Why can’t I sleep?

Sleeping is real problem for many of the patients I see. Whether it be problems getting to sleep, or more commonly, waking in the night. It is such a disruption to your life. 

Normal body functions are affected such as healing, digestion, hormone and mood balance. Not to mention your general zest for life can take a swift decline. 

Even if you haven’t struggled to sleep in the past, the recent events with Coronavirus have meant that many more people are finding it hard to get enough sleep at night. The annoying thing is, that once your sleep pattern has got out of a rhythm, it can be very tricky to get it back again. 

Traditional Chinese Medicine

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, everything is to do with balance. People should have just enough sleep. Too little or too much indicates imbalance and disharmony. Insomnia is usually considered to be a symptom of a blood or yin deficiency. The theory of TCM talks about the mind “resting on a sea of blood” at night. Even vivid dreams can be a sign that the mind is not properly “anchored” and so is able to go wandering. 

Generally speaking, issues which occur during the night are yin in nature (yang issues occurring during the day). As the kidneys are the source of Yin and Yang, I would always look to support the kidneys when sleeping is a problem. 

After identifying the both blood and yin deficiencies may be causing the sleeping problem. What is the next step, especially given that at the moment, I can’t offer anyone any acupuncture to help?

As always, I look to lifestyle. There is a limit to what acupuncture can do if lifestyle choices are not also looked at. If you have had treatments with me, you know what’s coming…

Cut out the crap

Caffeine, alcohol and sugar. Boo.. what a meanie I am! Yes, I know you are locked in the house 23 hours a day and a bowl of nuts isn’t as exciting as eating your Easter Eggs washed down with a few glasses of wine. But this strategy is not helping you. Caffeine, alcohol and sugar are all stimulants and you know what you don’t want lots of when you can’t sleep? Bloody stimulants! I know you are knackered from trying to work from home and zoom calling everyone in your phone book, whilst homeschooling and remembering to brush your hair once a week.. But let me put it another way; Is your current way of doing things working for you? Nope. Well then time to stop doing it and employ a different strategy. Now please.  

So, here’s the plan:

NO caffeine. None. Nothing. At all. This includes tea and coffee. Yes, you may have a headache for a few days. Tough. You got yourself in this mess and now you’re gonna have to get out of it. Decide what is more important for you in the short term and the longer term. For most people, years and years of poor sleep has a far more devastating effect on their health than three days of caffeine withdrawal. The fact that you are reading this blog indicates that you are already starting to worry about the impact of a lack of sleep. Now is the time to do something about it. 

My advice it to begin your life without caffeine on a Saturday, which gives you a weekend to get over the worst of the withdrawal. I’ve also found that going completely cold turkey gets the best results. At least you are not going to be continuously offered a cup of coffee by colleagues at the moment. So I guess you could say, that now is the most absolutely perfect time to stop drinking caffeine. 

Eat real food. A fully grown adult cannot operate effectively on biscuits. I’m not going to write you a meal plan. You know this stuff already. And if you don’t, think old-school home cooking. Lasagne, casseroles, spaghetti bolognese, slow cooker stuff. 

Include chicken bone broth into your food at least three times a week. You don’t have to have it as a soup, you can include it in normal every day cooking, just like a stock cube. 

When you have a sugar craving, grab a banana and go for a walk first. If you still have to have some chocolate, then have it. I don’t believe in denying yourself anything. Use it as a reward for doing something good for yourself first. 

Alcohol. Hmm, touchy subject. Many people I see, use alcohol to get to sleep. This is a problem as although it can relax you, alcohol is a real sleep disrupter. In TCM, white wine is considered to cause heat, and this causes heat in the blood which disturbs the mind when it is meant to be resting. I challenge you to go a week without any alcohol. You will sleep so much better that it will really change the way you view it. 

One of the main reasons I want you to make better food and drink choices is that it benefits the digestion. The spleen is the organ of digestion in TCM and the emotion attached to the Spleen, is worry. Of course, there is lots to worry about at the moment: job security, money, health, the unknowing as to how long this will go on for. So it is natural that your sleep will be affected when your mind has gone into overdrive. 

According to TCM theory, one way to reduce worrying, is to improve your digestion. 

In Western Biomedicine, the hormone Serotonin, helps to balance mood and is known as “the happy hormone”. 95% of your Serotonin level is manufactured in the large intestine. Therefore, happy digestion = happy mood. 

Move your body

A gentle walk outside can do amazing things for your mental health. The government is very aware of how the lockdown will affect people’s emotional state and has continued to recommend that we all go for a walk every day (despite the idiots who still insist on having parties in the park).  Daylight can also boost your serotonin levels. Even walking outside on a cloudy day can make a difference. 

Moving your body encourages the circulation of blood around the body. In TCM, the emotions flow on the blood, so the more smoothly it flows, the calmer the emotions. 

There are some studies emerging which indicate that the fitter and healthier you are, the more quickly you are able to fight off the COVID-19 virus. A high percentage of those who have sadly died, have also had underlying health issues. 

So maybe now is the time to start looking at your fitness? Whilst I don’t want you to hurt yourself attempting 5 days of the Joe Wicks PE classes if you haven’t moved in 15 years, maybe you could look at the couch to 5k

If you are already fit and enjoy exercise, it is really tempting to ramp up your training now you have a bit more time of your hands. MODERATION is the word I’d like you to bear in mind. This is not the time to push towards some deadlift PB’s. Remember, you don’t really want to end up in hospital. Be sensible. 

Routine

Human beings like to have a routine. This is one of the reasons the COVID-19 lockdown has been difficult for many people. We have had to adjust our daily routine and some of us, have just lost a routine altogether. 

If you don’t have to get up to commute to work, are you eating breakfast later? Perhaps it’s more of a brunch? Maybe your bedtime has been pushed back later and later? 

I have kept to our family daily routine as much as possible. I still make the kids have breakfast and get dressed by 8.30am. Then we take the dog for a walk, just like we are on the school run. Then back home and Mummy School starts at 9.30am, which is my usual time to start work. I am eating at the same time and exercising at more or less the same time. Even though my children are 9 & 10 years old, they have the same bedtime routine from when they were 6 weeks old (albeit a few hours later). Even I have a bedtime routine! I insist that there is no TV in the bedroom. The bedroom is for sleeping in. 

What time is bedtime?

We all know that we are meant to get about 8 hours sleep. But does it actually matter when those 8 hours take place? 

The answer lies with the hormone Melatonin. This hormone is “switched on” when it starts to get dark and signals to the body that it is time to sleep. It is at it’s optimum between the hours of 10pm and midnight. This is sometimes where a problem can begin. If you are not in bed, waiting for sleep within this 2 hour period, you will not maximise the production of the hormone and as such, sleeping is disrupted. 

It all comes back to Yin and Yang

Melatonin production is involved in the body’s circadian rhythms. The natural flow of how the body works. This is similar to the flow of Yin and Yang. We begin the daytime in the Yang phase. As Yang builds and becomes at the upper most limit, it transforms to Yin (dusk). Yin then will build during the night and transform into Yang (dawn). And round and round we go. If there is not sufficient Yang, it cannot transform into Yin. 

So what does this mean for sleeping? At the start of this article, I mentioned that waking in the night is a symptom of Yin deficiency. To improve sleep, we must nourish Yin. But according to the Yin Yang theory of Traditional Chinese medicine, Yin is built on a sufficient foundation of Yang. So we must also make sure that Yang is nourished too.

Are you following me? It’s to do with balance. 

Yin and Yang are two sides of a coin. They must be equal to be in harmony. To be able to settle and sleep in the evening, you must have activity during the day. But too much activity is an excess of Yang, which then outweighs the Yin and causes a Yin deficiency = sleep problems- waking in the night. 

Too little activity = Yang deficiency. So the Yang is insufficient to support the transformation into Yin = sleep problems – can’t get to sleep. 

There are many remedies out there for sleeping:

  • magnesium salts 
  • warm bath
  • hot milk
  • lavender sprays
  • reflexology (click here to see a video of how to do this at home to improve sleep)

I think that these can all help, but you have got to get the basics in place first, to see a long term improvement. To recap:

  1. Cut out the crap
  2. Eat proper food
  3. Move your body
  4. Stick to a daily routine
  5. Balance your Yin and Yang