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March 1, 2011

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Say good night to sleep issues

MANY people suffer sleeping problems. Traditional Chinese medicine offers some sound advice on how to make the most of shut-eye time, reports Zhang Qian.

Almost one-third of our lives are spent asleep, so it stands to reason that good sleep is important to overall health just like a good diet and exercise.

Traditional Chinese medicine recognizes the importance of a good sleeping position while catching those Zs.

While it is widely known that keeping the back straight while standing, walking and sitting is important to keeping the spinal column in the right shape and position, a proper sleeping position is just as important, says Dr Jiang Zaifeng of the Acupuncture and Massage Department of Liangcheng Community Hospital.

Good blood circulation is the foundation for health in TCM. Healthy sleeping positions can help ensure blood and energy flows to relieve fatigue and restore energy.

"The ideal sleeping position is to make yourself comfortable, keep the spinal column straight and not to suppress any part of the body to ensure energy flows," Dr Jiang says. "But of course, this is not completely feasible as gravity means some part of the body will be suppressed while lying in bed."

A relatively hard bed is always recommended, especially for those under 18 and individuals with back problems. A soft mattress usually cannot keep the spinal column in a straight position, possibly causing spinal column problems among growing children or aggravating existing spinal column problems. A pillow at the appropriate height is necessary to keep the neck in the right position.

There are generally three widely adopted sleeping positions - on the back, the chest and the side. Each choice has its own pros and cons. There is no need to remain in one position throughout the night as changing positions can help relieve fatigue more effectively.

"Most people lower their heads while typing and reading during the day. If that's the case, I suggest they do the opposite at night," says Jiang.

Simply bend the neck into the raised position while sleeping on one side. If you are a back sleeper, just place a pillow under your neck to keep your head raised.

Though comfort is important for sleep, there are a few things you can do to choose a more suitable sleeping position.

On the back

Sleeping on the back is the most common with about 60 percent of people favoring this position. The benefit is obvious, as no organs will be suppressed. But it is not recommended by experts, as it does not help the muscles get sufficient rest and often causes breathing difficulty.

The position is called shi wo (which literally means sleep like a dead body) in TCM.

In this position, the tongue tends to slip back and can possibly block the throat. This often causes breathing difficulties and a "depressed feeling" in the chest. There are also cases when saliva flows backward, which can lead to chocking.

"Snoring is common among people who sleep on their back as it is triggered by a blocked breathing channel," Jiang says.

On the chest

Sleeping on the chest, a posture opposed by many Chinese people, has been recommended in recent years by several Japanese physicians including professor Marukawa Seishiro, a specialist in respiratory physiology. Seishiro accidentally found a patient with respiratory failure had increased oxygen levels when he slept on his chest in the last 1980s.

Seishiro started to use it as an effective therapy for patients with respiratory failure.

Sleeping on the chest can effectively prevent tongues and saliva from blocking the throat,ensuring a free breathing channel, according to Seishiro. And the position can also make it easier to dispel mucus in the lungs as it will naturally flow forward and exit the body as phlegm.

The position is ideal for those with breath problems and those who snore a lot.

Yet, sleeping in this position puts pressure on the chest and heart, according to Jiang. This pressure often reduces blood circulation and causes discomfort in the heart. Those with high blood pressure, heart problems and cerebral thrombosis should not sleep on their chest.

And since people have to twist their head to one side to breathe, it may also damage neck muscles over a long period of time.

Professor Seishiro provided some solutions for this in his book "Healthy Method: Sleep on the Chest." He recommends placing pillows between the body and the mattress to keep the spinal column in the right position. This also helps reduce pressure on the chest.

On the side

Sleeping on the side is the ideal position according to "Qian Jin Yao Fang," ("Prescriptions Worth a Thousand in Gold") a book written by famous TCM doctor Sun Simiao during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). The position is described as sleeping partly on the side with bent knees. It can ensure muscles are relaxed and blood circulates freely in the body.

Generally, sleeping on the right side is better than on the left, according to Jiang. As both heart and stomach are on the left side of the body, sleeping on the right keeps the two organs higher and means there is less pressure on them during the night. Foods in the stomach can naturally move to the intestines while sleeping with the help of gravity and blood will circulate better.

But this position may not be suitable for patients with emphysema, as the lungs are inevitably compressed. Patients with digestive problems and gallstones should avoid sleeping on the left side as it can lead to indigestion.

Jiang also warns against putting all your body weight completely on one side throughout the night, as it will block blood from circulating on that side and leads to energy stagnation in the long run. Patients with hardening blood vessels and thrombus problems should be especially cautious.

Tips for people with certain health problems

Though sleeping on the right side is recommended for most people, the principle varies for people with certain health issues.

Patients with emphysema - sleep on the back with a relatively high pillow to ensure a free breathing channel.

Patients with inflammation of the ear - sleep on the side of the affected ear as it will help the secretion flow out during sleep.

Patients with heart disease - sleep partly on the right side. Avoid sleeping on the chest or on the left side.

Patients with high blood pressure - sleep partly on the right side and remember to place the head relatively high.

Patients with back aches - sleep partly on one side with appropriate pillows to ensure the spinal column is straight.

Women in late pregnancy - sleep on the left side. As the fetus grows, the uterus can place great pressure on arteries and even block some. Sleeping on the left side can largely reduce this pressure and ensure sufficient blood supply to the uterus and thus prevent possible dizziness, vomiting and sweating.

Patients with edema in the legs - elevate the affected leg with a pillow.


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