Surrendering to the bliss of sleep, letting go and resting deeply is one of the most beautiful pleasures of life. In sleep we forget ourselves. In sleep we are made anew. We awaken to a new world full of possibilities and opportunities. Even challenges feel manageable with a good night’s sleep. Life is beautiful when you sleep well. And … when you don’t, well that’s an entirely different story.
It is widely known that sleep deprivation is used as a form of torture, and for good reason. As any new parent or insomniac will tell you, restless or broken sleep is debilitating, maddening and has a myriad of negative impacts, like lack of focus, irritability, depression, anxiety, snappiness, headaches and much more. That mysterious land of sleep where we forget or perhaps, remember, is tremendously important to our wellbeing and has always been protected and promoted as the king of health promotion by ancient healing systems.
Ancient Chinese medicine
With over 60 million Americans suffering from some kind of sleep disorder, and an amazing one in six of these people using prescription sleep medications, its time to turn to ancient wisdom to support a blissful night’s sleep. The ancient Chinese attached great importance to the role sleep plays in maintaining health. A Chinese maxim says that replenishing health with medicine is not as good as replenishing health with diet, but that replenishing health with sleep is the best treatment of all.
Sleep is when yin (cold) and yang (hot) energies change and shift inside the body. When yang energy enters yin, people sleep; when yang energy exits yin, people wake. The heart which the ancient Chinese say governs your spirit runs the whole process.
“A healthy heart relies on sufficient blood nourishment and people who have sleep problems usually suffer from inadequacies of the heart,” says Chinese Medicine Practitioner Dr Yuan. “For most people, this is caused by an unhealthy lifestyle.”
This unhealthy lifestyle includes the discovery of modern science that the screens of tablets, smartphones and some computers emit a blue wavelength light that affects your Suprachiastmatic Nucleus. This is a tiny structure containing 20,000 neurons that controls your sleep cycle. Too many screens before bedtime leads to a decrease in melatonin production which causes sleep disruptions. It is important to harmonize to the natural cycles of nature and your body for restorative sleep.
The Ancient Chi-Cycle
Chinese medicine is based on chi, or life force, or energy. The 24 hour Chi Cycle is vital to understanding Chinese medicine. TCM recommends you live in harmony with the chi cycle. Ancient Taoist texts say that the fundamental purpose of aligning with the chi cycle is to find our purpose on earth.
Chinese medicine is affiliated with the philosophy of Taoism. In ancient times its great sages mapped out the patterns of life by observing the movement of the stars, the seasons and the natural world. They discovered chi – which is simultaneously energy, information and consciousness – and observed that it flows through the cosmos from the biggest planet to the smallest molecule in a powerful rhythmic movement. This is known as the chi-cycle. – Jost Sauer, Acupuncturist and author.
Chi courses through us in the same endless 24 hour cycle. It spends two hours in each of our organs and there are certain things we can do at specific times to catch the cosmic momentum and thereby increase our health and happiness. By moving in tune with the cosmic flow rather than against it, you are not exploiting your own resources which separates yin and yang, or unbalances them. Each cycle relates to an element and organs.
In Chinese medicine your organs have emotional attributes as well as physical functions, and with a harmonious lifestyle your lungs can generate feelings of freedom; your liver, happiness; your spleen, concentration; your kidneys, power; and your heart, love. So how does this relate to sleep? When we sleep our body clears toxins from its system. It’s also the time when your cells build proteins to repair damage and the digestive system is the most relaxed. Tuning in with this lifestyle not only provides a natural 24-hour detox and puts you in direct harmony with the cycles of nature and your own body. Being in harmony with the elements and your internal organs is really helpful to supportive body rhythms and restful sleep.
Yin and yang move through the day; there is a more active, fiery, sunny yang part of the day which goes to lunchtime, and a cooler, more moon like receptive yin part which goes to ten pm. My teacher, Chi Kung Master Bisong Guo from the remote east of China says to always make sure you catch the sleep wave of yin before 10pm, or else the rising yang will hamper you falling asleep and cause a restless night’s sleep. I have experienced this to be true on many occasions. She also recommended sleeping or resting by practicing lying down meditation or chi kung, from 12:30 to 1:30pm, to maximise your yin energy and encourage deeper sleep at night. This ancient advice is in line with the napping rhythm of some Indigenous cultures.
Ayurvedic sleep secrets
While the ancient Chinese hold many secrets to restful sleep, Indian wisdom is also helpful for supportive sleep habits. Sleep is one of the pillars of Ayurveda. It is the time when the body repairs and heals itself, as well as balances the mind and emotions. Sleep imbalances fall under the three doshas. Vata sleep imbalances are a when the mind is alert and unable to detach from the day and rest properly. There may be trouble falling asleep or your sleep will be light and restless and you’ll wake up feeling tired. Pitta sleep issues concern waking up in the wee hours unable to fall asleep. Kapha sleep issues are when a person sleeps long and deeply but feels exhausted on waking, as well as lethargic and dull.
In Ayurveda it is vital to let go of problems before bed, to eat warm, cooked meals and go to bed well before 10pm.
The Sleep Cycle
What happens after we fall asleep? Knowing the sleep cycle and harmonising with it, is helpful to maximise deep rest. A sleep cycle lasts about 90 minutes and while we are snoozing, we apparently move through fie stages of sleep each cycle. The first four stages are non-rapid eye movement or NREM sleep and the fifth stage is when rapid eye movement or REM sleep occurs.
During NREM sleep we move from the very light sleep of stage one, to very deep sleep in Stage 4. Our eyes don’t usually move and there is little muscle activity.
In REM sleep, we have torrents of rapid eye movement, where the eyes are not constantly moving, but are darting up and down or back and forth. It is this stage of sleep where most of our dreaming occurs. It is believed that the eye movements could be due to visual dreaming images. Interestingly, although our eyes are moving quickly, the other muscles are paralysed, excepting the heart and diaphragm which function normally.
So, of course the question is what happens during an entire night of sleep? Psychologists believe that during the first 2-3 sleep cycles we are mainly in deep NREM sleep (stages 3-4) and then in the final 2-3 sleep cycles we are usually in REM sleep together with lighter NREM sleep.
It seems sleep is much more complex than just your head hitting the pillow. Another factor impacting our sleep cycles is the time of day or night, as more NREM sleep is experienced in the earlier hours of the night from about 11pm to 3am. Age is also a factor for our quality of sleep. As we move from childhood to adulthood we experience a reduction in deep sleep (NREM stages 3-4). As we age we also cut back on REM sleep. Newborns spend about half the time in REM sleep and can drop straight into REM sleep, whereas adults don’t experience this.
Research is recommending that for recovering from fatigue a 15-20 minute nap is ideal. Some research even suggests a nap as short as five minutes is beneficial. Researchers are also questioning whether we should sleep in one big chunk. Some remote cultures sleep in two phases. So they have about six hours sleep at night and an hour and a half nap in the afternoon, much like the Mediterranean siestas. Perhaps these sleep schedules fit better with our circadian rhythms of the post lunch low.
Our ancestors had stressors, they had predators, challenges, calamities and stress. Yet, some things were different. They got more exercise, they were more in tune with the cycles of nature, the setting sun, and the seasons, and they were more connected to the earth in terms of the fresh food they ate and their relationship to it.
Sleep rituals to support sweet dreams
Golden milk is a beautiful medicinal ayurvedic drink that supports restful sleep. It is made from a turmeric and pepper paste added to warm almond milk, honey and coconut oil. Taken every before bed it promotes deep and restful sleep.
Other helpful tips for sleep are eating well and exercise. Daily exercise is key to good sleep. When we exercise we release good brain chemicals that support wellbeing and deeper sleep. We release stress and relax the body.
Winding down with a book as opposed to a screen for several hours before bedtime helps to keep your melatonin levels optimum.
And one final Chinese ritual is to soak the feet in a warm foot bath before bed. Traditional Medicine practitioners say that washing your feet with hot water is much more effective than taking sleeping pills. If you want to protect a tree, you should protect its roots; if you want to protect a person, you should protect his or her feet.