It’s been a long day and you’re tired. You’re ready for bed and catching eight hours of blissful, uninterrupted sleep. But as soon as your head makes contact with the pillow, your mind comes alive. And not just alive, but it’s racing like you just had a triple shot of espresso. You start rehashing the day, the year, your life, and every item that was ever on your To Do list. You go over the day’s interactions, reworking what you should have said. You worry about the stuff you have to do tomorrow, and the next day and the next and…wait! You’re trying to get some sleep—remember?
Does this sound like you? If so, you’re not alone. It’s the rare person who doesn’t occasionally suffer from bouts of sleeplessness, and many people regularly struggle with insomnia. If you go to your Western doc with sleep problems, you will likely be prescribed a prescription medication to help you sleep. Chinese medicine, however, looks at insomnia a little differently. In order to help you sleep, the first step is to understand why you’re not…and that can be for a number of different reasons.
One simple way to understand the dichotomy between wakefulness and sleep is to understand the concept of Yin and Yang. In your body, Yang acts like an internal pilot light which fuels activity, transformation (like digestion), and keeps you warm. Yin is the nourishing coolant that counterbalances Yang, keeping you cool, nourished, and rejuvenated. During the day, Yang is at its peak, fueling warmth, energy, and activity. As the day turns into the evening hours, Yin takes over, helping you cool down, quiet down, rejuvenate and heal through restful sleep.
The source of many patterns of insomnia is some kind of imbalance between Yin and Yang–usually Yang overpowering Yin. For example, an inability to fall asleep, a racing mind, restlessness, and waking hot can be signs of too much Yang, and is frequently caused by stress—essentially, you are unable to turn off the business and conflicts of your day.
If you are able to fall asleep, but wake frequently or wake in the wee hours and are unable to fall back to sleep, chances are that your Yin is depleted. This means that the nourishing, cooling, rejuvenating aspect in your body is not abundant enough to keep you in a state of sleep.
If either of these scenarios sounds like you, what can you do? The obvious answer is to enlist the help of a practitioner of acupuncture and Chinese medicine, who can use acupuncture, Chinese herbs, lifestyle changes, and food therapy to treat your insomnia. In the meantime, here are some tips that may help:
-Turn down the thermostat. If you’re restless and/or waking hot, a hot room or too many blankets only aggravates the problem. Nighttime is Yin and meant to be a cool and quiet time of the day, so a cool bedroom is conducive to better sleep.
-Don’t go to bed full. Eating too close to bedtime is a recipe for sleeplessness in the form of heartburn, rumbling, bloating, and general discomfort. Your body is trying to digest—a Yang activity—while you’re trying to sleep, and it has a hard time doing both.
-Avoid caffeine. Coffee is a Yang beverage—it’s energetically warming and it speeds you up. This may seem like a no-brainer late in the day, but a few strong cups of coffee earlier in the day can also play a role in disrupting your sleep/wake cycle.
–Use food to help balance Yin and Yang. If you’re feeling hot and racy at bedtime, you may want to avoid heavy, spicy foods in general, and go more toward lighter and leaner fare. If your sleep issues tend toward waking in the early hours, you could consider adding more healthy fats and nourishing meals to your dinner table. Think about getting more nuts, avocados, hearty grains and vegetables, and meats in your diet.
-Use sound to help quiet your racing mind. When I can’t sleep, I use hypnosis recordings that knock me out like I’ve been drugged—and keep me asleep all night. I also listen to sounds and music that put me to sleep through the use of delta brain waves—the same brain frequency of deep meditation and sleep. It’s hard to keep up the restless mind chatter while listening to deeply relaxing recordings.
-Check out your medications. Many prescription drugs can mess with your sleep, including antihistamines, blood pressure medications, asthma medications, and diuretics, to name a few.
-Get some exercise. Just not right before bed. If stress, strong emotions, or a racing mind is keeping you awake, a vigorous workout earlier in the day will help you sleep better. If you wake during the wee hours and can’t get back to sleep, gentler exercise during the day (like walking, Yoga, Qi Gong) is a better option for you.
-Use light to your advantage—this is a little like manipulating Yin and Yang. To help your body release the specific hormones that help regulate your sleep, try to get at least a half hour of direct sunlight (Yang) each day and keep the room where you sleep as dark (Yin) as possible. If you’re unable to get outside for a half hour each day, you can also get your light fix by using a full-spectrum light box.
-Get ready to sleep. Winding down in the evening is an important part of moving from Yang to Yin and getting to sleep. Turn off your computer an hour or two before bed–the screen gives off as much light as a light box and can derail the sleep process. Also, slow down, read and relax to signal to your body that it’s time to sleep.