Improve your sleep

Sleep better naturally, with Chinese medicine

Chee Yeoh

1/20/20233 min read

Many in modern day society experience sleeping difficulties. Even when we are chronically fatigued, sleep can be elusive at night. Conversely, sleep may come easily for some of us, and we easily sleep for the recommended 8 to 10 hours nightly, yet do not wake up feeling energised or refreshed. This is often due to poor sleep quality. So, what can be done to improve the sleep quality according to Chinese medicine (CM)?

Exploring this through the basic tenet in CM of the concept of Yin and Yang. Yin and Yang are opposing yet complex forces with a dynamic inter-relationship, where the duality forms a whole. Yin is material, dense, cool, dark, unmoving and receptive. Yang is functional, light, warm, bright, dynamic, and active. When explored through this lens, daytime is considered the Yang phase while night-time is a Yin phase. At night, Yin retreats inwards, and the body slows down as we prepare for sleep. Hence, we should minimise excessive exposure to Yang during this Yin phase, which includes both our activities and our environment. So, how does this translate in real terms?

A common suggestion is to look into improving one’s sleep hygiene to facilitate ease, and better quality sleep. Suggestions often include creating a more regular bedtime, ensuring a comfortable ambient temperature, sleeping in a darkened room, ensuring that the mattress and bedding are comfortable etc. However, it is more than just creating a routine and ensuring an appropriate environment at bedtime. The process actually starts from dusk, ie. as the day enters into the Yin phase, when our body is supposed to receive its first signal to prepare for sleep through the increased production of melatonin.

Melatonin is produced by the pineal gland when it detects reduced amount of light entering the eyes via the optic nerves. However, with the invention of electricity and therefore the extension of “daylight” into the night, as well as the widespread popularity of electronic gadgets - the television, computer, smart phones, tablets etc, this hormone production process becomes increasingly disrupted and consequently so does our quality of sleep. This is the case, even when the dimmer light setting / night mode is selected in the gadgets. We should also be aware that these activities, while allowing us to be physically inactive, are mentally stimulating - again leading to increased likelihood of sleep disturbances.

You may ask “So what do I do?”. You may switch the cool white lightbulbs for warm white bulbs which emit less blue light. Instead of engaging with the electronic gadgets, 2 hours prior to your scheduled bedtime, look for alternative relaxing ways to spend the time - bonding with your family (including your beloved pet), a relaxing warm bath, some creative activities such as art and craft, meditating, or listening to your favourite music ( preferably not heavy metal) etc. Introducing more Yin aspects to your environment and activities well before your scheduled bedtime will often help improve the ease and quality of sleep. Note that it can take time before your sleep quality improves noticeably as your body learns to unwind from the ingrained memory of the negative sleep pattern, but persistence is key to your success.

In addition to cultivating better habits to balance and support the Yin and Yang aspect of your body, you may also consider the addition of acupuncture and/or Chinese herbal medicine to help alleviate insomnia. In a meta-analysis on Chinese herbal medicine, it was found that Chinese herbal medicine could significantly improve symptoms of insomnia (Zhang, H, Liu, P, Wu, X, Zhang, Y & Cong, D 2019, “Effectiveness of Chinese herbal medicine for patients with primary insomnia,” Medicine, vol. 98, no. 24.). Acupuncture could also significantly improve symptoms of insomnia after more than 3 weeks of treatment compared to pharmacological treatments (Kim, S-A, Lee, S-H, Kim, J-H, van den Noort, M, Bosch, P, Won, T, et al. 2021, “Efficacy of acupuncture for insomnia: A systematic review and meta-analysis,” The American Journal of Chinese Medicine, vol. 49, no. 05, pp. 1135–1150.) while another systematic review has found that acupuncture is an effective treatment for insomnia, not just a placebo effect (Liu, C, Xi, H, Wu, W, Wang, X, Qin, S, Zhao, Y, et al. 2020, “Placebo effect of acupuncture on insomnia: A systematic review and meta-analysis,” Annals of Palliative Medicine, vol. 9, no. 1, pp. 19–29.).

Please do not hesitate to reach out if you'd like to find out more about how CM can help with your sleep.