“Sleep is that golden chain that ties health and our bodies together.” - Thomas Dekker
For many years I considered sleep a waste of time. Life was happening when I was awake. Sleeping meant that I’d miss something and I had the math to back it up. On average, if a person sleeps 8 hours a night and lives to age 75 then they will have slept 25 of those years or roughly 9,125 days or 219,000 hours. We only live so long. So why spend time sleeping?
It wasn’t until many years in that I discovered the value of sleep and it’s implications on health, both mental and physical, including having an effect on cardiovascular, Type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, anxiety and depression to name just a few conditions.
Let’s delve into the science of sleep and then wrap it up with some of the natural ways we can get a healthy dose of it into our lives.
The Glymphatic System
If you’ve studied anything about health, you’ve probably heard about the lymphatic system; the system comprised of tissues and organs responsible for helping to remove toxins, bacteria and other wastes throughout the body. This is done through a series of lymphatic vessels, lymph nodes and lymph located in various parts of the body. The spleen, tonsils, adenoids are all part of this system. As there is no “heart function” effectively pumping this fluid throughout the body, it requires physical movement by you to produce the circulation (even breathing helps to move lymph). This is one of the reasons why movement(exercise) is so important.
But what about the brain?
The brain is housed in the skull and requires a different system to drain waste. This system, known now as the glymphatic system works very much like the lymphatic system, though there are a few differences, some of which is explained below.
The Central Nervous System is comprised of the brain and spinal cord. CSF, also known as cerebralspinal fluid surrounds and protects the Central Nervous System, CNS. One of CSF’s purposes is to act as a buffer or cushion in the event of trauma, hopefully lessening the severity of injury such as happens in rougher sports like Football.
Another purpose of CSF is the exchange or transport of nutrients to the brain, as well as carrying away wastes. It is the second part of this equation that is the focus here although transporting nutrients to the brain is certainly critical to surviving.
What sort of wastes?
In simple terms, the brain makes up roughly 2-4% of a person’s body weight or for the average adult, about 3 lbs.
What’s referred to as the gray matter contains upwards of 86 billion nerve cells called neurons. The white matter, called axons and dendrites contain billions of nerve fibers. Finally, the neurons are connected by trillions of connections or synapses.
Like any engine or machine, it is not without creating wastes. These wastes include water, ammonia, carbon dioxide and protein fragments. Two very concerning proteins among this waste are Amyloid beta and hyperphosphorylated tau protein aggregates. Amyloid beta, when not removed from the brain, can eventually form plaques and has now been implicated in the condition of Alzheimer’s disease. Similarly, aggregates of tau protein act and are implicated in Alzheimer’s as well as other neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia and other tauopathies.
Scientists are, thankfully, still very engaged in research into these proteins and hopefully within the next few years we will have an even better understanding of such neurodegeneration as for example, according the the Alzheimer’s Association, the disease is the 6th leading cause of death in the US, accumulating more deaths than both breast and prostate cancer combined per annum.
There’s some things we can do now though, which falls within the purpose of this article.
Another important discovery, researchers from the University of Rochester discovered what is called the “glymphatic system”. It was called the glymphatic system by Danish neuroscientist Maiken Nedergaard, in recognition for it’s dependence on glial cells along with it’s similarities with the lymphatic system referenced earlier here.
One key part of this discovery is that unlike the lymphatic system which demands motion for circulation, the glymphatic system requires sleep for the flushing of wastes, via the CSF back to the lymphatic system and blood to then be filtered and removed by the kidneys and liver. While it is too early to tell the exact CAUSE of Alzheimer’s and the like, sleep is certainly a good target and will only help with the prevention of such disease if just by it’s nature to remove harmful buildup of these disease causing proteins.
Sleep truly is the body’s mechanism for recovery. It allows the body to go into repair, maintain and grow mode. So outside of health, how can good sleep help us?
The Learning Recipe - Two Parts Awake, One Part Sleep
Within our brain lies the mechanism for learning new things. This is done through a multi-stage process. First is Acquisition, that is, acquiring information whether you are reading, listening, seeing and can even be more esoteric, such as through other lesser sensory perceptions. Next is Consolidation. This is where the brain puts together the data and creates a stable memory. The third aspect is Recall. This is the act and ability to remember or recall information for use. The Acquisition and Recall are things your brain does when you are awake. The Consolidation is what happens when we sleep.
Though the mechanism isn’t fully understood at this time, many studies and tests have been done to prove how sleep remains a vital component to learning. Scientists have concluded thus far that Slow-Wave Sleep which occurs in Stage 3 and 4 of Non-REM sleep, when we are in a Delta Wave pattern, is where our neural pathways become strengthened when it comes to memory and consolidation of data. Slow Wave Sleep, in layperson’s terms would be “deep sleep”.
While we may not fully understand exactly each molecule, pathway or mechanism going on, the tests all support one thing: If you want to learn better and faster, get adequate sleep in the right quantity.
This is not only vital for children, who begin their lives being “educated” but also for anyone who holds a job, is an executive and likewise, the person on the streets even has to get SOME sleep in order to continue to survive the dangers of the environment.
Quantity AND quality, are what makes the difference. So the next time you want to “sleep on it” … go ahead. It might make better sense and a solution may come by morning!
The TCM Body Clock
In the Traditional Chinese Medicine philosophy the concept of Yin & Yang play a role in sleep as well. To reorient you to Yin/Yang theory, think of it like this: Yin - female, dark, cold, night. Yang - male, light, hot, day. The organs too are considered either Yin or Yang. And of the 12 main meridians, 6 are considered Yin, the other 6, Yang.
In TCM, sleep disorders are not viewed or treated with a one size fits all approach. That means the lazy western “fast” approach of taking a sleeping pill is simply foolish when you consider that it is essentially masking an underlying problem. Sure it may knock you out, but they often come with some side effects including; dizziness, dry mouth, difficulty with coordination, daytime drowsiness, memory loss, unusual dreams, itching and swelling, lightheadedness. Benzodiazepines are one commonly prescribed class of drugs for insomnia. This is the same class of drugs prescribed to some with anxiety. These drugs are highly addictive when used over time and have been shown to interfere with cognition and memory.
And so we really want to concentrate first on what we can do to naturally get a good night’s sleep, not only for our health, but for the sake of cognition and memory, three extremely important factors especially as we age.
The TCM body clock, pictured below, is an important tool in helping to diagnose potential problems in one’s nightly sleep. For example, Heart-Liver trouble can inhibit one from falling asleep. If the Liver Qi is stagnant, heat will rise and can affect the heart which can have an effect on falling asleep. It sounds esoteric, but remember TCM is thousands of years old. They’ve been observing the human body longer than just about anyone. The take-away here though is that with the knowledge of YOUR sleep pattern you can target certain parts of the body and implement solutions which, if you were correct, would equate to better, deeper and more restorative sleep (and health). This point by the way is why we use good doctors - ascertaining and interpreting this knowledge and how it relates to you AND implementing solutions are their specialty.
Another indicator, RLS or Restless Leg Syndrome can be caused by “internal wind” from Liver Qi stagnation. As a side note, RLS can be caused by a host of imbalances such as an iron deficiency, diabetes, Parkinson’s, peripheral neuropathy, kidney disease along with several classes of medications which have been linked to RLS including certain antiemetics, antipsychotics, antihistamines, and antidepressants.
Another sleep disorder is waking at a particular time “like clockwork” in the middle of the night - without the help of an external clock. According to the TCM body clock waking between 1-3AM can be an indicator of Liver Qi stagnation. Waking between 3-5 can indicate other imbalances that could relate to grief or a sense of loss.
My point here isn’t to get you wondering, it’s preferable you see a qualified and smart doctor instead of wasting time (and sleep) attempting to self-diagnose.
Outside of certain herbal formulas AND acupuncture to address sleep concerns there are some dietary solutions from TCM as well as other solutions all noted below.
Sleep Solutions in Modern Times
We all can’t fall asleep on a mountainside to the distant rustle of bamboo leaves and rhythmic chant of an ocean or nearby creek. Here in the west we are often stuck with passing cars, overhead helicopters (when I lived in Los Angeles, this was a fairly common occurrence), street lights bleeding in through the windows. Sometimes it’s the people upstairs, or the neighbors, or our cell phones we forgot to shut off, or … the list goes on.
We know though that poor sleep not only affects our daily functioning and energy level but three key areas which are important for a more vibrant and successful existence. Those are physical health, mental health and our ability to have cognition, memory and to learn and thus evolve as humans. That is why Sleep is one of the 5 Pyramid Points as laid out in the precursor to this article. It is a foundational “must” if one is looking to maintain, regain or resolve certain health conditions.
And so with that I’ve compiled a little list of things we can do to help us get better sleep (and fall asleep). In Naturopathic (and TCM medicine), one size certainly does not fit all. All medicine and solutions one implements should always be on a per patient basis. That is, individualized medicine. And that is because we are each so very unique in our genetic and mental makeup.
- Yang (hot) foods to avoid; alcohol, coffee, sweet, pungent (ex. chili pepper, garlic, onion), sour and spicy foods.
- If possible, go to sleep between 9pm and 11pm
- Eat your last meal no later than (ideally) 3 hours before going to bed for sleep. Laying down while your body is digesting food can impair quality sleep.
- Try meditation before bed, sometimes we are wired from the day and clearing one’s mind and just “being” can often help calm all things down.
- Get some sort of movement earlier in the day, such as taking a walk or exercise.
- Cut out electronics before bed (1-3 hours), whether it be computers or TV. These have a stimulating effect on the brain.
- Sleep in a cooler environment, ie turn the heat down.
- Take a hot shower or bath before bedtime. This can help relax, but also has an internal effect of preparing one for bed. (Take a cold shower to wake up.)
- Sleep in a comfortable environment. Seems obvious but a bed with adequate firmness (or softness) that is right for you can also affect the quality of sleep.
- Try to mitigate light creep from outside your bedroom, whether it is coming from under your doorway or through a window. Unnatural light disrupts our body’s natural melatonin production.
- Don’t drink excessive fluids after dinner time, these could wake you up in the middle of the night with the urge to go to the bathroom.
- If you tend to worry or your mind races about things you need to do, try journaling before you go to bed, write down your next day's to-do list. And finally if you decide to journal, write down some things you are grateful for.
My Preferred Sleep Aid
Sometimes we need some additional help to fall asleep and stay asleep. My preferred choice is Sleep Synergy.
Not only does it help you fall asleep, via the melatonin and the natural herbs Valerian, Passion Flower, Lemon Balm and Chamomile, but it helps you stay asleep! One of the ways it does this is through neuro-support that helps to calm the brain down. These neuro aids include PharmaGABA, L-Theanine and 5-HTP. Another possible added benefit is that these targeted neuro ingredients can help one awake more calmer and thus it is possible to experience less anxiety over time. This is especially important in today’s modern and often hectic, over stimulating world.
Do you have any tips that help you to fall asleep and awaken relaxed, calm and well rested? I’d love to hear what’s also worked for you!