Photo: Moonrise in the Himalayas, Leela Longson
Relax and Nourish with Better Sleep
(How Your Body is Like a Smartphone App)
When you think about it, your body is just like one of those apps – you know, the ones that come with a little bracelet that measures your heart rate, how many steps you take, or that wakes you up when you’re in the lightest phase of sleep. In truth, your body is doing this same thing for you all day and all night, every single day. It’s like a grand conversation: listen and respond, listen and respond. If only it printed out a nice little readout saying “Hey, that midnight salad kept you awake last night.” Or buzzed you when you needed to let go of a little tension.
Well, in a way, it does. Sleep, for example, is one of many conditions that can be a reflection of ways that our bodies are out of balance. How deeply you sleep, how easily you fall and stay asleep, and how rested you feel are all part of a subtle communication. Likewise, your body is listening to cues from you and your environment. Darkness, temperature, relaxation, and slowing of activity are all ways your body knows it’s time to sleep.
Though there can be physiological reasons for poor sleep that need addressing, the good news is there is a lot we can do to improve the quality of our sleep. Here are some great cues to use to help yourself get that most nourishing and rejuvenating sleep:
Digestion – Digestion is activity and movement, and it can keep you awake. Activity in the mind is considered primarily a reflection of quality of digestion and what foods we eat. If you tend to wake up at night worrying or processing, you may have some weakness in your digestion. According to Chinese medicine, our strongest digestion is from 7-11am (the morning!). You can take advantage of this by eating your largest meal and any hard to digest foods (raw, cold, or rich foods like dairy) earlier in the day, or by minimizing those foods. Try eating the last food of the day by 7pm, and making it light and easy to digest. Focus on warm, well-cooked foods such as soups or stews.
Ginger is great for digestion in food or in tea.
Steamed cubes of jewel yams are nutritious and satisfying, and stabilize blood sugar.
A handful of nuts or small protein snack can help if you wake due to low blood sugar.
Darkness – The body is designed hormonally to take its rejuvenation in the dark. It is considered in Chinese medicine that times of increasing darkness, such as just before and around midnight, are more deeply rejuvenating than other times. Our kidneys act like a seed storing our energy, and the darker it is, the more benefit they receive. If you feel your sleep is light, you may want to assist them:
Make sure to catch those hours of sleep between 10pm-1am, they are the most replenishing.
Sleep more around winter solstice, the darkest time of year. Many of us feel more tired anyway, now you have a reason to indulge that urge!
Cover your eyes to heighten the dark. You can buy a mask, or accordion-fold a pillowcase to drape over your eyes. Eliminate night lights and bright clocks too. Try this for a month and then try once without – you can really feel the subtle deepening effect that extra dark has.
Senses – In college I spent a few days in Zanzibar, where in order to ration electricity they had a rotating hour of lights out by neighborhood each evening. Since we knew it was coming, we planned to have homework and chores done beforehand so we could take the time to walk together, stop being productive, and linger over dinner. It was a time every day for relaxing and connecting, letting our mind downshift and attention come back into our bodies. When we sleep, we literally want the blood and activity to come out of our head and down into our body. Try creating a similar effect:
Make a point to finish mental work and screen time 1-2 hours before bed.
Choose your favorite ways to activate your senses: Gentle stretching, a walk with a friend, the smell of food or incense, soothing music. Look for things that help you shift out of mental mode before you hit the mattress.
Temperature –Your body expects your temperature to drop when you sleep. You can simulate this with a warm bath or shower, or simply a foot bath an hour or so before bed.
Add a cup of Epsom salts to a bath on stressful days to help soothe and relax the nerves.
If you’re brave, at the end of a hot shower, switch the water to cold for 30 seconds – this causes the blood to come out of the head and limbs and into the internal organs, particularly the kidneys which help with that rooted, deep sleep. You will actually feel warmer afterward rather than colder. This can be done daily and supports the adrenals as well as resilience to stress.
Stress – The added benefit to working with sleep naturally is that it will help you be more resilient to stress. If your stress is showing up in poor sleep, try some of the above, and consider learning that stress-reduction technique you’ve been putting off. Many people who take time to meditate say they actually get more done because they feel clearer.
Addressing your sleep is a fantastic way to come into greater connection with the rhythms and cycles of your body. Sleeping well and hearing your body’s cues while they are subtle are both great ways to improve your energy and reduce the frequency of illness. When there are deeper or persistent issues such as hormonal imbalances, it may be time to seek treatment with your doctor and/or Chinese medicine practitioner.
Leela Longson, L.Ac.
Five Element Acupuncture