Sleep has been called the inner physician by some Western health care folks, while others with a more Eastern perspective have called it that which replenishes vitality or qi.
The journal Science has called the function of sleep one of the 125 unsolved mysteries of science. For those suffering from inadequate sleep, however, it can seem like the number one mystery of all time.
To get a better handle on the topic, I interviewed Leonor A. Horden, a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioner who has been treating women's health issues for 25 years. In her experience, there are several points to keep in mind when creating a sleep schedule and the circumstances to fit it into a healthy routine:
1. Ideally, we should spend a third of our lives sleeping, a third working and a third in leisure time.
2. We are supposed to have six 45-minute cycles of sleep alternating between REM dream sleep and non-REM dreamless sleep every night.
3. Western science points out that we have a growth hormone that gets secreted from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m., which means that this is the ideal sleep period. This hormone is secreted in deep dreamless sleep and can help repair the daily insults to our body.
4. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, in order for the energetic organs to repair themselves, we should be asleep between 10 to 10:30. This is because the liver's "repair time" starts at 11 p.m. and goes till 1 p.m. The liver has so much to process that if you aren't asleep by that time, you can be awake for hours. Both Western and Eastern medicine, then, promote the idea of getting to bed earlier than many of us are used to--and sleeping longer than many of us are requiring of our schedules.
5. Because of our hectic pace of life, many of us go to bed breathing a 10% hyperventilation and thus create a pattern of "Deficiency of Heart Yin," which basically means we are waking up every few hours with our heart rate faster than normal. Retraining our breathing pattern to be deeper and less anxious can bring great rewards in the sleep game.
6. Women, who are "blood based" according to TCM (as opposed to men, who are "qi based"), cannot create "qi" if they don't have enough blood and therefore are disrupted in sleep because of heavy periods or childbirth or donating blood when they are over the age of 50. This type of pattern is an inability to get to sleep because the mind does not quiet itself.
Leonor offers three different scenarios as real-life examples of how sleep patterns can slip out of our control--
A. One woman, age 69, is taking care of her elderly husband, who is on oxygen through the night. Due to his lung condition and age, he wakes so frequently during the night that it's a rare achievement if she gets a couple of hours of uninterrupted sleep. She has now had occasions of episodes where her heart races or her blood pressure increases without her doing anything to provoke it. Cognition and memory are also suffering due to this lack of continuous sleep. (TCM pattern Deficiency of Heart and Kidney Yin)
B. In another instance, a woman is a partner with her husband in a small business, has two young sons, and is trying to watch her weight and so exercises three to four times a week. She has periodic "panic attacks" and at times feels like she cannot go to sleep due to all her concerns and inner dialogue. She had a hysterectomy due to fibroids and heavy periods and was plunged into early menopause. She wakes up feeling stiff and tired even though she went to sleep. Her hot flashes wake her up thru the night. (TCM pattern Deficiency of Heart and Liver Blood, Deficiency of Kidney Yin)
C. In a third situation, a woman whose children have left home has divorced her husband of nearly 20 years. Due to the economic downturn, she then lost her job shortly afterwards and is thus understandably anxious about her life and her choices. Because she is still trying to solve all her problems when she goes to bed, she is not sleeping and, instead, is having nightmares and feelings of dread. (TCM pattern Deficiency of Heart Yin and Liver Qi Stagnation)
In other words, sleep is not just a matter of what happens at night. It is impacted by what occurs during the day--and it impacts how we experience our waking hours. "These are just some common situations that can tax the cardiac and nervous systems of women," says Ms. Horden. "Women have the need, physiologically, to be in harmony and in cooperative situations."
A retired neurologist, Dr. John Wells, informed his fibromyalgia patients and therapists, that women have two levels of nervous system in order to control the immune system (so that when there is ovulation or a fetus in the womb, the "object that is not the body" will not be attacked by the immune system). This is very important in the case of women from 15 to 55, which are the child-bearing years and, not coincidentally, the age group with the highest percentage of fibromyalgia. He advised that women be in situations of cooperation and harmony so that their second-level nervous system will engage and disengage appropriately and not get confused by stress chemicals in the body, which interfere with the all-important communication between the nervous system, the immune system and the reproductive organs.
What Leonor counsels her women clients to do is to learn not to ruminate on all their concerns. "They need to delegate when they can," she explains, "to find cooperative ways to deal with problems, to achieve harmony and inner peace through gentle stretching, yoga, regular exercise, meditation, creative endeavors--and to take the need for deep sleep seriously!"
During perimenopause, there is a useful sleep aid called 5HTP, which is an amino acid called tryptophan that induces a quieter, deeper sleep by creating more of the neurotransmitter, serotonin and is safe to use on a daily basis. TCM has classical herbal formulas like "Temper Fire" ( K'an Herb Co.) to help with the annoying menopausal symptoms that interrupt sleep with hot flashes or the "Compassionate Sage" formula to quiet the heart and create more more deep dreamless sleep during the night.
"Life is a challenge and there are always so many changes on the horizon," she says, "but if we can maintain a sense of ease and flexibility and an inner peace based on cooperation and constancy, then we can create the best conditions for sleep to arrive easily and naturally."
The rule of thumb to improve sleep, it seems to me, is much the same as other efforts to improve our lives: We cannot control the circumstances around us but we can control how we respond to them. For the sake of our overall well-being, it is essential that we learn to calm our mind and body with ever greater effectiveness. The reward of good sleep is not just its healing qualities--it also improves memory, mood, vitality and creativity.
We join with so many others here at Huffington Post in supporting the collective goal of enjoying an improved quality of waking life by dedicating ourselves to improved sleep habits.