We don’t know for sure what exactly is happening when we sleep, but recent research has been shedding some light into the complex process of sleep. Generally speaking when we sleep, our bodies and brains recover by strengthening important connections our brain has made during the day and throwing away unimportant ones.
What we do know is what happens when we don’t get enough sleep. We feel tired and drowsy, we are unfocused and uncoordinated. Studies have found that people who are sleep deprived can have heightened sensitivity to pain and lowered compassion. Other studies have found that sleep deprivation alters the way our genes behave; they respond to lack of sleep as if our body is under stress. Talk about a double edged sword- when we are stressed we don’t sleep as much and when we don’t sleep as much our body turns on our stress genes.
According to Chinese Medicine, sleep can be understood through the application of two fundamental concepts: Yin and Yang. Yin represents sleep/rest and yang represents wakefulness/activity. Everyday we experience daytime (yang) and nighttime (yin) in our external environment. In those who have trouble around sleep, their internal balance of yin and yang does not follow the external cycle of day into night into day. Whether you have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, sleep too much, or don’t feel rested after sleep, these symptoms can be identified as an imbalance of internal yin and yang in comparison to the normal external daily cycle.
If you struggle with sleep (either too little or too much), there are a handful of lifestyle changes you can make to adjust your sleep cycle:
Don’t go to bed too hungry. Don’t go to bed too full.
Take a hard look at the amount of caffeine you drink per day (coffee, tea, energy drinks, and soda). Avoid drinking caffeinated beverages after 4:00pm. Overuse of caffeine (more than 3 cups/day) can suggest that your body is not able to create it’s own natural energy to stay awake and alert.
Get exercise during the day.
The pineal glad acts as a biological clock that tells the body when it’s time to be tired and when it’s time to be awake. The pineal gland is highly influenced by light entering our eyes. This is why it is important to turn off bright lights and screens at least one hour before bed. As soon as you wake up go outside into the sunlight for at least 10 minutes.
Discover a nighttime and/or morning routine. It is very helpful to condition your body into knowing it’s time to unwind and get to bed or wake up and get ready for the day. Think Pavlov’s dog.
Create your sleep sanctuary. It’s important to treat your bedroom as the place you get cozy with your loved one and/or go to sleep- that’s it! Keep work, bills, to do’s away from the bedroom. Remove the TV from the bedroom. Make sure your bedroom is dark at night.
Work on managing your stress- I’ve heard acupuncture is great for this!