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Sleep disorder/insomnia - what can help?

By Jason Callanan, TCM Practitioner and Acupuncturist at The Neigbourhood Clinic

The amount of restful sleep you get can really determine the quality of your life. It influences your vitality, endurance, and ability to cope with your daily responsibilities.

Sleep disorders are defined by any disruption to your optimum quantity and quality of restful sleep (1).

Sleep patterns are guided by our circadian rhythms; our internal mechanism which tells us when to wake and when to sleep, however with modern lifestyles we often affect these rhythms; by having stimulants such as caffeine or alcohol at night which prompt us to stay awake, or we stay up late on computers or watching television which tricks our body into thinking it is still daylight. One of our sleep hormones Melatonin is released into the brain between 1.5 to 2 hours after our eyes no longer detect light. Its function is to both to promote and maintain sleep (2).

If we are awake watching computer or TV we can fool our brain into thinking we need to stay alert and awake, and thus delay the release of Melatonin.

Many people these days have a very busy lifestyle. We are waking up early to an alarm clock, which shocks us awake and gets the heart racing before we are even out of bed, then consume a quick cup of coffee which elevates the heart rate even more, then either get off to work or look after family members, or both, then leave the house usually within only an hour or so of waking up. At the end of their they then stay up late in an attempt to “wind down” only to begin it all again the next day.

Scientific studies have linked poor sleep patterns with increased risk of developing diabetes, obesity, heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, asthma, and immune problems (3).

Traditional Chinese Medicine

TCM has a long history with treating not only sleep issues but promoting better ways to wake your body up in the morning. These two issues may be addressed with TCM treatments and exercises.

Acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine can help induce relaxation and calm the mind and prepare the body for a better sleep. This is achieved by addressing the excesses and deficiencies of various organs and precious fluids of the body. TCM has a primary goal of assisting the body to be in balance.

This is achieved is through treating the disharmony that arises in various organs. TCM theory states that our soul (Shen) resides in the heart, and if the heart is too disturbed (unresolved emotions), too hot due to lifestyle behaviours (food, alcohol, caffeine), or not strong (due t over exertion), then our spirit cannot rest comfortably at night. The liver is also affected easily by heat, alcohol, caffeine and emotions. It can wake us during the night (usually between 1am-3am) if it is unhappy and then we can have trouble returning too sleep.

TCM and waking

Many people not only don’t sleep well but they don’t wake up well either.

When we wake in the morning our body can feel stiff and heavy. TCM theory incorporates the use of tai qi and qi gong exercises to gently wake up the body by promoting blood flow to the muscles, gentle rotation of the joints to waken and stimulate movement of ligaments, and to gently massage our internal organs to release toxins and prepare ourselves to eliminate our waste ready to begin a new day.

The constant fluctuation between waking up, being busy, and then winding down in preparation for sleep is one that can be managed and boosted with TCM practice and treatment.

Some tips for better sleep

  • Eat a light meal early in the evening as our body doesn’t really have the energy to digest a heavy meal as we try to sleep

  • Avoid strong aromatic herbs and spices like garlic and ginger at night as it may stimulate your energy and get your mind racing as you try to sleep

  • Avoid drinking large amounts of fluids at night as it may wake you in the night to urinate, best stay hydrated during the day and minimise fluid intake after 6pm, this includes alcohol as it is a stimulant

  • Go to bed around 9:30pm

  • Give yourself some time at night to “wind down” with reading a book by low light, stretching out on the floor with relaxing music on, meditation, warm bath by candlelight, to assist you with preparing for sleep

Article by Dr Jason Callanan, Chinese Medical Herbalist, Acupuncturist and Acupressure Therapist at The Neighbourhood Clinic.


(2) Fourtillan, JB. Role of Melatonin in induction and maintenance of sleep. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2002 Dec;4(4):395-401.PMID:22033561

(3) Medic, G. Wille, M. Hemels, ME. 2017. Short and long-term health consequences of sleep disruption. Nat Sci Sleep. 2017 May 19; 9:151-161. doi: 10.2147/NSS.S134864.


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