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The Why's and How's of Great Sleep

Sleep is essential for our physical and mental health. That feeling of being refreshed and ready to tackle the day is not just your subjective psyche’s response to the luxurious 8 – 9 hours that you worked so hard to carve out. The contentment we experience after a solid night’s sleep is supported by the profound physiological mechanism: sleep is when our nervous system cleanses: a critical process for the brain to keep functioning well.

Our body has come up with ingenious mechanism to rid the brain of the debris and metabolic byproduct. As you may know, brain is protected from the bodily circulation by the blood brain barrier (BBB). While BBB ensures brain’s protection from possible toxins and pathogens that enter our body (think, food poisoning or viral infection), it also impedes transport out of the brain. Thankfully, there is glymphatic system, which filters metabolic byproduct out of the brain’s CSF into the central circulation, so it can be excreted by the kidneys.

This brain cleansing happens during the phase of deep sleep. Because sleep is cyclic, we need to have enough hours in the night to drop into that sleep phase a few times in order to get all the deep sleep we need (that’s why 5-6 hours isn’t enough). During the deep phase sleep the brain literally shrinks. This volumetric change allows the glymphatic system to effectively rid the brain of all the byproduct it’s produced during the day of intense cellular activity.

And cellular activity of the brain is impressive: the brain is the most energy-consuming organ in the body. While it comprises about 2% of the total body mass, it consumes over 20% of calories we eat! Such high metabolism warrants a lot of byproduct by the end of the day. A thorough nightly cleanse is a must, therefore, not just to function the next day, but to keep mental acuity for long years to come, preventing premature brain ageing.

The brain of course doesn’t not stop working when we are made to function on a four-hour sleep. We will notice lower performance, foggy thinking, irritability… The danger is when we get used to this state: function like this a few days in a row and you except such state of being as a norm. Extended times of overworking the brain in this manner makes it age prematurely. Science doesn’t tell us how many nights/months/years we have until reaching the threshold – it depends on the individual combination of genes, environment, and experiences. But threshold is troublesome: accumulation of metabolic byproduct in the brain leads to neurodegenerative disorders such as Mild Cognitive Impairment and Alzheimer’s disease.

What to do to improve sleep quality?

Both contemporary Western and ancient Chinese medical traditions agree that quality sleep is the key to our health and wellbeing. I love that we can turn to the Western science when we want to understand the mechanics of how the body works, and reach for the Eastern approach to implement the time-proven sustainable practices to nurture ourselves back to health.

Sleep wise, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is adamant: good quality sleep happens when our Spirit-Mind (they call it Shen) and our Heart are gelling well. Shen – your mind, spirit, intellect – goes into the world to live the life by the day, so that in the evening it can return back into your Heart to rest and recharge. Makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? When our mind and heart are not in the same place, we can’t sleep. (Interestingly, heart chakra in yoga philosophy is the one linking the physical and spiritual realms, what keeps us anchored to this world while simultaneously connecting us to our spirit. Thus, through heart, we balance our physical with our spiritual, thereby manifesting ourselves in the best possible way on this planet. But that’s a point for another discussion.)

This concept may sound too poetic and far-fetched for our Western mindset. Colloquially, we eagerly trust our hearts with everything: we love wholeheartedly, and we bid farewell with heavy heart. We watch an opportunity go away with a sinking heart, and our heart soars when we see our beloved spouse after a month abroad. When it comes to medicine, however, we regard the heart as the muscle pushing blood around the body, not the organ that could potentially harbor our mind. Yet, contemporary research shows that the heart cells react BEFORE the brain cells when we encounter something emotional. While not being conclusive (scientific method takes a while), these data start to support the TCM’s approach to enlist the Heart as the governing organ of the Spirit-Mind, Shen. Personally, when I discover Western science catching up to ancient wisdom, it makes my heart smile, and my mind at peace. WINK

In TCM, the Heart, with residing inside it Shen, is governed by the Fire, the summer Element.

When there is too much Fire, anxiety ensues. That restless burning inside devoid of clear plan to channel and execute towards a desired result. Lack of Fire, on the other hand, leaves us missing meaningful connections, sense of purpose, renders our inability to express what’s near and dear to our hearts. In either case, both our functioning and sleep aren’t optimal.

When we learn to connect with the Fire Element within us, it becomes a powerful force to our vitality, self-expression, and wellness. Fire is the energy that motivates us, enables us to fulfil our life’s purpose, and fosters us to stay true to ourselves. When this element is balanced, we feel the depth in our relationships and thrive in our meaningful connections. Our self-expression is clear and honest, yet compassionate; and we are comfortable in our own skin being both vulnerable and brave. (If you follow Brené Brown, vulnerability is where the strength comes from, and that’s the only place from which we can be truly authentic.)

While engaging in Heart centered practices all year round is beneficial, it is furthermore effective during the summer. Balancing out the Fire Element stabilizes the heart and calms the mind, and healthy sleep as a result of such balance becomes the icing on the cake.

Here are a few practices you could try:

- Socially: seek supporting community where you feel true belonging.

o True belonging will never make you change who you are. If you feel you have to wear a "mask" - meditate why you think you belong to that community. Something's gotta shift! ;)

- Spiritually: throughout the day, close your eyes. Feel the heart. Acknowledge its labor. Feel thankful.

o See if you can hear your heart beat. Take a few minutes and slow down the pace of your breath. See if you can even out inhalation and exhalation. Watch your heart change its pace as you engage in this practice. When you only starting off this practice, take your hands to your heart. It’ll be easier to feel it.

- Physically: spend an extra breath (or minute) in backbends, and heart / chest / shoulder opening postures.

o Ask yourself, is it just physical discomfort or my tension is hinting on some unresolved issues I’m avoiding to process? Are those unprocessed issues impeding my wellbeing? My growth? My happiness? How do I summon enough discipline to start unraveling the knots? Sit, drop into your quiet space and let your heart whisper to your what baby steps will you undertake to get on the right path towards your own fulfilment

o The key is that you don’t need to tackle it all right then and there. Life carries us through experiences for a reason. Have faith and trust the processes – engaging in the process of acknowledging leads to growth, which will lead old patterns won’t be repeated.

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