleep problems ranges from a lack of productivity to mortality due to falling asleep at the wheel while driving.
Instead of counting sheep, maybe we should count the reasons why we’re having trouble sleeping: aches and pains, sedentary work days, stress, late night dinners, TV and web surfing, caffeine, exhaustion (!), snoring partners, long to-do lists - the list goes on.
In Chinese health physiology, sleep is the time that our soul and blood rest in the liver. Both are responsible for replenishing our physical, mental, and emotional energy. When the liver doesn’t have a chance to restore the blood and the soul, energy goes out of balance. The liver is associated with activities like planning and successfully making accomplishments, as well as easily becoming irritable or angry. We can see that these would explain feeling out of sorts when we don’t get sufficient sleep - we can’t do our daily work efficiently or maintain a positive mood.
How do we create the best inner and outer environment for sleep? It’s obviously harder than it seems, since so many of us are challenged this way. Start with good sleep hygiene:
• Sleep in a dark room and use nightlights with LED illumination if you get up at night, to reduce the light exposure to your eyes. Too much light affects the production of melatonin, and can signal our brain to wake up.
• Caffeine has lasting effects: a quarter of that morning cup o’ joe and half of that diet soda from lunch can still be with you at bedtime, and make it hard to fall asleep.
• Although a glass of wine or beer may help you fall asleep, it might also wake you up in the middle of the night. Try a few nights without a nightcap to see if alcohol disturbs your sleep.
• Sleep experts recommend turning off TVs and computers a couple hours before you lie down, so your brain can transition into a relaxed delta wave state. Try soothing music instead.
• If dinner is a big meal, eat two or three hours before lying down, to avoid acid reflux.
• If your home or partner is noisy, get some comfortable earplugs or a white noise machine to make it easier for you to tune out the sounds.
• Leg cramps bothering you? Talk to your health care provider to see if a magnesium supplement can help.
• Exercise in the morning can make it easier to fall asleep at night. However exercise too close to bedtime can make it hard to wind down.
• If you prefer to avoid sleep medications, try acupuncture, tai chi/chi gong or Chinese herbal medicine. They are safe and effective interventions to improve sleep patterns, without the side effects associated with medications.
• Finally, make getting sleep a priority. Research indicates that seven to eight hours of sleep a night helps with memory consolidation, immune system function, muscle repair and more. If those reasons aren’t sufficient, remember that people who sleep less eat more, and tend to carry extra weight.
Good sleep hygiene can impinge on habits we consider part of our lifestyle. However, early or light dinners, less caffeine, and fewer electronics at night can help us wind down and recognize our "WOO" - or "window of opportunity" - that point when our body says "I’m tired" and is ready for bed. Often our WOO occurs before our "To Do" list for the day is done.
Tomorrow is another day. Start your list for tomorrow, and let your body be your guide.