Sleep is a great thing. If we get enough of it, it makes us feel better physically and mentally. Sometimes you can’t sleep because you’re temporarily excited or worried about something and this is perfectly normal. But some people can’t sleep well in a more permanent way. Current research suggests that about one in three people complain that they suffer from insomnia at some point in their lives. And as a result, one in ten of us regularly takes some type of sleeping pill.
This situation is far from ideal because sleeping pills are not without their side effects, such as memory problems and difficulty to perform during the day and also they may cause an increase the risk of developing dementia as they interfere with the chemical messaging system in the brain.
So what causes sleep problems? Stress and anxiety are common causes of insomnia, but it can also be caused by conditions such as depression, asthma, some medications and alcohol or drug abuse. Let us however consider sleeping problems from the point of view of oriental medicine as it can be quite insightful.
Your sleep or inability to sleep is connected to the daily cycles which rule our bodies and which are interconnected with the rise and fall of the sun. If we imagine the day to be a breath – the daylight hours are breathing in and the night-time is breathing out. All of nature (including us) is ruled by this motion of expansion and contraction. You might have comes across this idea by the name of yin and yang.
Sleep is very connected to the balance between this motion inside the body. During the day, your body is active keeping your body functioning properly - in particular to think, see, hear, smell and touch effectively. At night, however, you naturally disconnect from your senses and your body allows itself to fall asleep.
The problem is when your body can’t disconnect and instead of falling asleep, it’s still active. There are many reasons for this, but the most common are stress, overwork, going to bed too late, studying a lot and being over-worried. Over time this can cause an imbalance in how the body deals with this continually adjusting motion and then sleep issues are a symptom of that imbalance.
Sleeping problems can be hard to change but these techniques can sometimes be helpful:
• Set a specific time to get up each day. Keep to this time every day of the week, even at the weekend and if you feel you haven’t slept enough. This can help you fall asleep more easily at night.
• Don’t take a nap during the day. Remember that the problem is an imbalance of the cyclical motion of yin and yang. Sleeping is a yin activity and it is better to do it in a yin time i.e. at night, than it is during the day.
• Avoid playing video games, watching TV and looking at a computer screen at night or for long periods - these activities are usually against the cyclical motion of your body and if you have an imbalance in that motion anyway, you might have trouble sleeping.
• It’s important to exercise every day for at least 30 minutes but no later than four hours before going to bed. Any exercise if fine but movement of both the upper and lower body can often be beneficial.
• Don’t eat too late. Your body becomes active trying the digest when it should be calming down ready for bed.
• It’s a good idea to stop drinking tea and coffee at least four hours before going to bed as they are stimulants and may delay the calming motion of your body.
• Avoid drinking alcohol and smoking if you have sleep issues. Like caffeine, alcohol and nicotine are also stimulants. Alcohol can cause sleep at first, but ironically it will wake you up when the effects are gone.
• Try to create a bedtime routine, such as taking a bath or reading a book every night. These activities will be associated with sleep and cause drowsiness.
• Write down your worries/jobs/thoughts on paper and leave them there to solve in the morning.
• Stop doing what you are doing and rest for at least half an hour before going to bed.
A combination of any of these just might help you sleep.