Sleep Problems? Whatever you do, don’t buy a yak!

“You snooze, you lose!” Sound familiar? For many, being able to function on little sleep has been something of a badge of honor, a sign of persistence and strength. Where sleep is concerned, this couldn't be further from the truth! Poor sleep quality can contribute to many health conditions such as obesity, heart disease, depression and anxiety. It can lead not only to irritability and exhaustion, but also to muscle stiffness, impaired cognitive function, and an impaired immune system. Drowsy driving accounts for more traffic accidents and deaths than drunk driving! It's time to change the phrase. You snooze, you win with better immunity, cognitive function and physical energy.

Eight hours of good sleep is recommended each night for adults. During this time the body goes through five stages of sleep: drowsy, light, deep, intense deep and REM (rapid eye movement). While the body is going through the cycles of sleep, it is also repairing itself. Activity in the part of the brain that controls emotions and decision-making reduce and rest, muscles relax, and necessary hormones are released.

Insomnia is defined as a difficulty or inability to fall asleep, waking during the night, restless sleep, or waking and not being able to fall back asleep. Sometimes this may be temporary, caused by short-term changes in your lifestyle or environment such as outside noise, weather changes, coffee and other stimulants, eating too late at night, or a recent emotional upset. Insomnia becomes chronic when it continues for more than a couple of months and is usually due to prolonged stress and emotional upset, poor diet, or an extended illness. Sleep disturbance cause by pain, breathing difficulties or itching is not considered insomnia and the underlying cause will need to be addressed.

Chinese Medicine categorizes sleep issues into a few different patterns that can be addressed with acupuncture and herbs. 

  • Difficulty getting to sleep - This is usually caused by prolonged emotions such as anger, suppressed depression, shock, or worry. There is an inability to fall asleep until later and may be followed by vivid or manic dreams.
  • Difficulty staying asleep - This may be due to over-eating or over-drinking. Symptoms may include: insomnia with bloating, epigastric distension and fullness and possibly acid reflux, fitful sleep and profuse dreaming or waking in the early hours with difficulty falling back to sleep. Many times, we see that patients wake at the same time each night (usually between 2 am and 4 am). In a future post, we'll explain the relation between the time one wakes and what it means.
  • Light sleep or dream-disturbed sleep - Patients with this pattern are typically nervous, have anxiety and worry issues, and wake to process and problem-solve. This may also be common in older people who are recovering from surgery or long illness.
  • Awake all night - This is the most serious type of sleep disorder, and is typically the result of having been frightened or excessive worry. Those who tend to be pessimistic also fall into this category and these people awaken and then stay awake. They typically show signs of emotional fatigue and low spirits.

What to do?

Western medicine commonly prescribes sleeping pills and anti-depressants for insomnia and other sleep disorders, but these prescriptions can become addictive and patients can find it difficult to sleep naturally, without pills or medicine in the future. Side effects of these medications may include high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat and depression. Then there's the sleep walking and hallucinations. We even found this somewhat humorous yet disturbing story of a man who accidentally ordered a yak online when he was taking Ambien, remembering nothing about it when they came to deliver the yak!!

As if that wasn't enough, a side effect that most chronic sleeping pill users experience is “rebound insomnia,” the recurrence of sleeping issues once they stop taking the medication. Often, this kind of insomnia is worse than the original insomnia. Rebound insomnia might even cause bizarre and disturbing dreams that can lead to panic attacks and increased anxiety upon waking.

If we don’t get into the Stage 4 non-REM part of the sleep cycle which results in deep restful sleep, we can’t obtain the full rejuvenating benefit that sleep provides. Sleep medications like Ambien, Valium and Xanax, produce sedative effects which seem to help people sleep yet actually prevent the deep sleep needed for optimal immune system functioning and rejuvenation.

Recent studies performed by researchers at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto have shown that individuals with difficulty sleeping, that received a course of acupuncture treatments, experienced reduced anxiety while sleep times increased by an average of 1.4 hours – showing a significant increase in melatonin production. The researchers concluded that acupuncture had value as therapeutic intervention for individuals with insomnia and anxiety and could be an alternative to pharmaceutical therapy. Other clinical studies have shown that acupuncture helps release extra neurotransmitters into the central nervous system, including serotonin, which regulates sleep patterns. It's clear that acupuncture can be used to improve the quality of sleep without the sluggish side effects associated with most sleeping pills.

Getting enough sleep on a consist basis is easier said than done. Consistency is the real key. Here are some tips from experts that are a good starting point for improving your sleep.

  • Go to bed at a consistent time – ideally by 10 p.m.
  • Be consistent about putting your devices and electronic screens outside of your bedroom at least 30 minutes before bedtime. The light emitted by tablets, phones, laptops and TVs has been shown to impact melatonin production, which is the circadian rhythm regulating hormone critical for optimal sleep.
  • Limiting stimulants and alcohol intake. Caffeine, nicotine, chocolate or other stimulants after lunchtime, can keep you from falling asleep at night. Alcohol, while it may initially make you feel drowsy, can cause restless sleep and frequent waking throughout the night. In Chinese Medicine, alcohol and coffee are considered very heating. The heat can agitate the heart and liver, negatively affecting the quality of sleep.
  • Regular exercise each day preferably early in the day, preferably 2 hours or more before bedtime. Exercising too close to bedtime is too stimulating.
  • Avoid eating late at night to prevent digestive issues like acid-reflux, bloating or nausea.
  • Avoid “trying too hard”. If you can't get to sleep, read a book (not on your device) or some other calming activity that tends to make you feel drowsy.
  • Lose excess weight. Sleep apnea and obesity have a very high correlation, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
  • Address the stress and learn to relax. Create a relaxing ritual before bedtime with a warm bath or soft, calming music to help prepare you for sleep. Massage, Tai Chi, Qigong, Yoga and Meditation are great ways to calm the mind and relax the body. You may also want to try some relaxation recordings or apps that offer guided meditations or various sounds to help you sleep.

Don't let sleep issues ruin your health and your life. Before you turn to sleeping medications, be sure to understand the side effects and possibilities of addiction (and the possibility of buying a yak!). We believe patients will find better relief through acupuncture and herbal remedies that restore the balance needed to bring on restful sleep.

Posted in Lifestyle, Health Conditions