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Improve Sleep with Chinese Medicine

Updated: Oct 13, 2023

Mindful rituals, routines, resources and remedies that help cure insomnia and other sleep concerns.

Difficulty Sleeping?

Do you suffer from insomnia? Perhaps sleep is ‘good enough,’ but energy is low or you feel anxious, worried, or agitated throughout the day or in the evening. A consistent nighttime routine, balanced lifestyle choices, emotional awareness, acupuncture, and natural remedies can help.

In Chinese Medicine, insomnia is differentiated by type. 1) Difficulty falling asleep; 2) Waking during the night or early morning; 3) Lack of deep sleep and/or sleep that is dream-disturbed; and 4) an Inability to sleep (at all) throughout the night. Different types of sleep disturbances are propagated by different patterns of disharmony. In Chinese Medicine, there are more than 65 recognized underlying causes of insomnia.*

Poor sleep is considered a symptom of underlying issues that are influenced by an individual’s constitution, the season, systemic imbalances, musculoskeletal issues (i.e., pain), genetics, stress levels, emotional experiences, and so on. In addition to seeking the support of healthcare professionals, there are many lifestyle choices we can make to improve quality of sleep. What follows are ideas for a better night’s sleep. Please know that these suggestions are just that, not a measure to gauge your success by. We all do what we can.

Rituals + Routines that Improve Sleep

  • Make a good night’s rest your number one goal for the first week. Meaning, everything else that’s important is prioritized after #1: Sleep. Maintain this goal until you are consistently enjoying a good night’s rest.

  • Set a consistent time to go to bed and to wake. 7-8 hours of sleep is recommended by most, find what helps you feel your best.

  • Create your own wind-down routine: brush teeth/wash face an hour before settling in, take a warm bath or shower, play soothing music, sip a soothing herbal tea, read a book. Power down gadgets at least 1 hour before bed - television, laptops, tablets, and smart phones are stimulating devices that alert and awaken the senses.

  • Keep the bedroom sacred for sleep and intimacy. Dedicate other space(s) in your home to watching television, gaming, reading, and so on.

  • Dim lights and create a quiet environment. Perhaps wear an eye shade or earplugs in bed. If animal (companions) go bump in the night, consider training options and be sure that they’re getting enough exercise and play.

  • Avoid stimulants, like caffeinated tea, coffee, energy drinks, and chocolate after lunchtime. Even vitamin B, known to be an energizer, can hinder sleep if taken before bed. Caffeine can accumulate in the system and last up to 12 hours, so if you are caffeine sensitive, savor just one cup in the morning or avoid altogether.

  • Cut down or avoid depressants like alcohol. While alcohol might seem to “calm the nerves” or help people fall asleep, withdrawal from alcohol during the night can actually cause restless or broken sleep. Many people complain of waking between 3am-5am unable to fall back to sleep, and often report unsettling dreams and waking feeling unrested.

  • Digestion also affects sleep, so enjoy dinner at least 2-3 hours before bed, avoiding very greasy and sweet foods, as well as cold drinks. Some sleep issues are caused by food/spice/preservative sensitivities or allergies. Consider a food journal and/or an elimination diet if you suspect that a particular substance is the culprit.

  • If waking early is an issue, there may be a blood sugar component to consider. Eating a high protein snack right before bed can help stabilize glucose levels.

  • If nocturia (waking to urinate) is an issue, avoid drinking beverages after 7:30pm. This aim is no easy task, keep trying.

  • Exercise is some of the body’s best medicine. Try to get 30-60 minutes of vigorous exercise daily, preferably in the morning or afternoon. Stretching anytime is great. Yin yoga or slow, long holds of forward folds helps quiet the mind and prepare the body for rest.

  • If you’re unable to fall asleep or find yourself waking in the night, it’s helpful to ask how you might enjoy the time, rather than struggle against the reality that you’re awake. Consider meditation - sitting or lying supine - and restorative yoga, such as child’s pose, legs up the wall, forward fold w/head supported by a blanket or block.

  • Identify sources of stress, worry and upset. Talk to loved ones, journal your observations and emotions, perhaps consider therapy and other healing modalities.

  • Please know that sleep disturbances often go hand-in-hand with feelings of anxiety and/or depression. Finding support for one, will positively affect the other(s). If you notice negative associations with sleep, like, “I’m afraid to go to bed because I wake up exhausted,” are there ways to positively reframe, such as, “I have mixed feelings about sleep, what do I love about it?” Setting positive intentions and asking yourself for an easeful night can also make a huge difference.

Changing longer-term patterns can be tricky, so go easy on yourself. Incorporate changes in stages that are realistic and feel good to you. While patterns can take time to shift, prioritizing healthy sleep is an opportunity to get to know your body, moods, habits, and needs. Deeper awareness of your patterns and preferences increases the likelihood that your emotional and physical needs will be met, and, soon, you’ll be sleeping like a champ.

Remedies + Supplements to Support Sleep **

While it is vitally important to discuss your specific issues with a doctor, licensed acupuncturist, naturopath and/or homeopath, the following are generally recommended to encourage falling and/or staying asleep. Your best bet is to consume foods that naturally contain the suggestions below (e.g. Magnesium in dark leafy greens).

If you choose to go the supplement/remedy route, please pay careful attention to dosage instructions (more is not better!), only add one supplement at a time, and carefully monitor your symptoms over time. Some folks fall right to sleep with Valerian, for example, while others experience the opposite effect: tossing and turning for hours. If you experience adverse or no effect, consider an alternate. Please practice mindfulness and patience. It may take a month of conscious repatterning for every year of difficult sleeping to see real improvement.

A cautionary tale : After taking Magnesium for a year to improve sleep, I discovered that the particular form (Citrate) was synthesized with an ingredient that I was allergic to (citric acid). After switching to another type of Magnesium (Glycinate), I slept better. Hoping for a stronger effect, I slowly increased the dosage, only to discover my sleep worsen because the supplement was too much for my Kidneys to process. While Magnesium can be a huge support to some people, we are all different. Careful research and ongoing observation of symptoms is a key to finding your best medicine.

  • Passion Flower, Lemon Balm and Skullcap are nervines that have a sedating effect. A tea, like Traditional Medicinals Nighty Night, can be great before bed. Other evening teas that contain Valerian (also indicated to relax the nervous system) should not be taken when driving, operating heavy machinery, etc.

  • Melatonin - a hormone that helps regulate sleep and wake cycles.

  • GABA - consider solo or in a combo formula like in Kavinace Ultra PM.

  • L-Theanine - derived from tea leaves, induces relaxation and calms anxiety.

  • L-Tryptophan is an amino-acid supplement that can aid insomnia, depression, anxiety and PMS. Tryptophan is bioavailable in many foods, such as eggs, cheese and fish, and has long been associated with improved sleep.

  • 5-HTP - helpful on an empty stomach before bed, this serotonin elevator can help folks experiencing mood-related sleep disturbances.

  • Magnesium Glycinate is the most easily absorbed form of Magnesium and easy on the stomach. It is linked with decreasing stress, uplifting mood, relaxing muscles and improving sleep.

  • Flower essences indicated for the root cause (anxiety, frustration, excitement, trauma, etc) or a spectrum formula found in combination blends like Siddatech Sleep or Bach Rescue Sleep. I also custom blend flower and gem essences. Let me know if I can prepare one especially for you.

  • Homeopathic remedy suggested by a homeopath

  • Chinese Herbal Formula recommended by a licensed practitioner of Chinese Medicine.

*Source: Classification of Insomnia Using the Traditional Chinese Medicine System: A Systematic Review. Maggie Man-Ki Poon et al. Department of Psychiatry, The University of Hong Kong, Pokfulam Road, Hong Kong. March 2012

**A big shout out to Dr. Bizzy Glasser, a dear friend and Naturopathic Doctor in Issaquah, WA, who helped advise on the list of supplements. For more info about Doctor Bizzy, check

Photo by Kristy Snyder

The information provided in this post is for information purposes only. It is not to be relied upon for diagnostic or treatment purposes. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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