Can sleep impact Women’s Health? Most definitely!
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) the amount and quality of sleep you get can impact every area of your health, including: your menstrual cycle, fertility, pregnancy, post-natal depression, breast feeding, menopausal symptoms and more. I’d like to take the opportunity to explain how and why sleep can impact your well-being, and to invite you to take my sleep challenge: to commit to 8 hours sleep a night for one week by following my sleep tips.
Once you have done that, you will be able to judge for yourself how sleep affects your health! This is because the foundation of TCM is based on Yin and Yang. Yin representing all things feminine, night time, rest and nourishment. Yang representing all things masculine, day time, activity and expenditure. In good health Yin should move seamlessly into Yang and vice versa; they need to constantly balance each other. In fact, TCM states that when Yin and Yang finally separate, life has come to an end. Therefore we should strive to nourish both aspects of Yin and Yang. If we do not, disease will follow.
The reason sleep, in particular, is so important for women’s health is due to the fact that, as women, we are predominantly Yin, and many of the functions within our body are also predominantly Yin: our menstrual cycle, pregnancy, menopause etc. One important Yin element in our body is blood – which is vital to good health in women. For example, a few of the many symptoms that may arise if a woman is ‘blood deficient’ (in TCM this is referring to the quality of the blood, it does not mean you are anaemic) include:
- a thin endometrial lining which can hinder fertility
- insufficient milk for breast feeding (as breast milk is viewed as blood that has not been stamped red by the heart)
- more frequent hot flushes in menopause
Blood needs to be constantly replenished and one of the most effective ways to do this is by sleeping at night – the Yin time of day. If you are not getting enough sleep it will deplete the quantity and quality of your blood. TCM has always viewed sleep as vital. The Yellow Emperor’s Classic (2600 BC) states: “replenishing health with medicine is not as good as replenishing health with diet, but replenishing health with sleep is the best treatment of all”.
This is not a view only held by TCM, there are many, many quotes about the importance of sleep throughout history, for example Shakespeare refers to sleep in Macbeth: “Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleave of care, the death of each day’s life, sore labor’s bath, balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course, chief nourisher in life’s feast” Or more simply put: “Sleep, which soothes away our worries. Sleep, which puts every day to rest. Sleep, which relieves the weary labourer and heals tired minds. Sleep, the main course in the feast that is life, and the most nourishing.” (This is one of the only quotes from Macbeth that has stayed with me since my school days, which is poor given it was both my O Level and A Level English text!
The other is Lady Macbeth saying, “Out, damned spot! Out I say!” – but I only remember that one because we had a Dalmatian at the time and we thought it was hilarious!) The importance of sleep is something we have intuitively known since the dawn of time and yet, since the advent of technology, it is something we appear to have forgotten.
Initially, it was the invention of electricity that meant we no longer had to live according to the rhythms set by nature. As the winter nights drew in, we did not have to go to bed at sundown and sleep until sun rise, we simply turned on the lights and carried on. The advancement of technology has created more and more reasons and opportunities to stay up late. We work later, we go out later, we eat later… so we go to bed later. Somewhere along the line the belief that sleep is not vital has crept in. In some cases, a need for sleep has been seen as a weakness. I first noticed this in London the 80’s when many of my friends started ‘pulling all-nighters’ at work. It was pretty much unheard of before then – the traditional 9am-5pm being the norm. The new norm became: if you want to be successful you have to push yourself to the limit. At the time, several famous people came forward to say they ‘only needed 4 hours sleep a night’. At the time I was so envious of those people! I wished I could get by on 4 hours sleep – I would have been able to achieve so much! I have to confess, I did try and survive with less sleep and, whilst working for a management consultancy, often worked into the night whilst running coaching skills programmes. However, sleep deprivation did not suit me at all and I had to revert to my much needed 8 hours a night! Which, now I have a better scientific understanding of sleep and its implications to good health, I am delighted was the case.
Matthew Walker’s excellent book ‘Why We Sleep’ brings together the current science available on the benefits of good sleep and also highlights the dangers of not enough sleep. And believe me, the dangers are numerous and very real. It is abundantly clear that, as further research is undertaken, more evidence will be uncovered allowing us to understand in even more detail the importance of sleep. But do we really need scientific proof to make us take sleep seriously? We only have to look to nature to see how vital it is. All living things sleep, diurnal animals sleep at night and nocturnal animals during the day. As the sleep scientist Allan Rechtscafeen said, “If sleep doesn’t serve some vital function, it is the biggest mistake evolution ever made”. At heart, we all know this. However, because our body is amazing and will do what we ask of it, it digs deep into our reserves, enabling us to struggle through the days on insufficient sleep. Surviving in a sub-optimal state becomes the norm, and on the face of it we are coping, but behind the scenes this lack of sleep is damaging our health.”
A lack of sleep is a little like having unexpected guests arrive at your house, you rush round throwing stray items into the cupboards so on the face of it your house looks tidy – but if your guests looked more closely they would find the mess! This is what our body does, it works with the resources it has, but may have to make cutbacks in certain areas where necessary – which in turn can lead to poor health. Our reluctance to allow ourselves to get enough sleep is often due to the fact we are so busy. We seize those midnight hours to do the chores we have failed to do during the day. Or we choose to stay up to watch that film because it is the only time we truly have to ourselves. Or we catch up on our social media – after all it is so important to know what everyone else is up to… The truth of the matter is, whatever the justification we give ourselves, if we don’t have 8 hours sleep every night, we will be less effective the next day and open ourselves up to possible disease.
Therefore, as an experiment could I urge you to take on my sleep challenge?! I would love you to commit to ensuring you have 8 hours sleep a night – just for one week. Then you can judge for yourself if you feel better for it! To help you get 8 hours sleep a night try incorporating the following:
- Create a bedtime routine that you follow every night – allowing yourself time to wind down and go to bed feeling under control. If you know you would like to have lights out at 10.30pm, start getting ready for bed at 9.45pm. It is unfair to expect your body to switch from activity to rest in 5 minutes.
- Go to bed and get up at the same time every night where possible. Even an hour’s difference can put your body under strain. This may seem a bit of an exaggeration, however, research shows that every Spring, on the Monday after the clocks go forward and you lose an hour’s sleep, there is a 24% increase in the number of heart attacks suffered. Now I’m not suggesting this is likely to happen to you, but it gives you an idea of how sensitive your body is!
- Do not go on your phone or computer after 8pm – this is due to the fact that the screens emit ‘blue’ light, which is identical to morning sunlight, and therefore makes your brain think it is the beginning of the day rather than the end of the day. If that really is too difficult, invest in a pair of yellow lensed glasses to filter out blue light. I have invested in a pair of these myself and I cannot tell you how brilliant they are!! I have taken to wearing them around the house after 8pm, regardless of whether I am looking at a screen or not – much to the amusement of my family. However, I don’t care, as it works a treat and I have slept like a log since doing so!
- Along the same lines, make sure your bedroom is completely dark. It is worth investing in blackout lining for your curtains because your body is incredibly sensitive to light. Also make sure there are no little standby lights left on in your bedroom – e.g. on a TV – although it is best not to have one of these in your bedroom at all! Invest in an alarm clock instead of using your phone and make sure it is one that does not have an illuminated face
- Have a warm bath before bed – according to Dr Walker they can induce 10-15% more deep sleep in healthy adults
- Do not drink or eat anything containing caffeine after 2pm. Caffeine remains active in your body for up to 6-10 hours after ingesting, so even that afternoon cup of coffee or dark chocolate snack can hinder a good night’s sleep
- Write a gratitude journal every night. This is a lovely thing to do anyway as it closes your day in a positive way, but studies also show that by doing this participants enjoyed deeper and more refreshing sleep
- Listen to a guided meditation when you are about to go to sleep. Headspace have a fabulous collection of sleep casts. Listening to a podcast/relaxing music distracts your brain from going through your To Do List for tomorrow!
- And finally, whilst listening to your guided meditation put a couple of drops of Lavender oil into a diffuser. Heavenly! Nothing will stop you from drifting off now!
- I would love you to take up the challenge for one week and let me know how you get on! Sleep well!