My late girlfriend used to stay awake most of the nights doing all kinds of things. When she became so tired she would sleep for just couple of hours and start the next day all energized. Those who do not know her would think that she must have slept well the night before. Little did she know that not able to sleep is both potential cause and symptom of having endocrine related illnesses, cancer included. We tried so many things to help her overcome the struggle to get better sleep. She eventually learned how to sleep well (most of the time) and it was a great triumph in helping her to stay healthy for a long period of time.
Many People Unlearned How to Sleep
When we are babies, we acquired the sleeping skill naturally since we can do absolutely nothing else. Over our life time, however, many people may have unlearned the skill because of many reasons. The most common one is having a lifestyle that keeps irregular sleeping schedule. Another is stress related anxiety that keeps the brain busy hence not able to sleep well or to fall asleep. Once the original sleeping pattern we learned from childhood is disrupted, many people can no longer find a way to get to sleep well anymore.
The trouble gets worse as many people try to improve their sleep through the use of alcohol and medications.
Drinking to get oneself to sleep works in the beginning but it will escalate to heavy drinking quickly if your not one of those lucky persons who are born with extremely low alcohol tolerance. Heavy drinking cannot get one to sleep. All it does is making you black out for couple of hours and the aftershock will make you wake up yet not able to sleep again.
Using medications also “works” if you consider turning into a zombie is actually sleeping. These drugs usually just turn off your senses (in greatly simplified terms) for specific amount of time. It helps people who desperately needing some sleep. The problem, however, is that such form of sleep is not a real sleep that our bodies need. Many of these sleeping pills have so many side-effects that they are now blamed for causing all kinds of illnesses themselves. One of common side-effects is that you cannot stop taking the drug or you will have very bad withdrawal symptoms including not able to sleep at all. Another side effect is that you will have serious memory loss after prolonged usage of such drugs.
Enough Sleep is Necessary for Longevity
During sleep our bodies repair itself. This is especially important for our brain to function properly. Only certain stage of sleep where our brain can go into its daily cleansing routine. Thus, people whose work is heavily analytical (e.g. trading) would have their performance degraded badly if they do not have enough sleep. I mentioned a hack to deal with lack of sleep by inducing sleep like behaviour in our brain.
When we are sick, it often reduces our ability to sleep well due to the ailments the illness is causing. But then the lack of enough sleep would induce further weaknesses with our immune system. So, it is just way too easy to go into the spiral down effect in terms of our health once you failed to keep your sleeping quality up.
If we have to choose between enough sleep and having enough exercise, my take is that enough sleep is always more important, given that you do in general have enough exercise most of the time. Remember, it is very easy to maintain or improve your overall health by integrating exercise into your daily lives. Going to the gym is completely overrated if you do not have the luxury due to a very hectic schedule.
Just like any other life decisions, be aware of the long term implications of depriving yourself of sleep so that you can schedule sleep just like you schedule exercise into your daily activities. This approach to sleep will go a long way in improving your quality of life.
Learning How to Sleep for the First Time
For those of you who are already in trouble on getting to sleep, there are countless number of approaches out there to help you to fall asleep.
One very consistently successful approach is to keep a bed time routine so that you can ease your mind into a stage that you know you have to go to sleep in certain amount of time. Many people simply wait until they seriously need to sleep as they cannot even keep their eyes open and then they go to bed. That’s exactly how one unlearn sleeping in the first place. The way we learned to sleep as a baby is that we are trained to be in an immobile position first, having the comfort on a bed or being hold onto a secure position and then we fall asleep.
So go search on youtube or whatever about sleeping routines. Many famous gurus like Tim Ferriss have videos on their sleeping routines all explained. There is no need for me to duplicate the effort here. Just watch some of them and see if you can create your own routine so that you can sleep better.
Many people who tried various strategies to get better sleep often give up when they do not see results the first few days. Somehow all these methods just seems not working for them. What they do not understand is that they are likely already unlearned how to sleep. It is like you are bed ridden for months and try to walk again. It can take days or even weeks to gain the sleeping skill back.
One great example illustrating the point is the switching of sleep schedule for those who have no problem sleeping in the first place. It takes usually 3 to 4 days to reprogram our minds to the new schedule, even if it is just 2 to 3 hours off from the original one. For those people who have trouble going to sleep in the first place, there is no real switching to a new schedule at all because they just cannot tell if there is a schedule change.
In short, it is important to have patience in training yourself to get to sleep. Do everything you have learned to improve your sleep and tough it out like you are training yourself with a rigorous exercise regime. Any improvement you get with your ability to sleep better will benefit yourself for the rest of your life. It’s worth it.
Tools to Assist Our Sleep
One recurring pattern I see with people whose health is extremely compromised is that they cannot sleep unless there is strong heat generated around them for couple of hours. For example, those people who are going through cancer treatments often feel coldness when they try to sleep. But that in turn makes it very difficult for them to sleep well as it feels so cold that they wake up from shivering. And it is not that they are not dressed properly or that they do not have blankets to keep them warm. It is the fact that they cannot generate enough heat themselves from inside their bodies.
Using regular heat fan or turning up the heat in the room does not help because they have the negative effect of drying up the air we breath in which can wake us up from dry throat.
The better solutions I found help a lot in this situation are heating equipment that target our bodies directly.
First, there are the heating blankets that cover on top of us. Those ones help but not very effective because the real coldness actually happens on the back of our bodies. In Chinese medicine point of view, when our heart lung functions are weak, the first sign is coldness radiating from our back directly behind the centre of our torso. Hence, putting the heating blankets underneath us work better. However, these heating blankets suffer the same issue as the regular heat fan for which they dry up the air nearby.
And then there is the bed warmer systems that are either water based or air based. These systems pump the warmed water or air into tubes that form a mesh, usually in the form of a mattress cover. These systems provide consistent warmth without the drawback like the blankets. I have recommended these systems to a number of people who have trouble sleeping and they did wonders for these people.
Finally, there is the biomat method which is based on something totally different from the other products mentioned above. There are a number of companies making these mats with far-infrared that help the person using them to generate heat within themselves. By far, I found these mats work the best and the improvement in sleep quality (and overall health) for many people has been amazing.
Supplements to Assist Our Sleep
Another approach to helping one sleep is the use of medications. As I explained earlier, the prescription stuff are not likely a good idea if you do not want long term side effects to get you eventually. However, there are many natural supplements out there that can help us. As long as the supplement is made with quality raw materials and no toxic fillers, you can safely use them without the side effects associated with the prescription drugs.
Remember that these supplements can assist us to get to sleep or improving the overall quality of sleep (I will explain later the difference), they cannot make you sleep. Sleeping is a function of our minds. If you have lost the skill to sleep, you have to train yourself to get it back.
One common supplement to help us sleep better is Melatonin. Many people tried using it and the results are totally mixed. After reading this article up to this point, you should know the reason. Melatonin can help only if you still know how to go into sleep. It promotes sleepiness, not knocking you out like the sleeping pills. Another aspect of using melatonin is that you cannot use too much of it. Many people buy the maximum dose ones hoping they work better. Well, it does not work that way. Too much melatonin in our system can lead to “after shock” where you are more awake several hours later if you are not asleep by then.
In Chinese medicine, there are at least 5 to 6 types of herbal medicine that promotes better sleep. There are also 3 to 4 types of herbs that putting us at ease to get us to sleep. All of them has to be used in moderation and has to have breaks if they are used for prolong period of time. For example, many of these herbs should be used at most for 2 weeks time and then one has to stop taking them for a week. Or, you can go with taking them 5 days a week and stop using them during weekends. It is not because of toxicity of the herbs that you need to take these “medicine holidays” like those chemo drugs. The need to take breaks is because of the build up of natural resistance of these substance. Continuous usage will lead to your body no longer reacting to the supplements with the desired effects.
So, it is alright to try out various herbal supplements to see which one works for you. Just remember that you should take breaks from using them so that their effectiveness on you can be maintained.
Falling Asleep is a Skill, Staying Asleep is Something Else
Out of the many sleeping issues, from Chinese medicine point of view, the one that actually stop people from having a good night of sleep is actually the ability to stay asleep. Yep, failing asleep can be trained but if you wake up some 5 minutes later because of your body is telling you that you must wake up you will be stuck with another night of no sleep until the sun rise.
To help us staying asleep, the environment plays an important role. Usually, people who are too deprived from sleep would crash to sleep for many hours from time to time. But that is not enough to repair the damage that has been done to their bodies. When they feel better after these black out type of sleep, they would return to the same problem of not able to stay asleep. That can often be resolved by making the sleeping environment more sleep friendly.
One very common practice nowadays is putting a TV in the bedroom facing the bed. And for some others, the dresser with a huge mirror facing the bed again. These objects, together with many shiny items, are your worst enemies in keeping you in sleep. In Chinese astrology, there are other bad implications with the arrangement but the most basic issue of not having a good night of sleep is now confirmed by Western research that we human indeed detect the reflections from these objects and react to them while we are sleeping. Hence, the disruption of our sleep by these objects in the night is a reality.
It is easy to resolve this problem. Just cover them with dark non-reflecting cloth materials when we are getting ready to go to sleep. If possible keep the room in absolute darkness. Using very deem night light only if it is necessary. Since everyone has a different tolerance level of light reflection while sleeping, it takes experiment to figure out your comfort level. Personally I can sleep in broad day light with no problem at all while I know some friends who need total darkness in a room to stay in sleep.
There are many factors affecting our sleeping environment like the room temperature, humidity, sound and smell. By controlling these four factors, one can create a “sleep mode” where one feel safe to sleep just like they are experiencing the comfort feeling when they are babies. I know someone who must use certain kind of aromatic smell at night to get to sleep and stay in sleep as well. There are many others who need certain kind of sound as a background noise to keep them sleeping because of their sensitivity in hearing other sound.
There are several Chinese herbs that are prescribed to patients to reduce the sensitivity of their senses while asleep which in turn improve the sleep quality a lot. I have not seen supplements made from these herbal ingredients yet. If I see that being offered in the supplement market, I will mention that in future post.
Better Mood, Better Health, Better Life
Take your time to figure out what you need to get yourself to sleep and keep yourself sleeping. Make this a project, a goal, for yourself. If there is something rewarding that is very much achievable, I guess sleeping is one of them.
I don’t think I need to talk about the many benefits of better sleep. After all, you are reading this article all the way up to this point. What I like to say is that better sleep leads to better mood and better health. And that goes a long way in improving your life and likely the ones around you.