To sleep or not to sleep?

That is not really a question. In the hierarchy of health it’s air, water, sleep, food, and fun (social connections).

It is hard for me to believe but scientists have not figured out the why’s and how’s of sleep yet. As you shall see lower down, there are several competing theory’s on why we sleep and how that process happens.

The reason is not one sleep theory works in all situations. There are a few people that always mess it up for the scientists. But with sleep there are more than a few of them.

My Grandfather was one of them. He lived to 93, considering he was the first person on dialysis that lived in Canada, 3 cancers, crushed by a tractor, dragged by a horse and homesteaded, he did okay.

He slept 3-4 hours at night and generally had a 1 hour nap in the day. He was a farmer and did he work. When he retired he opened countless Co-op’s, wrote a letter a day to a politician and did a huge amount of community stuff.

There is a disease where one of the symptoms is months with NO sleep (Morvan’s syndrome).

Then there was a 17 year old that stayed awake for 11 days to set the record.

A lot of research has been done with soldiers. I cannot find the video I watched but it was of military training where they trained for 7 days with about 8 hours sleep. The first break was after 4 days and it was 4 hours sleep. The commander was telling the reporter, “watch this, in 30 minutes all these guys will be asleep.”

The reporter and I watching thought that was impossible as all of the soldiers seemed to be going full tilt, with no end in sight. But within 15 minutes, they just fell down asleep. It was quite a sight.

Most normal research says you can go under 4 days with no sleep, but after you go 20 hours most people will experience a significant decrease in productivity.

Health Canada estimates 13% of the population has bouts of insomnia, many more will have milder sleep issues. While there are several theories why and how we sleep. All agree, when you are low on sleep your health is negatively affected.

How do you fall asleep easier? Every parent knows the answer and just does not realize it works on adults also. A sleep routine.

Do you remember when your kid was a baby, you had a sleep routine you followed. If bed time was 8 pm, you started getting junior ready for bed at 6-6:30. There was this list of things to do and at the end of that list was baby asleep.

What happened when you did not do that whole list, or when you started it at the wrong time? It was a sleepless night for many of you (I had a couple of those nights, until I realize just how important routine was.)

That does not change when you are an adult. You will be light years ahead if you have a 45-60 minute routine.

Key points are:

  1. Establish a bed time routine. Go to bed and wake up the same time daily and have a 30-60 routine you follow before your head hits the pillow.
  2. Once you enter the bedtime routine time zone, avoid all stimulants.
  3. Never put a TV, computer, cell phone, electronics in your bedroom! (hey have insomnia see if I care)
  4. The room needs to be DARK, and a bit cooler and a enjoyable space.
  5. Have good quality bedding. I just read a guy paid $150K for a horse hair bed, yeah not that quality.
  6. There is a saying the bedroom is for the two “S’s” you figure them out.
  7. Program your mind to understand when you hit the pillow, it’s sleep time. Not – “hey, lets relive our lives.” Or – “honey, can we have a short talk.” Do that before bed time.

Every now and then you will have a sleepless night. Why? Who knows but they will happen. What to do? I just lay there and don’t worry about it. Other sleep people suggest if you are up for 20 minutes get up and go to a different room until you are tired. I think that is generally a bad idea, as what people normally do is watch tv, or other stimulants which is not going to help.

There is a lot of talk about blue light coming from electronics. It certainly messes with most people so avoid it as much as possible. I actually have dull yellow light bulbs in the bedroom as it is supposed to help.

Medications from Melatonin, Valerian to prescription drugs. This is where we can talk about the theories of ‘why’ we actually sleep. If you have insomnia or think you have a sleep problem, talk to your doctor.

All substances have side effects. The general side effect for sleeping pills is to fall asleep. But there can be other affects that are not wanted and you should avail your self of the dangers of sleeping medications. This includes herbal remedies as well.

In Chinese Medicine as I understand sleep it’s about the Chi and Blood flow, which corresponds to the one Western theory on sleep that I agree with the most. Your brain uses similar amounts of blood an energy when your awake and when your asleep but they are used in different places.

Brain plasticity theory. The brain needs time to clean up and organize what it has experienced. You know the joke, “teacher I need to go, my brain is full.” Well it may not be a joke. This is likely the most useful thing sleep does for us, Neural cleaning.

Energy Conservation theory. When we are asleep we don’t use as much energy and it is harder to find food and warmth at night. Remember a few hundred years ago, we did not have cell phones and in house heat…

Years ago the Dali Lama and The University of Wisconsin–Madison did research showing a person good at meditation got better energy conservation than someone asleep. This is an example of why they are called “sleep theories” not sleep facts.

Emotional Regulation theory. A well rested and fed person is a much nice person. Ow don’t believe me? Hang out with a toddler who missed a nap. Sleep allows the body to make a bunch of hormones that help our glands regulate our emotions better.

If every parent would just get their kids 9-12 hours of sleep and more water and vegetables. The world would be a radically better place. But that’s another post.

The restorative theory states that sleep allows for the body to repair and re-build after a day at the office. I think we have all heard, we primarily heal when we are asleep. Most of you heard we only heal when we sleep, but that’s not true. It depends.

Weight maintenance theory. (this is simplified for my benefit) The hormone Ghrelin, makes you hungry. The hormone Leptin, makes you have satiety (feel full). With bad sleep these two can go nuts and weight gain is a possible result.

Insulin function. Sleep seems to stop fat cells from becoming insulin resistant, which has far reaching implications for diabetes 2.

There are others, you get the point. Sleep is seriously important. One sleep book I read said an interesting point. There is no function in a person to make them fall asleep. There are functions in us to make us want to breath, eat, urinate, avoid pain, etc. but not for sleep.

You need a process that signals to your mind/body that it is sleep time. Now injury, stress, illness etc can all mess that process up or make it not work as well. That is where Traditional Chinese Medicine and/or your family doctor can help.

If you have been having bad sleep for a month, it’s time to reach out for help.

I think before the light bulb was invented it was a lot easier to fall asleep. The sun goes down, you eventually get sick of the candle or coal oil lamp and it’s bed time. The sun comes up, you get up. The sun goes down, so do you. It worked great and then the light bulb. Ow well too late to go back now.

How much sleep:

chart courtesy of:

  • Newborns (0-3 months): Sleep range narrowed to 14-17 hours each day (previously it was 12-18)
  • Infants (4-11 months): Sleep range widened two hours to 12-15 hours (previously it was 14-15)
  • Toddlers (1-2 years): Sleep range widened by one hour to 11-14 hours (previously it was 12-14)
  • Preschoolers (3-5): Sleep range widened by one hour to 10-13 hours (previously it was 11-13)
  • School age children (6-13): Sleep range widened by one hour to 9-11 hours (previously it was 10-11)
  • Teenagers (14-17): Sleep range widened by one hour to 8-10 hours (previously it was 8.5-9.5)
  • Younger adults (18-25): Sleep range is 7-9 hours (new age category)
  • Adults (26-64): Sleep range did not change and remains 7-9 hours
  • Older adults (65+): Sleep range is 7-8 hours (new age category) 

Unless you are my Grandpa, then it’s 7-9 hours a day. I have had dozens of patients that sleep very little and they do just fine. BUT!!! most of us should look long and hard at this chart and follow it for a while and see what happens.

If you have an auto-immune illness, I really, really, really suggest you take a look at doing a sleep, food, water journal and make sure you can tick the boxes off that you are getting enough of each.

There are so many things that can be done to help poor sleep and insomnia, reach out to your health providers and hang in there, it can take a while to get the body back sleeping like a baby.

I won’t spend a lot of time explaining the Chinese reasons for insomnia as the language around them is quite confusing to most not acupuncture people.

Be Well,
Ward Willison
Kelowna Acupuncture & Other Natural Therapies

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