John Aguilar, Jr., L.Ac., R.Y.T., M.S.TCM

Licensed AcupuncturistChinese Medical HerbalistYoga and Tai Chi Instructor


Sleep

Everybody's doin' it, and we always have. Sleep is so basic to living it happens whether we want it or plan it. It's kind of like breathing; hold your breath for long enough and you'll pass out and start breathing. Stay up long enough and you'll lose consciousness and sleep. This should indicate to us how important sleep is.
       
To continue with the breathing parallel, just because we breathe instinctively and will continue to do so with or without conscious effort, this doesn't necessarily mean we're breathing as well as we could be. Our basic animal instincts will keep us alive, but they reach that level of effectiveness and stop. The same goes for sleeping. Clearly, if we continually stayed up as long as possible, waiting for, depending on that physiological mechanism to kick in and knock us out, we would be very unhealthy and pretty unhappy.
       
Now, in reality, we have deeper instincts that ensure not just basic mechanical life, but that drive us to optimum health. These, however, are easily and almost always overriden by the mind and its thoughts about what we 'should' and shouldn't do. (The ultimate goal of healing is reducing the commanding influence of the mind and reconnecting to the fundamental drive for health, but I digress.)

These 'Foundations of Health', as I refer to them, are the rules that our basic drive for health follows, but that have been lost in life. We are actually simply remembering these. With sleep, one of the most basic 'rules' is that it is best when it occurs at night. This makes sense in a simple, direct way. Night is, by its very nature, down time. It is when activity is greatly reduced. Following the lead of the sun, the ultimate source of energy and activity, nighttime is the time of the daily cycle where things stop, rest, recuperate, and regenerate.

Sleep during the day simply isn't good sleep. Those who have worked night shifts know this. No matter how completely you cover your windows, or how desparately you want the phone to not ring, the world to not intrude on your personal downtime, the fact is day time is the time of activity. You can try to recuperate, but nature, and the nature of daytime, works against your efforts. Health does not exist in such conflict. (This idea returns over and over...)

Generally speaking, when the sun goes down, so should we. Even if we don't go to bed, our day should start winding down, with bed soon to follow. Conversely, as the sun rises, so should we. Time and time again, patients speak of waking with sunrise as their health improves (and they're not always happy about it!) Sleep after sunrise can't be considered sleep; truly, it's 'resting' more than it is sleep. There is some recuperative aspects to resting, but nowhere near the richness or quality that is found in actual sleep.

Many would claim that they 'naturally' stay up late and sleep in. This works for them. On the surface, this makes some sense. After all, everyone's different. Some people like this, while others like that, and so on. However, there are some things that don't vary with personality. For instance, no human simply doesn't need to drink water. It's fundamental to life. There may be those who don't like water, but none who don't need it.

The same goes for sleep (as well as diet, exercise, etc.). There may be those who have present tendencies to stay up late, but these are a result of some imbalance. There is something going on that overrides their innate desire for sleep at night. This is common. We all have issues of some sort overrriding our basic instincts for health. If we didn't we'd all be enlightened beings.

The important point is that although, on the surface, such things feel natural, they are counter to innate healthy tendencies. There are two issues there. One, whatever is going on to override inborn healthy instincts is going unrecognized, and, therefore, untreated. This is a problem in itself, and it may lead to other problems, as the unrecognized imbalance may be (most likely is) causing other issues.

Secondly, there is the damage being done by the act, itself. In this case, staying up late on a regular basis corrodes health. It takes years off one's life and greatly increases the liklihood of illness. This is why sleep has made the list of 'Foundations of Health'; if you don't get good sleep regularly, you suffer in a very real way.

The tendency to stay up late, along with other regularly occurring deviations from these foundations of health, are, in and of themselves, important reasons to seek Chinese medical assistance. These foundations are the root of health. Ensuring their proper place in life is paramount to prevention of illness and disease.       
       
A last note I'll mention regarding sleep is the use of sleep aids. I have heard many times that someone needed something to just get them to sleep. The implication being that all sleep, drug induced or not, is equivalent. This is not the case. Again, experience speaks to this. Knocking yourself out with NyQuil does not lead to restful sleep. Even over-the-counter herbal supplements are not likely to lead to right sleep. And, importantly, if their continued use is desired, there is something going on that needs to be addressed! If you are not sleeping, if you regularly need assistance getting or staying to sleep, professional assistance is needed (and this assistance should be geared towards getting you to sleep on your own, without medication; otherwise it isn't healing).

That being said, the occasional use of mild over-the-counter assistance is fine. Clearly, if there is some obvious reason why this one night you just can't get to sleep, such as a stressful event the next day, a little help may be called for. Ideally, of course, you could turn to your skill with meditation, or perhaps your strong qi gong practice, to ease your mind and put you to sleep. 

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