Mother and cub curled up, from bear.com

Mother and cub curled up, from bear.com

It is all well and good to recommend getting more sleep but what about those of us with insomnia? Until recently I have woken at 4 am every morning. Needless to say I ran out of steam at around 2 pm every afternoon. I credit mountain living with eventually helping me to sleep until 7 am. A major benefit of country life is the lack of light at night. This is not just a boon for stargazers but for insomniacs too.

Chinese medicine uses nature as its template for health. The twenty-four hour day has a specific circuit that begins when our eyes open in the morning. Western science has a name for the body’s twenty-four hour clock: the circadian rhythm. Similar to Eastern ideas, the eyes relay the time of day to a clock in the brain. The biological clock coordinates sleep, wakefulness, body temperature, thirst and appetite. Without artificial light, the sun leaves our eyes at nightfall and our eyelids close for sleep. On Pine Mountain I call it permanent camping, once the sun goes down I crawl into my ‘tent’ AKA my bedroom. After twelve hours of wakefulness it is time for your body to wind down and prepare for sleep. It is this dedication to rest and the natural darkness of my surroundings that restored my sleep cycle. Those of you having trouble falling asleep should keep light sources in the house down to a minimum at night. Avoid backlit technology such as computers and televisions after sunset. Save that kind of work or entertainment for the daytime. Record Jimmy Fallon! Reading a book with a single light in the ambiance of a naturally dark home is a better choice. Black-out blinds or curtains keep the light pollution out of our bedrooms. I am sensitive to the power lights on electronics and cover them too. To be perfectly honest, my husband has been having a hard time finding that darned pea under his princess’s mattress. He also has difficulty finding his way to the bathroom because it is so dark (speaking of pee).

Sleepy eyes, from bear.com

Sleepy eyes, from bear.com

Go to sleep when you feel tired. A fatigued person who forces their energy to rise for too long past a certain point cannot sleep. The energy that should be sinking into the organs loses its way in the bustle of mental activity. Do not hold your eyelids open despite their overwhelming desire to close. If this happens during the day, and you have the luxury, take a 20 to 30 minute nap. Any more and the twenty-four hour cycle gets reset and some organs lose their turn for refreshment. Have you had the experience of waking from a long nap and feeling even more tired? This is the circuit restarting itself as if it was morning again.

Fast asleep with a blanket of snow, from bear.com

Fast asleep with a blanket of snow, from bear.com

According to the sages, some bedtimes are better than others! When our eyes shut for sleep at night, energy starts to circulate into the deep parts of the body for repairs and maintenance. My martial arts teacher, Shīfù Kenny Gong, used to say, “No fix bicycle while riding it!” Each organ receives a dispensation of energy for two hours before the cycle moves on to the next one. The best time to turn in is between 9 and 10 pm. At that time the liver starts to receive its share of attention. The liver is so active that it produces most of our heat. Going to sleep between these hours is your assurance that the hardest working organ in your body gets its well-deserved rest. And I bet you thought it was your brain! Sweet dreams!

The liver in a Chinese woodcut from the Ming (1368-1644 CE), from wellcomeimages.org

The liver in a Chinese woodcut from the Ming (1368-1644 CE), from wellcomeimages.org

The next installment will have advice for those of you who wake up at night and have trouble falling asleep.