Why your sleeping habits matter By Jeannie Kim
Our sleep quality can have a significant impact on our lifestyle and physical and cognitive performance. I have found roughly a third of my patient’s conditions are exacerbated by poor sleep quality. Here we will explore some of the most common problems affecting our sleep quality, our circadian rhythm, and what you can do to improve your sleep quality.
What is good quality sleep?
According to Chinese Medicine, good quality sleep involves sleeping restfully from approximately 10pm to 6am, without dreams, and waking up feeling refreshed. Sleep has two main functions in Chinese Medicine:
- To help us maintain our Yin-Yang balance
- To promote the flow of Qi (energy).
If our sleep is disturbed or shortened for even a short period, our balance and flow become disrupted and can lead to a variety of health issues including poor cognitive function, fatigue, menstrual irregularities and reduced pain tolerance
What does the research show about poor sleep quality and health risks?
Sleep is a commonly researched topic due to wide variety of implications it can have on our health and wellbeing. A systematic review on sleep and morbidity showed that optimal sleep is 7-8 hours and too much or not enough sleep can have the same impact on multiple health factors. These included:
- Cardiovascular disease
- Type 2 diabetes
- Respiratory disorders
- Obesity in both children and adults
- Poor self-rated health
Broken sleep also has health consequences, which are associated with a lack of REM sleep. These issues can include lowered learning rate, poor memory and concentration and weight gain.
What are the common causes of poor sleep?
From my experience, I’ve found most sleep-related issues are a result of lifestyle impacted problems, including:
- Emotional distress – about 90 per cent of sleeping issues in patients are a result of high-stress levels, which can stem from personal frustrations or relationship problems at home or work.
- Excess caffeine intake – some people can be more sensitive to caffeine than others, so even one cup of coffee could be impacting your sleep quality. Also, be aware you could be consuming extra hidden caffeine, which can be present in green tea, black tea, energy drinks, dark chocolate and some sports supplements.
- Exercise – too much or too little can impact sleep quality.
- Eating a big meal at night – just like how we need our downtime at night, so does our digestive system. Eating large meals at night can overwork your digestive system and contribute to poor quality sleep.
- Drinking too much water towards bedtime – the ideal cut off time for water is roughly 2 hours before going to bed. If your bladder is too full, you might find you will wake up in the middle of the night and disrupt your sleep.
- Prolonged exposure to screens and monitors – Display screens, such as laptops, tablets and televisions emit a blue light, which interferes with our melatonin production and therefore our ability to get a good night’s sleep.
If you identify with one or more of the above factors, try changing them and see if these adjustments help you to sleep better. Remember, a good sleep is not just about getting a solid 8 hours of sleep – going to bed consistently before 10:30pm will help to make a drastic improvement to your sleep quality and help you wake refreshed in the mornings.
What happens when I use my mobile phone at night?
Our body clock is dictated by the circadian rhythm, which is responsible for regulating our tiredness and alertness.
Our circadian rhythm is located in the Suprachiasmatic Nucleus (SCN), which is in the hypothalamus and sits right on top of the optic nerve.
During a bright sunny day, the ganglion cells in our retina detect high levels of daylight, especially blue light, and send this information to the SCN via the optic nerve. At night, our eyes detect the lack of sunlight, sending this information to the SCN, which then triggers the pineal gland to produce melatonin, causing us to feel drowsy and tired.
Sunlight is the primary source of blue light, so it makes sense that when we overuse technology after sunset, our retinal cells and SCN mistakenly think that it is still daytime and can delay melatonin secretion. This causes us to feel more energetic at night, which then delays our bedtime and shortens our sleep duration. So, make sure you turn off all devices that emit blue light to help your body fall asleep naturally.
When is the best time to sleep?
For optimal sleep quality, the best time to fall asleep is before 10:30pm. The main reason behind this is due to our “flight or fight” response, where adrenaline levels start to surge, giving us our second wind of energy.
This burst of extra energy dates back to the cavemen era when our ancestors would have to stay awake late at night for survival purposes against other predators. For many years now, technology (including heaters or air conditioning, building materials and security systems) has evolved rapidly to help humans survive Mother Nature.
Unfortunately, our brains have not kept up and still function similarly to the cavemen era, where our mind still thinks there is an imminent threat to our body. If we deliberately stay awake past a particular time, our brain automatically assumes that we are in danger, so to protect us, our adrenaline levels increase to help us to be more alert and aware of our surroundings.
While you may be able to fall asleep past 10:30pm, your sleep can become restless due to the increase in adrenaline. So, make sure you try to hit the hay before 10:30pm every night to help your body and mind get a better night’s sleep.
Why is it essential to have a regular sleep routine?
Our body craves regularity, especially with eating, sleeping, and even with bowel motions.
If we interfere with our sleep routine (even for one day), the consequences can be felt the next day in the form of sluggishness, poor concentration and irritability. If we continue to push the boundaries in regularity, we start to inflict more damage to our body. Possible consequences of an irregular sleeping routine include lethargy, weight gain, reduced motivation, anxiety and frequent headaches.
So, one of the major keys to maintaining good health and wellbeing requires having a consistent sleep routine.
What healthy habits can I make to help with my sleep?
Remember, a good night’s sleep should be about consistency and regular habits. If you find that your sleep quality and duration is not up to scratch, try making the following actions part of your evening routine:
- Practice meditation for 10 minutes before bed
- Limit your caffeine intake
- Aim to go to bed before 10:30pm every night
- Limit your exposure to blue light at night (or use a blue light filter)
- Stick to a regular sleep routine
- Eat a lighter meal at dinner, not heavy in animal protein and fats
- Cappuccio FP, D’Elia L, Strazzullo P, Miller MA. Sleep Duration and All-Cause Mortality: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Prospective Studies. Sleep. 2010; 33:585-592
- Patel SR, Hu FB. Short Sleep Duration and Weight Gain: A Systematic Review. Obesity. 2012; 16:643-653
- Cao H, Pan X, Li H, Liu J. Acupuncture for Treatment of Insomnia: A Systematic Review of Randomized Controlled Trials. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 2009; 11:1171-1186
About the author
Acupuncturist and Chinese Herbal Medicine Practitioner
Jeannie has been practicing acupuncture and herbal medicine since 2009 and helps patients with a variety of health issues including fertility, stress and chronic pain. Her passion is in educating patients about their health and empowering them with lifestyle advice to improve their wellbeing.