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Winter, The Time of Hibernation: 10 Tips For Establishing Healthy Sleep

Growing up in Southern California, I never really understood what winter was. However, after my 2 year stint in Boulder, CO for herb school over a decade ago, I still remember coming home to visit my folks one winter to find it shocking to realize that oranges grow here in January. I couldn’t believe that my 5 layers of clothing with a wool trench coat on top wouldn’t be needed for the whole week I was home.

Even now, I still feel a bit perplexed by the culture shock of it all, to see what the rest of the world deals with while it’s a perfect 65-80 degrees on most winter days here. I remember peculiarity of it all, to come home to find the lack of chill time us SoCal folks get in the winter as people never feel cold enough to cuddle inside by the fire, or cozy up to read a good book. It is like winter just skips over us here, and we continue about our business working 2-3 jobs all winter long just to get by.

What we lack here, is the hibernation time that typically comes with the cold season. The time that you don’t go out to see friends as much, or decide to “stay in” because you don’t feel like braving the storm. The time that you sleep in more, cook more, eat more, and just do less. Where laziness is not just accepted, but celebrated, as it is the proper thing to do when its literally freezing and below.

Here, this hibernation is crucial for storing up your vital energy, or, as they call it in Traditional Chinese Medicine, your Kidney Qi (or sometimes spelled "chi"). In TCM, the kidney’s are the organ associated with Winter time and the Water Element, the element associated with reflection, perception, and inward energy. TCM considers the Kidneys to be the storehouse of our essential energy or life force. Although not exactly congruent with our western anatomical model of the kidneys, it does share the same function as our adrenal glands, which control our stress hormones & the fight or flight response.

In modern times, most of us suffer from an excess of stress hormones, causing adrenal fatigue, or what TCM calls Kidney Deficiency. Here, too little sleep, rest, time off, or relaxation (like what should be happening as we hibernate through winter) can over stress the Kidneys and create a long term Kidney Deficiency, or adrenal fatigue or burn out. When the body has been over stressed for too long, it runs out of its vital life force, or stored Kidney Qi, and the result is exhaustion or burnout.

Symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue or Kidney Qi Deficiency:

Many of us have felt these symptoms multiple times in our lives, if not, felt them for years. Symptoms of Kidney Qi Deficiency include:

  • Chronic fatigue or exhaustion

  • Insomnia, or difficulty sleeping

  • Impaired cognitive abilities

  • Feeling like a zombie, or as though in a fog

  • Poor memory recall

  • Raised blood sugar

  • Weight gain (or sometimes weight loss)

  • Imbalanced adrenal, thyroid, or sex hormones

  • Increased anxiety and worry

  • Exaggerated fight or flight response

  • More frequent colds & flu’s

  • Just feeling run down, or not able to handle simple or mundane tasks

The key to restoring our Kidney Qi, or recovering from adrenal fatigue comes from giving ourselves the sufficient rest and recovery needed from daily life. This needs to be cyclical, like yearly vacations, holiday time, or giving ourselves the sufficient time to hibernate through winter. It also has to be WAY more frequent than we typically ever give ourselves (like what we need daily) to fully recover.

Establishing Healthy Sleep- The Key to Restoring Kidney Qi

To truly recover, rest, in the form of simple but regular healthy sleep will do the trick. On average, humans need about 8 1/2 hours of sleep a night. However we need 9-10 hours if under stress or engaging in intense physical or mental activity.

So, let’s just be real for a minute. Who hasn’t been stressed LATELY?

Sleep is imperative for replenishing depleted energy reserves (Kidney Qi) and allows the body to maintain normal functioning of body and mind. Without it, we can lose faith in ourselves, humanity, and life itself! Sleep disturbances are the cornerstone of many chronic mental health issues and promotes chronic disease states.

When we regularly burn the candle at both ends, or shave an hour or two off our sleep off each night, we don’t ever really get that stored energy back, but in fact just end up with a WAY shorter candle.

So, let’s help our body start the healing & regeneration process it needs by sleeping MORE and MORE over time, instead of less.

The Key Factors In Restoring Sleep

Although some of us have tried numerous methods for years without luck, the reason some of us stay in long periods of disturbed sleep, or insomnia, are simple. Our body relies on just a few things to get up back into the normal circadian rhythm. These include:

1. Exposure to bright light during the day

  • This suppresses melatonin production, so that you stay away during the day

  • Like taking a noon walk, even for 15 minutes will do

2. Exposure to COMPLETE darkness at night

  • Only COMPLETE darkness will shift the brain to start producing melatonin

  • This means turning off screens, bright lights, alarm clocks, blackout curtains

  • Living by candle light or dim lights at night, create a romantic mood for yourself to go to sleep

  • Put cell phones on night mode, and possibly have a 1-hour restriction before bedtime

3. Cool body temperature in the evening

  • Taking only cool temperature baths or shower’s before bed

  • Changing exercise routines to be earlier in the day, so the body is cooled down in the evening.

  • Think about it, buses and airplanes are always FREEZING cold, in hopes it will trick the passenger’s bodies to go to sleep

4. Promoting a state of rest & relaxation

  • Wind down routines or nightly rituals to show your nervous system that you mean business with your sleep

  • This can include meditation, herbs, calming music

  • The real trick is just to avoid stimulating things in the evening, including controversial conversations (like politics, yep, hard to avoid, I know), as well as stimulating tv shows and books, especially those of action/drama/or horror themes (I know, those are the best ones…but also the ones that keep you binge watching on Netflix until 2 in the morning).

So if you are ready for a BIG shift in your night life (and your day time energy levels), try out some of these practices and see what it feels like to wake up refreshed!

For those with chronic insomnia, that is a sign of long term Kidney deficiency. This can take time to correct, but be patient and just take it one practice at a time. Many times it takes the perfect combo of practices to do the trick. Keep adding one thing at a time and eventually you will figure out that work best for you!

10 Practices That Help Establish Healthy Sleep:

1.Pick a bedtime and stick to it.

  • Much like getting a child ready for bed, our body still needs the routine and comfort (our nervous system is hard wired for routines) to get back into the rhythm of things.

2.Romance yourself to sleep, or create a wind down routine

  • Put on relaxing music, light candles or dim the light, take a warm (not hot) bath. Think of it as setting the mood or romancing yourself into a good sleep.

  • For those new to self-care routines & rituals, you can read more about them here.

3.Make the room dark & quiet.

  • Remove any electronics (or at least turn everything off), bright lights, alarm clocks (with the glaring red numbers) at least for ½ an hour before bedtime.

  • TV & screens should be set to have the blue light turned off after 6pm, however, try your best to not have a screen in front of your eyes for at least 30 minutes to 1 hour before bedtime.

  • If there is any type of noise (besides a white noise), or light that you can’t block out, consider wearing ear plugs and a face mask at bedtime or put on relaxing music that turns off by itself after an hour.

4.Use relaxing essential oils

  • Rub on essential oils, use an essential oil diffuser, or try sleeping on dream pillow filled with relaxing herbs.

  • Good relaxing herbs & essential oils specific for reducing insomnia include: Bergamot, Chamomile, Cypress, Lavender, Lemon Balm, Lemon Verbena, Orange, Mugwort, and Ylang Ylang

5.Exercise outside for 30 minutes each day,

  • This can even be a gentle walk.

  • Specifically exposure to bright light in the mid-day or afternoon while the sun is at its peak in the sky helps to promote more melatonin at night.

6.Avoid caffeine or stimulants after 2pm.

  • Try to limit caffeine to 1-2 drink just in the morning.

  • Even small amounts of caffeine, including in chocolate, green tea, and energy drinks can keep some people awake for HOURS.

7.Avoid highly refined carbohydrates, sugars & alcohol at night.

  • These interfere with the liver’s metabolism, blood sugar, and can create disturbances in the sleep cycle.

  • Especially for those that wake up between 2-4am most nights should look at blood sugar

8.Meditate or pray for 5-15 minutes before bedtime.

  • Focus on gratitude for things that one has in life.

  • Try not to focus on the negativity of the day.

  • Breathing Meditation Exercise: Breathe out the frustration, anger, and worry. Breathe in acceptance and peace.

9.Have a small protein snack 30 minutes before bedtime.

  • If you are staying up past 10pm regularly, or you fall asleep ok but awaken to not be able to fall asleep again later in the middle of the night, consider that blood sugar issues might be the problem. Then you can do a little test to see if blood sugar contributes to the sleep disturbances or not.

  • This should be a HEALTHY snack with protein (nuts, jerky, lunch meat, peanut butter, etc), to help stabilize the blood sugar during sleep.

10.Drink relaxing herbal teas at least 1 hour before bedtime:

  • Hypnotics herbs are specific herbs that induce sleep or deep relaxation. Some great Hypnotic herbs include: Hops, Valerian, Passionflower, Skullcap, Catnip, and California Poppy. Add Chamomile, Mint, Mugwort, or Fennel if you feel digestion issues might keep you up at night at well.

  • You might have to drink several cups of tea throughout the evening to ease your body into a state of relaxation or sleep. Try ½-1 cup after dinner, another 1 hour before bedtime, and one more when you go to bed.

  • If peeing at night is a problem, consider using tinctures instead of herbal teas

If you want to learn how to really commit to restoring your body and Kidney Qi, this is a main topic in our Herbal Apprentice Program. We focus on teaching self-care & establishing self-care routines in every class. We will help set you on your path to become the amazing healer and herbalist you were meant to be by focusing on healing yourself FIRST!


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