Tired Person Lying Under a Blanket

How Can Acupuncture Help You Get Better Sleep?

In a recent blog post I wrote about the importance of getting good sleep to support your acupuncture treatment.

Some clients expressed dissatisfaction with this common advice without any advice on how to go about doing this if you have sleep problems.

To that end, I’d like to discuss some lifestyle solutions to various sleep issues that you might be experiencing.

If you find that this advice doesn’t match with your experience, I recommend that you get in touch so that we can look at more tailored advice.

Acupuncture and Qigong are a Good Place to Start

Before going into more detail about lifestyle changes that will support sleep, I should say that acupuncture treatment alone can do wonders for many people’s sleep, and it’s common for clients to report sleeping more deeply after treatment. Qigong and Tai Chi students also report that they sleep noticeably better after first starting the practice.

Giving The Changes You Make Enough Time to Work

As I’ve written elsewhere, if the imbalance causing your sleep problems is longstanding, then it will take some concerted work to change direction. Also, if you are taking two steps forward with treatment but three steps backwards with your lifestyle, then treatment alone is unlikely to work for you.

When I discuss lifestyle changes that can help with sleep, please be aware that you need to give any changes you make time to have an impact. Please don’t just try something for a week and then conclude that it doesn’t work.

I would recommend that you stick with any changes that you make for 1 to 3 months before concluding that they aren’t working for you. If you need some advice on how to maintain these changes then please get in touch.

Now, let’s look at some aspects of your lifestyle that may be affecting sleep quality.

What Lifestyle Factors Could Be Causing Sleep Problems?

When evaluating how to improve sleep, you should first rule out factors relating to your lifestyle. This could be obvious things like a sudden change in the weather causing discomfort, jet lag after travelling, or a bedroom that is too hot or too cold. Here, a few simple changes should be enough to deal with the problem.

Next, you also want to think about whether your use of alcohol or other recreational drugs is having an impact on your sleep, and whether drinking tea and coffee may be a part of the problem. If any of these could be a problem, I recommend that you make an effort to break these habits in order to see what benefits you gain.

Of course, some people will find dropping these habits a challenge so get in touch if you want to discuss how acupuncture can help. Medications may also be causing side-effects that impact on your sleep, but here you must speak to your GP if you feel there is a problem.

Another important thing to consider is whether anything going on in your life is causing you a great deal of emotional upset or worry. Acupuncture treatment is a great way to support emotional regulation, but you will still need to address any  underlying issues that are causing your distress. 

Once you’ve considered these external factors, you may have already found some important areas to work on. If not, you should also consider whether your sleep problems are secondary to another health issue.

Are Your Sleep Problems Secondary to Another Health Issue?

After thinking about lifestyle problems, you should also consider whether your sleep problems are the result of a related health problem. If this is the case, you should put your effort into resolving that issue before reassessing the quality of sleep you are getting. Some common areas to think about are covered below.

 

Do You Have Breathing Problems?

An important area of health that can affect your sleep is problems with breathing. This could be things like asthma, allergies, snoring, or sleep apnoea. If these are an issue, then your acupuncture treatment and lifestyle changes should focus on addressing these problems. There are also a number of devices and habits that can help you to breathe better at night such as side sleeping, nasal dilators, mouth guards, nasal irrigation, and steam inhalation to name a few.

 

Are You Living With Pain, Itching or Other Physical Discomfort?

Another area that can have a great impact on the quality of sleep is physical pain (especially in the shoulder, hips or lower back) and itching, which can sometimes be just as disturbing as pain. Here, your acupuncture treatment and lifestyle changes should address the underlying causes of your pain or itching in order to improve your quality of sleep.

 

Are You Living with Anxiety or Depression

Another important area to think about are any issues you may have with anxiety or depression. Both of these can have a big impact on the quality of your sleep, so you should focus on addressing them before reassessing what sleep problems still remain. Acupuncture can be very helpful in supporting emotional regulation, but this can be a complex area that will require sustained treatment to make a change.

 

Now, let’s look in detail at some specific problem areas when it comes to sleep…

What Kind of Sleep Issues Are You Having?

In Chinese medicine we distinguish a number of different problems that might affect your ability to get a good night’s sleep. Let’s look at what you might do if you are having trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, experiencing dream disturbed sleep, or waking early in the morning.

Trouble Falling Asleep?

In Chinese medicine difficulty falling asleep is usually described as your Mind not being able to settle in your body at night, and this is usually because the Mind cannot find a comfortable place to rest. This applies not only to people who have trouble falling asleep after switching the lights off, but also to those who stay up late in order to avoid going to sleep when they know that they need to.

In order to give our minds a comfortable place to rest we need to make sure that our body is well nourished, and that it is not excessively disturbed. To achieve this you should address the following areas:

 

Nourish Your Body for Better Sleep

  • Eat more protein (20-30% of your diet), and, if you are vegetarian, ensure that you are eating complete proteins.
  • Eat more Blood nourishing foods – cabbage, kale, spinach, watercress, avocado, beetroot, chicken, eggs, etc.
  • At every meal, eat slowly in a relaxed environment and chew your food well.
  • Switch from drinking tea and coffee to nettle tea – drink 2 cups a day made using not quite boiled water. If stropping is difficult, you can first try cutting down. 
  • Rest for 10-20 minutes after your main meal. This means not watching TV, not on your phone, not on your laptop, etc. You could try drinking a cup of nettle tea while you enjoy doing nothing.
  • For women, it is especially important to increase protein and iron rich foods during and after your period. You should also lie down and do nothing for 10 minutes each day while you are on your period.
 

Calm Your Mind For Better Sleep

  • Do something everyday that makes you joyful (something that nourishes your spirit) & prioritise relationships that you find supportive and nourishing.
  • Avoid situations and people that cause you emotional stress. Can you delegate some tasks? Can you take a break from any of your current roles?
  • Take a break from strong emotional stimulation. In many cases this means avoiding the daily news which is often quite disturbing, but also avoiding  violent or exciting TV programs, games and sports.
  • Switch to a more gentle style of exercise such as Qigong or walking in the woods.
  • Switch your tea and coffee to a more calming alternative such as chamomile You should find that calming essential oils, pillow sprays and balms are also helpful.
  • Create a bedtime routine that helps to calm your body and mind before bed (see my previous article on sleep hygiene).
  • Incorporate meditation and relaxation into your daily schedule (You could try listening to a guided meditation on the Plum Village App (download for apple) (download for android) or taking 10 minutes to unroll your neck)

Trouble Waking in the Night?

In Chinese medicine sleep and wakefulness are seen as a Yin-Yang pair. Here, Yin represents our ability to relax and fall asleep, and Yang represents our ability to wake up and the energy that we need to get through our day. This means that, if Yin is deficient, we will have trouble staying asleep at night.

In order to nourish these Yin substances and qualities in your body, you should address the following areas:

 

Nourish Your Body for Better Sleep

  • Eat a higher proportion of fruit & vegetables (40% or more of your diet).
  • Eat foods designed by nature to nourish the young  such as pollen, royal jelly, seeds, nuts, seaweed, algae, and spirulina.
  • Drink more warm fluids to keep yourself well hydrated (fill an insulated cup with 50% boiled water & 50% cool water) and avoid any excessive sweating such as in saunas and intensive exercise.
  • Eat more Blood nourishing foods – cabbage, kale, spinach, watercress, avocado, beetroot, chicken, eggs, etc.
  • At every meal, eat slowly in a relaxed environment and chew your food well.
  • Switch your tea and coffee for nettle tea – drink 2 cups/day made using not quite boiled water. If stropping is difficult, you can first try cutting down.
  • Eat regular meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner) at regular times (if one meal is a problem just have something small to start with) & avoid large meals after 6pm.
  • Eat nourishing foods at all 3 meals & avoid eating on the run (sit down and enjoy your food).

 

Avoid Food & Drink That Disturbs Your Sleep

  • Avoid alcohol, coffee, caffeine, stimulants, recreational drugs and tobacco.
  • Avoid fried foods, saturated fats, excessive meat and dairy, and excessive salt.
  • Avoid hot spicy food and spices such as chilli, hot curry, black pepper, raw garlic, raw onions, cinnamon and cloves.

 

Rest and Relax for Better Sleep

  • Incorporate rest and relaxation into your daily schedule (try listening to a guided meditation on the Plum Village App (download for apple) (download for android) or taking 10 minutes to unroll your neck
  • Do something everyday that makes you joyful (something that nourishes your spirit) & prioritise relationships that you find supportive and nourishing.
  • Regular gentle, soft and relaxing exercise will be very beneficial so you could try a gentle walk in the woods, do some gardening or try qigong.
  • Avoid situations and people that cause you emotional stress. Can you delegate some tasks? Can you take a break from any of your current roles?
  • Take a break from strong emotional stimulation. In many cases this means avoiding the daily news which is often quite disturbing, but also avoiding  violent or exciting TV programs, games and sports.
  • Avoid late nights, and try to relax in the evening for some time before going to sleep. This means avoiding screens before bed.
  • Improve your work/life balance and use any extra time for nourishing activities.
Restless Dreams

Restless Dreams and Nightmares?

The creative aspect of the Mind is said to be housed in the Blood of the Liver so if there is a deficiency of this ‘Liver-Blood’ or if there is ‘Heat in the Blood’, then this creative aspect of the Mind will not be able to settle. This can result in difficulty falling asleep or waking in the night, but will also be characterised by sleep that is disturbed by intense dreams or vivid nightmares.

Another cause of disturbed sleep can be undigested food sitting in the stomach at night as there is a close connection between the Stomach and the Heart. If you’re having sleepless nights, and aware of restless dreams or nightmares, you should address the following areas:

 

Relaxation to Help with Disturbing Dreams

  • Talk about any frustrations/emotions with someone that you trust. Try to articulate your feelings, change difficult relationships, change difficult patterns, change any feelings of powerlessness. You may find that journaling helps in this area.
  • Reduce your ‘to do’ list in order to reduce any feelings of pressure. Can you delegate some tasks? Can you take a break from any of your current roles?
  • Whenever you feel irritated, frustrated or tense then get your body moving. Go for a short walk, stretch your body or practise some Qigong.
  • Try to slow down and remove yourself from any stressful environments

 

Diet to Help with Disturbing Dreams

  • Avoid spicy, fatty & deep fried foods, especially late at night.
  • Avoid/cut down on coffee, chocolate, alcohol and any other recreational drugs
  • Keep well hydrated by drinking plenty of warm fluids. Fill an insulated cup with 50% boiled water & 50% cool water to keep with you throughout the day.
  • Eat relatively fewer carbohydrates and proteins and more vegetables and fruit (40-50% of your diet)
  • At each meal, stop eating just before you feel full.
  • Eat your main meal earlier in the day.
  • Chew your food well and eat slowly.

 

Exercise to Help with Disturbing Dreams

  • Get some gentle daily exercise. Avoid intensive exercises and try Qigong instead or go walking in the woods instead.
  • Incorporate daily rest and relaxation into your routine. You could listen to a guided meditation on the Plum Village App (download for apple) (download for android) or practice Qigong.
  • Get up and stretch regularly, especially if you’re sitting at work. Try setting a timer to remind yourself to get up.

Age Related Sleep Problems?

As we age it is natural that our constitution becomes somewhat weaker, and in Chinese medicine this is described as a diminishing of the ‘Essence’ stored in our Kidneys. This weakness means that if there are any disturbing emotions affecting our Heart it is very easy for them to spill over and affect our Kidneys too.

Here we say that the Heat from our Heart flares up to disturb our Mind, and that the cooling Water of the Kidneys is insufficient to quench these flames. This can result in difficulty falling asleep, as well as waking frequently during the night.

 

Calming Your Mind to Help with Sleep

  • Create a bedtime routine that helps to calm your body and mind before bed (see my article on sleep hygiene), and aim to get at least 2 early nights a week.
  • Avoid late nights, and try to relax in the evening for some time before going to sleep – avoid screens for at least an hour before bedtime.
  • Incorporate rest and relaxation into your daily schedule (try listening to a guided meditation on the Plum Village App (download for apple) (download for android) or practising some Qigong.
  • Do something every day that makes you joyful – something that nourishes your spirit.
  • Prioritise relationships that you find supportive and nourishing
  • Avoid situations and people that cause you emotional stress.
  • Take a break from strong emotional stimulation (i.e. violent/scary/exciting TV programs/games/sports)

 

Nourishing Your Body to Help with Sleep

  • Avoid large meals after 6pm and eat your main meal of the day at lunchtime.
  • Avoid coffee, alcohol, tobacco and other stimulants.
  • Avoid deep-fried foods, spicy foods and  large quantities of red meat.
  • Avoid fried foods, saturated fats, excessive meat and dairy, and excessive salt.
  • It’s very important that you nourish your body, so eat more Blood nourishing foods such as cabbage, kale, spinach, watercress, avocado, beetroot, chicken, eggs, etc.
  • Eat foods designed by nature to nourish the young (pollen, royal jelly, seeds, nuts, seaweed, algae, spirulina, Vit A, Vit B complex, Vit E, Zinc)
  • Eat nourishing foods at all 3 meals & avoid eating on the run – sit down and enjoy your food.
  • Eat a higher proportion of fruit & vegetables (40% or more of your diet).
  • Drink plenty of warm fluids. Fill an insulated cup with 50% boiled water & 50% cool water and keep it with you to drink throughout the day.
  • Drink nettle tea (2 cups/day, made using not quite boiled water)
  • Eat breakfast, lunch and dinner at regular times each day, and if one meal is a problem at first just have something small to start with.
  • Eat in a relaxing environment, chew your food well and eat slowly. Avoid overeating.

 

Exercising Correctly to Help with Sleep

  • Avoid excessive exercise, and aim to get a little regular gentle exercise every day. You could try Qigong, going for a walk in the woods, or doing some gardening.
  • Avoid excessive sweating such as by taking saunas or doing intensive exercise and drink more warm fluids as described above.
  • Rest and recovery is key to everything that you do both physically and mentally, so make sure that you are incorporating enough time for this into your day.
Woman Sleeping on the Moon

Menstrual and Childbirth  Related Sleep Problems?

As I have mentioned already, our body needs to be well nourished in order for our Mind to find a comfortable home to rest in at night.

Given that women lose Blood each month during their period, it is more common for them to suffer from a deficiency of Liver Blood. This means that if women have sleep issues that coincide with their period they should aim to nourish and care for themselves in order to help with sleep.

It is also worth noting that another important factor affecting women’s sleep is the fact of any Blood loss during childbirth. Of course, many women will struggle with getting enough sleep while caring for a newborn, but if Blood deficiency means that the quality of your sleep is affected, then this time may be even more challenging.

It is worth noting that breast milk is seen as another aspect of Liver Blood in Chinese medicine so breastfeeding mothers are also liable to be more Blood deficient. In fact, the combination of these specific causes of Blood deficiency are seen as the root of Postnatal Depression in Chinese medicine.

 

Nourishing Your Body to Help with Sleep

  • It’s very important that you nourish your body in order to replenish Blood, so eat more protein (roughly 20-30% of your diet). If you are vegetarian, make sure that you are eating complete proteins.
  • Take a good quality Pregnancy Supplement before, during and after pregnancy to ensure you are not missing out on essential nutrients.
  • Get as much rest as you can when time allows. This means not watching TV, not on your phone, not on your laptop, etc.As much as possible, eat regular meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner) at regular times & avoid large meals after 6pm. Batch cooking before your baby arrives can be helpful.
  • Eat nourishing foods at all 3 meals & avoid eating on the run (sit down and enjoy your food)
  • Chew your food well and eat slowly in a relaxed environment. Avoid overeating.
  • Avoid Alcohol, coffee, caffeine, stimulants, recreational drugs, tobacco.
  • Avoid fried foods, saturated fats, excessive meat and dairy, and excessive salt.
  • Avoid hot spicy food and spices (chilli, hot curry, black pepper, raw garlic, raw onions, cinnamon, cloves)

 

Calming Your Mind to Help with Sleep

  • Try to maintain good sleep habits so that you are getting the best quality sleep that you can manage (see my blog article on good sleep hygiene).

 

Exercising Correctly to Help with Sleep

  • Although you may be very busy, do try to get a little gentle exercise each day – go for a walk outside or practise some simple stretches at home.
  • Avoid excessive sweating & drink plenty of warm fluids (fill an insulated cup with 50% boiled water & 50% cool water) to keep yourself well hydrated.

A Note on Sleep and the Menopause

The other area to think about in regard to Women’s Health and difficulty sleeping is, of course, perimenopause.

In terms of Chinese medicine many menopausal symptoms are seen as relating to Kidney-Yin deficiency with its attendant Heat, and Kidney-Yang deficiency with its attendant Cold.

If you are struggling at this time, I recommend looking at my advice above on age related sleep problems. I would also recommend that you get in touch so that I can tailor my advice to your specific circumstances.

A Note on Sleep and Snoring

As mentioned above, there can be a number of physical issues that lead to problems with breathing while asleep.

There can, however, also be some internal imbalances that can create problems with snoring. The main one of these is Phlegm affecting the channel which passes through the throat on its way to the face.

 

Changing Your Diet to Help with Snoring

  • Avoid sugar, sugary foods, sweeteners and refined processed foods, especially high carbohydrate food & processed food.
  • Cut out dairy products  such as cheese, butter, yoghurt, ice-cream and milk, or switch to goat and sheep based products.
  • Avoid/cut down refined and highly processed foods (especially fatty and sugary foods)
  • Eat a higher proportion of vegetables (40-50% of diet) and less carbohydrates
  • Stop eating just before you feel full, and avoid late night snacks

 

Exercising Correctly to Help with Snoring

  • Get some gentle daily exercise (avoid intensive exercise and try Qigong instead or go for a walk in the woods)
  • Practise steam inhalations with eucalyptus oil in the evenings before you go to bed.
  • Practise nasal rinsing once a twice a day in the morning and/or evening.

 

Beneficial Essential Oils for Phlegm/Snoring

  • Ginger
  • Neroli
  • Juniper
  • Sandalwood
  • Tea Tree

 

Beneficial Drinks for Phlegm/Snoring

  • Dandelion Root
  • Raspberry Lea

A Note on Sleep Positions

There is a variety of advice on the optimal position for sleep so I recommend that you experiment to see what works best for you.

If you are a side sleeper, I recommend that you try to sleep on your right hand side with legs slightly bent, your right arm bent and resting in front of your pillow, and your left arm resting on your left thigh. In this position your Heart is high so that Blood can circulate freely, your Liver is low so that Blood can collect there and root your Creative Mind, your stomach and duodenum are in a position that allows downward movement of food. 

If it works for you, I also recommend that you try to switch sides each night so that your body doesn’t develop any physical imbalances as a result of favouring one side. It can also help to have a good stretch of your spine before turning in for the night.

A Note on Sleep Medications

If you are taking any form of sleep medications, it is not a good idea to quit them abruptly.

In general, there is no problem with continuing to take these medications while receiving acupuncture treatment. You will likely find that the medicines work better and that you need to take less  and less of them to achieve the same results.

If you are taking any form of prescribed medication, you should check with your GP before seeking to make any changes.

Persevere and You Will See Improvements…

So, in closing this article, I just want to reiterate what I said at the outset about the importance of persevering with the changes you have decided to make.

Most sleep problems are likely the result of an accumulation of imbalances over the course of years so it will take some time and concerted effort to change direction.

I wish you all the best with the changes that I have outlined here, and if you need any further support then please do get in touch.

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Andrew Wormald

Acupuncture, Tuina Massage & Qigong Specialist

Andrew is a lifelong practitioner of traditional self-cultivation practices. This journal is a space to share insights and information with like-minded people.

If you have any comments or suggestions please post them below or you can email andrew@truefortune.co.uk

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