Thursday, May 31, 2012

Eight Lifestyle Adjustments for Better Sleep

Many of us deal with insomnia occasionally or on a regular basis. Negatively impacting our health and happiness in both the short and long term, insomnia is a drag.

Fortunately, insomnia is easily and effectively treated with acupuncture and herbal medicine. For more information, please see my article Put Insomnia to Rest with Chinese Medicine.

Adopting the following eight lifestyle adjustments will also help you get a better night's sleep every night.

1. Regular Hours

Your body craves routine. While we think we can charge ahead all week and make it up on the weekends, this is not true. When you keep an irregular schedule, your body becomes confused from day to day on when to provide energy and when to conserve it.

The best possible thing you can do to improve your sleep is to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.

Going bed earlier rather than later promotes healthier sleep. 

This might seem impossible to you. Keeping regular hours certainly requires some discipline. Try ramping down work and starting your dinner and bedtime routines by 5:00 or 6:00pm. You may need to get up earlier in the morning to get things done. But, in terms of work and sleep quality, it will be worth it.

With training, your body will learn to feel tired and awake when it's appropriate.

2. Stimulation Curfew

Make a pact with yourself not to read anything stimulating, watch TV or listen to loud music for at least two hours before you go to bed.

Most importantly, turn off your computers and your smart phones. The light from a computer mimics daylight, releasing a stimulating cascade of hormones in your brain. Just one email, one news headline or one phone conversation is enough to send your mind spinning.

This might requires some discipline, but your nervous system will thank you.

3. Practice Relaxation Daily

People who have trouble sleeping are often in a state of sympathetic nervous system arousal.  The bad news is takes just 1/10 of a second for the autonomic nervous system to be aroused into a sympathetic state -- and most of us are bombarded by stimulation on a daily basis. It takes a lot longer to return to a parasympathetic state.

The good news is that our bodies and minds are trainable. We can train ourselves to enter a relaxed state, a slow brainwave state, and stay there.

This is where regular practice comes in. It matters less what you do, but that you make time to do it every day --- preferably at the same time every day.

Relaxation practices include:
  • mindfulness meditation
  • belly breathing
  • tai ji, qi gong, some forms of yoga
  • prayer
  • warm bath with epson salts.
For most of us, starting a daily relaxation routine presents a lot of challenges. With practice over time, you'll find that your nervous system is better equipped to deal with life's stresses and challenges--- and it will be easier for you to relax at night.

4. Light (not Late) Dinner

Most of us enjoy a good dinner. We look forward to dinner as a reward after a long, hard day and enjoy sharing our evening meal with family and friends.

But dinner is not the best time to eat a lot. Or late.

Food converts into energy, and we don't need a lot of energy to sleep.

Spicy, greasy or rich foods, and large dinners with lots of different types of food, can be difficult to digest. It is harder to sleep when your body is busy digesting your evening meal. Hard-to-digest foods tax the Spleen, Stomach and Liver systems. When the Liver is under stress, it fails to circulate energy in the body, leading to stagnation and a buildup of heat in the body. Heat in the Stomach and Liver systems is one of the big causes of insomnia in the U.S.

Along that line, spicy foods like garlic and chili are stimulating and best avoided in the evening.

Obviously, if you're having trouble sleeping, it's best to cut out caffeinated beverages. If you must consume caffeine, try restricting caffeine consumption to morning only. And keep in mind that green or black tea have a lot less caffeine and stimulating chemicals than coffee or soda.

Try making breakfast or lunch your biggest meal of the day. Keep dinner light. Avoid meat. Maybe limit yourself to a small amount of rice or noodles and steamed vegetables. Or, simply, a bowl of cereal and milk. And give yourself ample time to digest before you go to bed.

5. Exercise

If you feel that stress may be a factor in your sleeping difficulties, begin incorporating exercise into your daily routine. Cardiovascular exercise can help metabolize hormones during the sympathetic nervous system activity.

Consider biking or walking to work, or take a few brisk walks each day.

Rigorous exercise can be energizing, so schedule your more intense workouts earlier in the day. A leisurely evening stroll, however, can be a wonderful way to calm your mind and ensure that your body has digested dinner before you lie down at night.

6. Sleep Environment

Darken bright rooms at night. If you are sensitive to noise at night, invest in a good pair of earplugs or a white noise masking device. Experiment with temperature. Try adding or subtracting blankets from the bed or opening or closing windows. Use your bed only for sleeping. If you find yourself ruminating at night when you should be sleeping, adopt a nightly routine of jotting down your to-do list and all your worries in a notebook before going to bed at night. Do this in a room other than the bedroom. This will help you lay your thoughts and worries aside so you can get down to the business of sleeping.

7. Get Acupuncture

Get regular acupuncture treatments. Acupuncture can help shift your autonomic nervous system from sympathetic to a parasympathetic state in a matter of minutes or seconds. Regular acupuncture can increase your melatonin level.

If you're having trouble sleeping, I'd highly recommend that you receive acupuncture treatment on a weekly or biweekly basis for four to six weeks. Regular acupuncture, like daily relaxation practice, will help your mind and body develop new habits of relaxation.

8. Take Your Herbs

Chinese medicine offers a remarkable range of herbs and formulas to help you sleep. These herbs help relax you, nourish imbalanced organ systems, and clear excess heat from the body to help you fall asleep and stay asleep deeper and longer. 

Chinese herbs can have an immediate relaxing effect; but herbal medicine is not a sleeping pill. Instead of simply targeting particular brain chemistry, herbs work in a holistic way to support function in your body that is weak, while reducing the buildup of excess energy. There are no side effects from herbal medicine. In addition to helping you sleep, Chinese herbs will address the root of your condition. Taken regularly over time Chinese herbs can improve and regulate your sleep, while enhancing your health and vitality in general.