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[Ask an Expert]: Sleep Coach Rumbiey Muchenje on How to Sleep Better

What is sleep health and how to improve yours in Shanghai
Nov 24, 2021 | 12:00 Wed

Rumbiey Muchenje is on a mission to try and change the conversations around sleep. She works as a sleep and stress coach from her own platform "Purpose Healthy" -- WeChat QR Code at the bottom -- in which she counsels clients on improving sleep quality, lifestyle patterns, and achieving optimal health out there in the big city.  

For the first one of these "Ask an Expert" columns, we sat down with Rumbiey to discuss what exactly a sleep coach does, how she works with clients, and just generally how our lifestyle and behaviour affects our sleep lives.

(And therefore everything else...)


SmSh: Are we allowed to refer you as “Doctor Sleep”?

Rumbiey: Oh, I wish.

SmSh: What did you think of the movie?

Rumbiey:  Very interesting, actually. Yeah.  A lot of its truths were based in science.  And then some of it was just like… yeah, well it’s a movie.  I had a whole debate about it with my husband, actually….

SmSh:  Maybe just starting today, could you tell us about yourself? How did you get into health and wellness care?

Rumbiey: So, my name is Rumbiey. And I'm from Zimbabwe. I have been involved in health and wellbeing since I was a young child because I was very sick. I had a heart attack when I was three years old…

SmSh: Whoa!

Rumbiey:  Yeah.  And that meant for the next 10 years of my life, I had to be at the doctor's office every Saturday. And it was just one of those things that I got so used to it — it just seemed normal to go to the doctor, right?

So, naturally, straight after high school in a hospital as a receptionist. And I absolutely loved it. Because it felt very normal. I loved the fact that I was able to help this time. And I wasn't the patient.

But I got bored. And I started wandering across the hospital in places that wasn't supposed to be in and got myself into a lot of trouble. But it was amazing because I was able to really connect with the patients, talk to them and really understand what their real problems were.

Whenever they were talking to doctors or nurses, they didn't really open up and really explain what was going on. So, I started talking to my general manager about it.

And I said, “Listen, these are some of the things that these guys are going through. Why don't we do something about it?”

“Sleep health is something we are still just learning about. Only in the past 40 years or so have we started looking at it clinically.”

And before the end of the year, they had made me the supervisor of a new department they created, which was supposed to try and handle the after-care of these patients. This hospital then decided to hire me for full time — complete blessing.

So, I headed that department. And without knowing it, I was coaching. I had no idea at that time because it's not something that was even existing, right? Absolutely loved it, was enriching, yeah.

I think because I'm nosy. [Laughs.]

Coming to China was my first exposure to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) working in the marketing in an international department for a Chinese medicine clinic. And it really gave me a good opportunity to understand my body in a completely different way.

SmSh:  You mean in terms of Traditional Chinese Medicine? 

Rumbiey: Absolutely. It’s, like, the flip side.

And I think, for me, it was absolute marvel, because I had grown up directly linked with Western medicine practices. And now I'm seeing this other way of thinking.

I loved that everything was holistic. I loved that everything was, you know... it's not just about what you're feeling right now. It's about what have you been doing before? And what have you been eating?  It’s about patterns of behavior. And I dabbled with the idea of actually going back to school to study TCM but a friend of mine suggested that I do health coaching, which talks about a lot of the same things.

The more I got into coaching, the more I realized that people actually are looking for sleep health as well, and what we call sleep hygiene.  And sleep health is something we are still just learning about.  Only in the past 40 years or so have we started looking at it clinically. The culture that we live in glorifies staying up late, right?  It glorifies, like, binge working for three days straight and crashing.

So, I've been on a mission now to try and change the conversations around sleep. They have for a very long time been a very private matter for people. People are struggling but they usually don't really talk about it.

SmSh: So, generally speaking, what is a sleep consultant and what do you do?

Rumbiey: A sleep consultant-slash-coach is somebody that will help you identify your actual problem, as it relates to sleep, but then, more importantly, they will also teach you how to modify and optimize your lifestyle in order for you to get you to better sleep.

My approach is holistic. We will definitely be talking about food because food is directly linked to your sleep. We will definitely be talking about exercise.  And we will definitely be talking about stress.  Those two are like best friends, you know -- stress level and sleep.

SmSh: What kind of clients are you working with? And what problems are people coming to you with?

Rumbiey: The typical one is: “I can’t fall asleep.”

Or, “I can fall asleep but I can't remain asleep.”

These are usually the busy executives or people working in high pressure situations.  But the important thing is my clients have to be willing to examine their lifestyle.  With my clients, it's not necessarily that they reached rock bottom, it's just they have understood the impact of their lack of sleep or lack of health in their work.

And they want to change the situation.

SmSh: Are there Shanghai-specific factors that you're finding in your clients that affects sleep?

Rumbiey: I wouldn't say necessarily just Shanghai. I would say cities in general — these very big cities we all live in.

Sleep in big cities is just a struggle. Because you've got light pollution, right? You've got sound pollution. And then you've got other things — bad quality food or a general high stress urban environment.

Those are the four main things: light, sound, quality of food, and stress levels. And we can't really run away from them. Because it's where we live. You're looking to examine and address these factors, from your literal sleep environment in your home to your larger lifestyle and patterns.

SmSh: How does someone know if they have a sleep problem?Like, is there is there a certain amount of hours that you should be sleeping at night? Or is there a certain quality level?

Rumbiey: According to research, an adult should be sleeping anywhere between seven to eight hours a night. But it's not very clear cut.

We have something called a "circadian clock”, which is like your internal clock and it's very specific to you, right? Depending on where you grew up, what your lifestyle was like, your social patterns, the habits of your community — it’s affected by a lot of things. But we would want you to have more than six hours.  And we want you to wake up with that feeling that you’ve slept enough.  We want you to wake up feeling like you don’t need anything.  Like you don’t need a coffee.  Like you don’t need the snooze button.

SmSh: It’s been a while since I took Psych 100.  Where does “sleep quality” come from?

Rumbiey: So, we have five stages in our sleep cycle. And each person goes through a sleep cycle roughly four to six times per night. Each cycle can last anywhere between 90 and 100 minutes, and that’s how they calculate that you should get at least seven to eight hours. You have to complete this to get proper sleep.

When people say, 'I have light sleep', it just means you're not then falling into stage four and five, which results in you feeling exhausted when you wake up. Because it's in these two stages, the last two stages that will actually get you the true rest. These ones are important. The other ones are too of course, but you can't have quality sleep if you're jumping any of these stages.

I often say to people, “Don't think about the hours. Think about the quality of the hours.” 

Some people can sleep up to nine hours, 10 hours, but it's crappy sleep, right?

You could still wake up and you're like, “I just, I didn't even sleep”, you know?

That's number one.

Number two, are you able to fall asleep within 10, 15, 20 minutes?

SmSh: So, if you're lying in bed for longer than 20 minutes, there's sort of an issue issue there...

Rumbiey: Yeah. There’s an issue there if takes you hours to fall asleep.  Number three: Are you waking up at night and you can't get back to sleep? Some people will wake up and maybe go to the bathroom, and that's normal, but the key issue is, are you able to fall back asleep after you wake up?

A lot of people can't. They'll be up for the next three hours.

Any of these issues can contribute to you waking up and acting like a monster.  

I always say like, you know, "if you have a boss, or you have a colleague that is consistently yelling, and just has a bad mood every day all day, you probably need to buy them a pillow for Christmas…"

SmSh: Do you look at that stuff as well? Like actual mattresses and pillows of your clients?

Rumbiey: Absolutely.  For for some clients, I have actually gone to their homes to inspect their situation.  Lights, curtains, appliances, noise factors. Some people haven't changed their pillows in five years.

SmSh: I still have the pillows my parents bought me when they drove me to my first college dorm. Um, yeah. So, what’s the actual process of working with you like?

Rumbiey: We start with what's called a “Discovery Session”, which usually lasts about two hours. Basically, it's me asking you a lot of questions based on what you see as your problem. And we try to find out what are the lifestyle patterns that we can see. We talk about the big things and the little things people usually think are insignificant.

“We want you to wake up feeling like you don’t need anything. Like you don’t need a coffee. Like you don’t need the snooze button.”

You know, what's fascinating about coaching, people know the answers to their problems. The more they talk, the more they can vocalize and therefore realize their situation.

The main question isn’t "what is the problem?" The main question is, "okay, what can we do about it?"

After the “Discovery Session”, then I analyze all of the data that I've collected, then I create a program for you — things to think about and goals to achieve.  It’s very tailor-made specific to you and your lifestyle.  And then I give you a workbook that's sort of like a set of objectives.

So, we'll do that, depending on which program that they pick, it's anywhere from 6 weeks to 12 weeks.

My objective for my clients is that we create a changed lifestyle out of this experience and process, rather than just addressing a singular problem.

It's rough at the start because you're challenging mindsets, right?

SmSh: And then in terms of progressing through the course?

Rumbiey: In terms of progressing, we’ll usually have a face-to-face meetup every two weeks, whether it is virtual or in-person. And in between, I like to be very hands-on with all of my clients. So, I like to make them comfortable, according to the goals. So, for example, if we say we're going to clean up our eating, right, so they have to send me pictures every single day of what they’re eating. Yeah, it's tough for the first week or so because it's annoying.

I believe in something called crowding out. Which means instead of trying to go cold turkey on things, rather, introduce good things, and they will eventually push out all the bad things. It's a much safer way to change your lifestyle. So, we do a lot of that. Introduce good things. And, again, depending on what it is that they're trying to achieve, I will probably ask them to monitor their sleep absolutely. If they're not doing it already.

I also ask them to do journaling. A lot of us are super stressed and so distracted. We don't have time for ourselves. I try and get them to start journaling either in the morning or in the evening.

SmSh: Going back to more general sleep wellness questions, you mentioned in a previous conversation about having a good morning routine. What does it mean to have a “good morning routine”?

Rumbiey: Each morning, do something that is specific for you that has nothing to do with the outside world. So, maybe meditate, maybe journal, maybe do a mindfulness practice. Take care of you first before you go into the world. Because once you go into the world, everything is happening to you. There are very few things that we can control. Take care of you and be in control and then start with the world…

Also, in the morning, everyone should wake up and try and get at least 30 minutes of sunshine. And the reason why we do that is because the blue light will actually activate your serotonin, which is a hormone -- a happy hormone, right?

SmSh: Yeah, how does light factor into this? I’ve read that watching TV, or reading on a laptop before you sleep is bad for you?

Rumbiey: Yes. We are still a primitive people. We are pretty much cavemen. (and cavewomen!) And if you look at the caveman lifestyle, whenever the sun went down, they went down.  One thing that hasn’t changed is that we are still directly connected to the sun.  The problem with the light effect that Shanghai and big cities have is that we are no longer able to identify that the sun has gone down. I mean, you can walk around at 3am and it’s still bright out.  

Our bodies are no longer getting the cue, the natural cue that ‘hey, you know what, it's time to bring down everything’.  

So, the general things that you can do: no eating before bed — when you’re digesting, you’re not resting —  no TV, no work. No reading. No pets. Cats in particular are nocturnal and they’re active when you’re not...

I like to say that the bedroom is only for two things: sleeping and sex. If you are watching TV, lying in bed on your smartphone, or surfing the web on your laptop, you are taking in blue light or florescent light, which is sunlight. This increases  your serotonin, and that makes you that makes you wake up.

“There’s the little things that add up to big things. And that’s why we take a holistic approach.”

When your serotonin starts to go up, your melatonin starts to come down.The more light that you're exposed to the less melatonin that you have.

Melatonin is a sleep arranger. It doesn't cause you to sleep it just urges you to sleep. And if you're interfering with it you’re not going to get the urge to sleep.

SmSh: Yes, speaking of melatonin pills, because I know a lot of people that take melatonin pills these days. What is your opinion on that?

Rumbiey: Terrible. Terrible.  So melatonin is a hormone, right? We produce it in our bodies naturally.

Melatonin pills were actually created to help pilots and any air stewards get to sleep when they were working in different time zones all the time — they’re always jumping from time zone to time zone.  

So, they created this thing specifically for pilots, because they're like, “What if these guys fall asleep?”

SmSh: Seems less than ideal.

Rumbiey: So, when they were prescribed, it was only for seven days. Anything after that it wasn't ideal anymore. The problem is, if you take it for more than seven days, you start to lower your own production of this hormone and you create a dependency — clinical or psychological.

I’ve got a client right now, who, when we started, they were petrified of not having their melatonin pills.

And I asked them, “Are you scared of not having the pill or are you scared of not being able to sleep? Have you tied your ability to sleep to melatonin pills? You have your own melatonin?"

They had gone for screening and things like that to make sure that she has enough levels. It was purely a psychological attachment.  It first appears to help then it becomes a liability.

SmSh: I read that taking a shower at night helps because it deals with your internal temperature. How does your internal temperature relate to sleeping?

Rumbiey: So, let's talk about hibernation, right. So, for an animal to go into hibernation, its heart rate needs to go very, very low, and it’s core temperature has to go very low as well. In the same way for people, in order for your body to understand that it's sleep time, your core temperature has to drop a few degrees. So, taking a shower, a warm shower, which sounds counterintuitive, but taking a warm shower will actually increase the temperature or the blood flow to the surface of your skin. Which means any air that is obviously cooler than your blood is going to cool you down and signify that it’s time to sleep. 

SmSh: Everything has to be at optimal levels... 

Rumbiey: There's the little things that add up to big things. And that's why we take a holistic approach. I have a working relationship with Jiahui Hospital where if I have a client, that I feel needs a more clinical approach, I send them over to that clinic, they seek the correct department, and they go through whatever it is.

Yeah, but I continue to coach because there is a lot more lifestyle related problems with sleep and health than clinical things.  That's one of the biggest things that I pride in as my job as a coach.  I teach people how not the "what" of the problem but the "why" -- how everything is connected to an issue that is already known to you.  

Then we can work together for postive change. 


To learn more about Rumbiey's services and client package deals, scan the WeChat QR code and click on the Services tab on the menu.  Follow that account for wellness content, her own sleep aid products,  information about her upcoming workshops, and just general "here's how to make your life better" sort of content. 


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