Exercise. Perhaps nothing is more effective at helping us to regulate our bodies and improve our sleep than exercise. The type of exercise is not important. Find something that is suitable for you and your lifestyle. Both gentle activities, such as walking and taiji quan,, and more vigorous exercise, such as weightlifting and running, can be extremely beneficial for improving sleep quality.
Getting a good night’s sleep has so many physical, emotional, and mental benefits. Yet with all of the distractions that demand our attention, going to sleep on time and getting enough rest has become extremely elusive to many of us. Why is sleep so important and how can we make it a priority?
In this interview series called “Sleep: Why You Should Make Getting A Good Night’s Sleep A Major Priority In Your Life, And How You Can Make That Happen” we are talking to medical and wellness professionals, sleep specialists, and business leaders who sell sleep accessories to share insights from their knowledge and experience about how to make getting a good night’s sleep a priority in your life.
As part of this interview series, we had the pleasure to interview Dr. Eric Karchmer.
Dr. Eric Karchmer is a doctor of Chinese medicine, a professor of medical anthropology, and a founding partner of DAO Labs. He received his medical training at the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine, where he earned a Bachelor’s of Medicine in 2000, holds a Phd from the University of North Carolina and did his undergraduate work at Princeton University. He has been practicing in North Carolina as a licensed acupuncturist since 2001 and is currently participating in a Fulbright Scholar research project on the use of Chinese medicine in Taiwanese pediatric care.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about your background and your backstory?
In college, I was pre-med and probably never would have studied Chinese medicine if I had gone straight on to medical school. I decided to take time off between college and medical school so I could teach English in China. Thanks to that time abroad, I abandoned my plans to go to medical school and instead decided to pursue a career in cultural anthropology.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this particular career path?
I began my journey into Chinese medicine as an anthropologist. I went to Beijing in the mid 1990s to complete my fieldwork for my PhD dissertation. I ended up falling in love with Chinese medicine and didn’t leave Beijing until I had completed my degree in Chinese medicine in 2000.
Can you share with our readers a bit about why you are an authority in the sleep and wellness fields? In your opinion, what is your unique contribution to the world of wellness?
I have treated sleep issues for hundreds of patients in my private practice, and I’m now helping thousands of DAO Labs’ customers sleep better by focusing on the health of the whole body. From the perspective of Chinese medicine, the cause of insomnia and other sleep disturbances is not located in the brain. The correct therapeutic approach is not to sedate the brain but address the imbalances in the body that are the root of sleep issues. Without a holistic approach, I think it is very difficult to address the most intractable cases.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon is the oldest medical text in Chinese medicine. It is over 2000 years old and contains many of the essential principles for practicing Chinese medicine. Many of my inspirations for treating disturbed sleep come from this text. It has taken me years, however, to understand some of the key passages. For example, in one interesting passage, it explains the stomach must be harmonious in order to have restful sleep. Over the years, I have seen just how accurate this statement is because so many of my patients’ sleep issues stem from digestive issues.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
Friedrich Nietzsche: “One has to take a somewhat bold and dangerous line with this existence: especially as, whatever happens, we are bound to lose it.”
My father, uncle, and sister are all doctors, and my path seemed much the same. I had just graduated pre-med from Princeton, and all I really knew was that I didn’t want to be a doctor at that time. I knew I had to do something different with my life, and I decided to teach English in China. In 1987, China felt very far away and especially so for someone like myself who had never traveled before. Fortunately, I followed my intuition back then and it ultimately led me down the path to Chinese medicine.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Let’s start with the basics. How much sleep should an adult get? Is there a difference between people who are young, middle-aged, or elderly?
I believe that eight hours a night is a good benchmark but it will vary from person to person. More importantly is the quality of sleep, how rested one feels in the morning. Was the sleep disrupted or not? Middle-age and elderly folks tend to sleep less, but that is more of a reflection of other health issues than of a decreased need for sleep.
Is the amount of hours the main criteria, or the time that you go to bed? For example, if there was a hypothetical choice between getting to bed at 10AM and getting up at 4AM, for a total of 6 hours, or going to bed at 2AM and getting up at 10AM for a total of 8 hours, is one a better choice for your health? Can you explain?
That’s hard to answer. I would say getting good quality sleep is the most important, so I would choose 8 hours over 6 hours. At the same time, staying up late exhausts the body. From the perspective of Chinese medicine, it depletes the yin element of the body, which can ultimately lead to insomnia or other problems, so it is not an ideal choice either.
As an expert, this might be obvious to you, but I think it would be instructive to articulate this for our readers. Let’s imagine a hypothetical 35 year old adult who was not getting enough sleep. After working diligently at it for 6 months he or she began to sleep well and got the requisite hours of sleep. How will this person’s life improve? Can you help articulate some of the benefits this person will see after starting to get enough sleep? Can you explain?
According to Chinese medicine, when we do not sleep well, the “Heart Spirit” is disturbed. The Heart is often associated with certain functions that we attribute to the mind in Western medicine. If the Spirit — a term we could loosely translate at consciousness — is not settled, then one might have symptoms such as forgetfulness, spaciness, lack of alertness, inability to concentrate, emotional volatility, anxiety, and fatigue. All these symptoms and others will start to resolve once sleep improves.
Many things provide benefits but they aren’t necessarily a priority. Should we make getting a good night’s sleep a major priority in our life? Can you explain what you mean?
We absolutely should make sleep a priority but it is not simply a matter of resolving to get more sleep. If physical imbalances exist, they must be addressed in order to sleep well. From a Chinese medicine perspective, it is important to live judiciously, to not make poor lifestyle choices. At the same time, once chronic insomnia sets in, it may not be enough to merely adjust one’s lifestyle. At this point, some treatment may be necessary.
The truth is that most of us know that it’s important to get better sleep. But while we know it intellectually, it’s often difficult to put it into practice and make it a part of our daily habits. In your opinion what are the 3 main blockages that prevent us from taking the information that we all know, and integrating it into our lives? How should we remove those obstacles?
Personally, I don’t think it is helpful to assume that poor sleep habits are simply a matter of individual responsibility. Yes, we should improve our routines, avoid screens late at night, and take other measures to help our bodies settle down. But the deeper truth is that disturbed sleep is often caused by physical changes to our bodies. Learning how to recognize the connections and address these imbalances — for example, indigestion can be a major cause of insomnia — may be far more important than improving our daily habits. So rather than naming any one blockage, I would recommend working with an acupuncturist to learn more about what your specific issues might be. I help folks in my practice achieve better sleep all the time, and at DAO Labs we offer both herbal remedies that address sleep issues as well as Virtual Consultations that provide lifestyle coaching to correct the imbalances that cause sleeplessness.
Do you think getting “good sleep” is more difficult today than it was in the past?
Overall, yes. I think we have more and more technologies that stimulate us inappropriately. But technology is not the only culprit.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share “5 things you need to know to get the sleep you need and wake up refreshed and energized”? If you can, kindly share a story or example for each.
- Exercise. Perhaps nothing is more effective at helping us to regulate our bodies and improve our sleep than exercise. The type of exercise is not important. Find something that is suitable for you and your lifestyle. Both gentle activities, such as walking and taiji quan,, and more vigorous exercise, such as weightlifting and running, can be extremely beneficial for improving sleep quality.
- Avoid nighttime stimulation. Develop a good nighttime ritual where you gradually disconnect from the stimulation of the day. Put down your phone, avoid screens, and forget about the stress of the day. According to Chinese medicine, the “yang energy” of the day must enter the “yin interior” of the body. An evening bath or shower can facilitate this process.
- Work on your diet and digestion. A major but poorly understood cause of chronic insomnia is digestive issues. If you struggle with indigestion, bloating, reflux, abdominal pain, or other digestive issues, it will almost surely impact your sleep. There is a classic expression in Chinese medicine that states, “if the stomach is not harmonious, then the Heart Spirit cannot be settled.” Many of my most complicated insomnia patients will also have digestive issues. If you are concerned that your sleep issues are related to digestive problems, then I suggest you seek out a local acupuncturist to help you address these issues.
- Recognize that physiological changes may be at work. We typically have more disrupted sleep as we age. This is not because we need less sleep but because the everyday wear and tear on our bodies can add up and produce various kinds of imbalances. These changes to our bodies can be hard to avoid but a greater awareness of these issues can help us address them. For example, pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding are extremely taxing on a woman’s body. They cause depletions in the body that can lead to insomnia years later, even after a baby may be sleeping through the night. Chinese medicine can be particularly effective at helping to restore vitality to a woman’s body and thereby allowing her to sleep properly again.
- Avoid drugs if at all possible. Many folks who struggle with insomnia are understandably desperate and may turn to sedatives of various kinds for relief. These drugs can provide some short-term relief but they almost never address the root of the problem, the physical imbalances that are disrupting sleep. If they are taken long-term, then the patient will become reliant on these drugs and ultimately unable to sleep without them. In short, they can make the problem worse. Instead, it is better to avoid these drugs altogether. If you have already been using them for months or years, then try to gradually minimize and ultimately wean off of them altogether. At the same time, I recommend you work with an alternative practitioner, such as a doctor of Chinese medicine, who can look holistically at your health and get to the root of your sleep issues. Chinese herbal medicine and acupuncture have both been shown to provide effective relief for insomnia and anxiety without the side effects.
What would you advise someone who wakes up in the middle of the night and can’t fall back to sleep?
Don’t panic. That will only make it harder to get back to sleep. If you don’t have frequent nighttime wakings, then it can be helpful to realize it is probably related to something disrupting your usual daytime routine. Perhaps stress at work, emotional complications at home, a major shift in your work schedule could all be possible causes. Chinese herbal medicine and acupuncture can have a profound impact on the quality of sleep. I would encourage folks to speak with a local acupuncturist or herbalist. Unlike most insomnia drugs, Chinese medicine has the potential to work at the constitutional level. Not only can they help you sleep through the night, they should be able to help you do it on your own. Once your body is back in balance, you will not need to rely on them.
What are your thoughts about taking a nap during the day? Is that a good idea, or can it affect the ability to sleep well at night?
Some cultures and peoples have a custom of taking a nap in the middle of the day. It’s a way of also avoiding the worst heat of the day. If it is not part of your routine, then I would keep them short. The idea is to rejuvenate for the rest of the day, but not to impact your nighttime routine.
Wonderful. We are nearly done. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Bruno Latour. He is a French philosopher and social theorist. He has written quite brilliantly on science and climate change. As an anthropologist, I have read his work closely and he has helped me to think more deeply about Chinese medicine.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can read more of my work at mydaolabs.com.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!