Are you sleeping well enough?

With the fog currently enveloping London every morning, it definitely is adding a mysterious touch to the day. I wake up every morning slightly disoriented to not be able to see the usual spectacular view from my windows but it does seem fitting to have a soft start to the day, as if the fog is cushioning the senses and giving me time to adjust. No harsh wake-up-brightness that summer brings!

The clocks went back and I hope you all enjoyed the extra hour of sleep. It is a hard concept to explain to Kaiyang who is only 17 months old, so the clock change made no difference to our lives. It is amazing how easily babies generally can adapt to sleep changes and keep a rhythm going no matter what the outside world says. If there are sleep problems, it tends to be acute situations like an upset stomach, teething, a kicked off cover…

Once we grow up though sleep issues, when they occur, can often feel like they’ve crept up on you. You remember a time when sleep was great and restful and then suddenly that time was a few months ago. From what I see in my practice, most insomnia I treat stems from stress, although the patient may not feel like their plate of stress is particularly fuller than other people’s.

Stress in Chinese medicine is interesting because it affects both the physical and the mental, no matter the source. In a way, it is the original catch-22 disorder. For some, it is a literal stress, too much pressure at work, overdoing it in personal lives, stretching yourself thin, too many commitments.

Whatever the mental and emotional cause, over time, it affects the Spleen and/or Heart’s functions to help run the body optimally. The Heart’s relevance here may be easier for a western mind to comprehend, after all the word Heart implies feeling and caring which can be affected by stress.

The Spleen’s dysfunction can also be interpreted by “gut feeling” or when there is an uneasy feeling like that knot in your stomach. In Chinese medicine, the Spleen and Stomach work in tight partnership to ensure that your body is getting all the nutrients it can from your food. When things go awry, it can cause constipation or diarrhoea or both ie IBS.

This is where the physical side of dysfunction can affect the mental. If the Spleen is overworked and tired (just like you!) from a cold, damp diet it can affect the Spleen and Heart’s relationship in the mental side of thinking, leading to overthinking and anxiety, and then that in turns brings about another round of physical disruption by interrupting the flow of yin and yang, qi and blood. Over time, there is less mental and physical nourishment to the body, and the Spleen and Heart, and by now probably the Liver and other organ functions are really not happy bunnies.

So what to do if you are one of the many who wished you had more restful and enough sleep? Regular acupuncture can help rebalance and restore the body, as well as Chinese herbal medicine in some cases. But there are also other practical changes you can try in between sessions:

1. Turn off your digital gadgets two hours before bed time. This is most important for those of you who read the news at 11pm (!) or check your emails.

If you need to check your emails at that time, do not reply to them until the morning. By responding to them late at night, it sets the precedent that you are available – also it might stress the recipient thinking they now have to deal with it at midnight because the ball is in their court. Leave it till the morning.

If you need to read, go for an old-fashioned book. An online article may seem shorter than a book chapter, but it’s a false economy because online, it is so easy to then click on the next link and the one after that until one hour later, you’re still reading and more awake because of the constant start and stop of a new article. A chapter by its very design (unless it’s a Sherlock Holmes cliffhanger) naturally winds down until the next chapter.

The only exception here re digital is music, play to your heart’s desire if that’s what you want. Some people need quiet to sleep but you may be the one who prefers some Metallica right before bedtime…

2.  Open the windows. Ten minutes of crisp cold fresh air at the hour before sleep clears the room, Some people advocate having it open all night all year long. I find that a little extreme, but a bit of cold air may help you sleep better.

3.  Figure out what it is that’s stressing you. I have periods where my sleep is a mess and I immediately know something is bothering me. It may not be obvious but go through your mind, if you’re staying awake or having disturbed sleep over a period of more than four days, something is bothering you whether you know it or not.

One recent example: I was going to fly with Kaiyang just on my own. Weeks before the flight I had terrible sleep, waking up every few hours. I racked my brain for what could be bothering me: finally it hit me, I’ve never traveled with Kaiyang on my own before and the thought of maneuvering a baby, a buggy and carry on luggage just seemed impossible. Simple solution: I purchased a hold luggage allowance even though I was only checking a small bag but the idea I had one less thing to contend with was all the mental peace I needed regarding that trip.

Sometimes the stress isn’t obvious so search your brain, or can seem silly, but if it’s interrupting your sleep then it’s obviously not silly. It won’t always be something as frivolous as a suitcase but the point is to identify the cause and then do something about it. If it’s the idea that your work isn’t fulfilling, then spend some time figuring out if you want to change your work or just gain some new skills or hobbies. Or just go on a four month sabbatical and travel to Nepal (like someone I know who did that recently).

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