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by Barbara Adach, R.Ac

Ahhhh, end-August!  This is the time of year when the hot sunny days begin to be tempered by less muggy breezes at night.  That small hint of coolness creeping in reminds us that autumn is just around the corner.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), there are not four but five seasons.  The additional season, ‘Late Summer’, is considered the “hinge between hot and cold seasons, uniting yin and yang”.  This observation is from a beautiful book, the Huang Di Nei Jing (The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine).  It was written about 2,000 years ago.  Not only is it a classical TCM text still studied by acupuncture students today, it is also a lifestyle guide with advice on health optimization.   There are even directions on how best to sleep throughout the year according to the seasons.  In general, we can take cues from our environment and work with the seasons.  For example, in the summer we can stay up a bit later and rise a bit earlier than usual, thus following the sun’s pattern, benefiting from the season’s warmth and sunshine (“Yang” energy).  In the fall, we can start to turn in a bit earlier but still rise early.

August and September are a pivotal time when we slowly change gears from summer’s looser, freer timetable (long weekends, vacation time, children out of school and at camps) to autumn’s much more regulated and disciplined work and school activities.  For the sleep-deficient among us, this can be a challenge.  Just when we are feeling like we’re finally getting some rest on vacation, it is time to get back to our regular lives of alarm clocks and stressful commutes.

We know that we feel better when we sleep well.  Did you also know that good sleep helps maintain our memory, reaction times, emotional functioning and decision making skills?  In a recent CBC episode of The Nature of Things, the relationship between good sleep and a healthy appetite was discussed.  If you have ever experienced an increase in appetite after a night or two of poor sleep, you will be interested to know that some research supports this phenomenon.

Here are some suggestions to help you get the most out of your sleep time so that you will be refreshed and well-rested, ready to tackle whatever the day has in store for you.

In general, we can apply good sleep hygiene principles:

  • Reserve your bedroom for sleep and intimacy, not for eating, studying, watching TV, or using electronic devices
  • Keep your bedroom dark, well ventilated, and at a comfortable temperature
  • Use a good quality mattress and pillows (mattresses and pillows do wear out; refresh a mattress after approximately 10 years and a pillow after a year or two)
  • Stick to a schedule – go to bed and rise at approximately the same time every night (consider the Yellow Emperor’s suggestion to flex the times a bit throughout the year), whether it is a weekday or weekend, vacation or workday
  • However, we should balance this with going to sleep when we are tired – forcing ourselves to lie in bed at a designated time can make us feel frustrated instead of relaxed
  • More strenuous exercise should be done earlier in the day; relaxation exercises can be done at night
  • Turn off electronic devices, especially interactive technology, an hour or two before bedtime
  • Avoid high energy or stressful TV viewing later at night; read inspiring and uplifting books instead
  • Eat your last meal of the day at least three hours before turning indigestion will interfere with sound sleep and lying down will interfere with optimal digestion
    • Consider changing the paradigm of supper being the largest meal of the day to the smallest with Yellow Emperor’s suggestion to ‘eat like a king at breakfast, a prince at lunch, and a pauper at supper’
  • Avoid very spicy food, caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine before bed; they are all stimulating and can disturb sleep
  • Have a warm bath and consider adding calming herbs to the water:
    • Wrap a handful of lemon balm, lavender or rose petals in a square of cheesecloth and tie tightly
    • Place the wrapped herbs into the tub and run the water over it
    • When the tub is full, remove the herbs and enjoy the bath
  • Treat yourself to a cup of calming herbal tea before bedtime
    • Chamomile, lavender, lemon balm or peppermint can be helpful
    • Some tea companies have specific blends to help support sleep and may contain additional herbs such as valerian or kava kava root
  • Other soothing food and drink to try contain significant calcium and magnesium:
    • A cup of warm milk with a teaspoon of honey
    • A small handful of almonds

From TCM dietary therapy, there are some additional options to consider.  Lemons are considered helpful for calming the mind and relieving insomnia.  Mulberry or Longan fruit (looks like smaller, darker litchi) can be consumed fresh or, in the dried state, made into tea.  Lingzhi mushrooms, also known as Reishi, are available in tea form to support healthy sleep.  Barley tea is also soothing but is not appropriate for those with Celiac Disease as it contains gluten.

If, in spite of your best efforts to transition to a regular sleep schedule, you are still not sleeping well, you may want to consider acupuncture treatment for insomnia.  Acupuncture, famous for its effect on pain, has also been used for at least 2,000 years to treat sleep difficulties.  This modality for supporting healthful rest is becoming more popular here in the west as people try to avoid using prescription or over the counter sleep aids.

In TCM, there are several patterns of insomnia and they are identified by collecting your particular information about problems falling asleep, staying asleep, waking too early and/or not refreshed, or experiencing excessive dreams or nightmares.  Because each person has their own unique history and presentation of insomnia, the acupuncture points used will vary somewhat between patients.  While it would seem logical that acupuncture points for insomnia would be on or near the head, there are some that are located on the body and limbs.  Examples of some commonly used acupuncture points for insomnia are Yin Tang and An Mian, which are located on the head.  Shen Men is found near the wrists and San Yin Jiao is on the inner leg above the ankle bone.

Sometimes the underlying reason for poor sleep may be a pain condition or a digestive issue.  It is important to identify and correct these core imbalances to bring relief to the sleep-deprived.  Again, acupuncture can play a significant role in this area.

To help you manage your sleep as you transition into autumn, please request your appointment with our registered acupuncturist Barbara Adach, R.Ac. by contacting The Pacific Wellness Institute at 416-929-6958 or submit your online appointment request.