In TCM sleep is a complete expression of yin; dark, cool, inward, replenishing, restful, regenerative. It is medicine in itself. I don’t need to go into great detail as to why sleep is important, but know that it improves, sperm quality, egg quality, transition to menopause, blood pressure etc. Poor sleep is one of the most common problems I see in clinic, usually alongside other reasons for coming to see me.
I believe that a good night’s sleep should not be taken for granted, most of us who sleep well will have a period in their life when this just isn’t the case. I also think we have to train ourselves to sleep efficiently and that means putting a bit of work into it sometimes. Six hours is the absolute minimum sleep we should have on a regular basis, 7.5-8 hours is good but, like everything, this varies from person to person. We also have to accept that as we get older our sleep will naturally become more disturbed. Realistically there may be a couple of wakes during the night, but the trick is to learn how to return to sleep quickly before tomorrows to-do list and/or anxiety around the sleeplessness itself takes hold.
So my 3 point plan involves two stages of preparation, one to incorporate into the days activities, one hour of preparation before sleep and finally stage 3, a meditation to help you fall asleep. If falling asleep isn’t your problem but you wake at night – use this stage 3 to get back to sleep.
Stage 1. Daily Preparation
Preparation for a good nights sleep means including activities everyday that may already be part of your lifestyle, or may need just a tweak.
a) Exercise – the way we exercise our mind and body has a role to play in the quality of our sleep. It won’t be surprising to learn that a degree of physical aerobic exercise daily is required to tire the body. Researching the amount and type of exercise required is complex because individuals all need different amounts, a vigorous walk for 30 minutes counts, running, going to the gym, tennis, football are all good but doing an hour of cleaning the house is also exercise – consistency is key, something daily is the long term goal.
b) Relaxation – The premise of using up energy in order to induce sleep at night is logical, but the idea that relaxation induces good sleep is less obvious to the Western mind, but things are changing! Given the fact that the greatest cause of insomnia discovered in the Great British Sleep Survey was a racing mind, it makes sense that mind-body practices such as yoga, tai chi, qigong, have been shown to be beneficial for both falling and staying asleep. Further benefits include overall improvements in mood and physical function e.g. balance – standing on one leg, and agility. A mindful meditation practice has also been found to enhance sleep patterns and enables us to spend more time in the restorative (SWS) slow wave sleep. So incorporating, physical and mind/body exercise into daily life is the foundation of preparation for good sleep.
b) Late mealtimes – Avoid eating a meal too close to bedtime. Energy is diverted to the digestive system which should be winding down, making it difficult and slower to breakdown food and absorb nutrients, and this can lead to weight gain. The optimum time to leave between eating and sleeping is about 3 hours, long enough for the body to digest, and short enough to prevent hunger pangs from creeping in.
Stage 2. Preparation 1 hour before
The hour before sleep we prepare by filling the time with calming, joyful activities and ditch those that over stimulate the mind. Pre planning is essential to make this work, and it is personal, you need to find the things that bring you joy, everyone is different so create your own list but here are some ideas for you to dip into
- Switch off screens – they omit blue light which interferes with the production of the sleep inducing hormone melatonin
- Have a warm, luxurious bath to relax your muscles and listen to some calming music
- Have a face pack or do your nails – or give yourself a facial cupping treatment @facialcuppingexpert
- Do a short yin yoga practice
- Journaling – something simple like writing down 3 wins/good things from the day
- Read a book (or white screen kindle), or listen to an audio book even better
- Feed the senses – use a diffuser/candle which omits a relaxing smell – lavender is great
- Meditation – there are some great practices on Insight Timer App. Just have the sound on if using your phone!
- Get your clothes ready for the morning
- Make a list of what you want to do tomorrow – do this in the first part of the time you have set aside – this preparation can help you “put to bed” all your chores, work things, list of stuff that might otherwise occupy to much of your brain when you are trying to nod off.
Check your surroundings, are they conducive to sleep?
- The area of the back of the head and neck (TCM fact, it is here pathogen such as colds are said to enter) should be protected from drafts and cold to avoid disruptive sleep. Make sure you are not sleeping in a draft (air-con, windows), when we are tucked up warm in bed this part of our body is almost always exposed and is left vulnerable.
- Make sure your pillows are not to high, pop on some lavender oil or pillow spray to relax you, or chrysanthemum fit you suffer from headaches.
- Is your bedding comfortable? Have you got too many layers, or not enough? Is it easy to shed a layer if you need to during the night?
Stage 3. Meditation for Falling to Sleep
Finally, once you are ready to slip into the land of nod, here is a simple practice you can use – this works when dropping off or you can use it if you are trying to get back to sleep after waking in the night.
- Find a comfortable position, for most of us this is on our side with our knees drawn up (if you have a bad back place a small cushion or blanket between your knees). It doesn’t matter whether it is left or right chose the side which is best for you.
- Close your eyes and begin to deepen your breath. Become aware of your exhale and inhale.
- Carry out a meditative body scan. Start with your feet and work upwards, so bring your awareness to your feet and let them relax completely, let go of any tension, draw your breath right down to your feet. Once relaxed, repeat moving through
- pelvic area and lower back
- abdomen – and mid back
- chest – and upper back
- Bring yourself back to your breath – breathe in, pause at the top, breathe out, pause at the bottom ….repeat. Once you have got into the rhythm of your breath…
- Imagine yourself lying on a beach, you are listening to the waves gently come to the shore. Inhale as the waves draw back, exhale as the wave comes to the shore and repeat. You can embellish this in your mind, imagining the tiny stones move with the waves and the sounds they make as the waves move them. Obviously you can use another analogy if this doesn’t suit you but try and co-ordinate it with the breath.
- Keep repeating and bringing your mind back to the breath and your visualisation.
This is a great meditation to calm everything down and bring you into a state of relaxation. BUT it takes practice!! You won’t master it straight away, stick at it and please let me know how you get on!