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Chinese Medicine to Promote Better Sleep

Chinese Medicine for Better Sleep: A Blog

A solid sleep cycle is essential for our physical and mental health. Better sleep quality has been found to improve memory recall, mood, mental fatigue, and general brain function, as well as reduce the risk of obesity, depression, and heart disease

“Sleep restriction”, on the other hand, has been shown to have the same effects as complete sleep deprivation, and it’s not pretty. When we sleep, the brain regenerates neurons and removes cellular waste byproducts. But a lack of sleep can cause neuron dysfunction, which may lead to memory loss and heightened stress levels. This can cause health problems, including depression, which is clinically linked to poor sleep quality, more specifically insomnia.

Traditional Chinese Medicine on Sleep Disturbances 

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) views insomnia and sleep disorders as a sign of imbalance. 

In TCM, all natural life, including the human body, exists in a state of equilibrium between the forces of Yin and Yang. The body also requires a flow of Qi, meaning lifeforce or energy. Disease and disorders arise from the stagnancy of Qi, and/or an imbalance of Yin and Yang in the body. 

Simplified, Yin refers to what is inward, cool, dark, wet, passive, and still. Yang refers to what is exterior, hot, bright, dry, assertive, and active. Accordingly, sleep and wakefulness are part of the natural cycle of Yin and Yang Qi in the body. Yang dominates the day, keeping us warm, active, and alert. In the evening, the cool Yin Qi slows down our system and calms the body for a restful sleep. When the natural rhythm of Yin Yang (or the nervous system) is dysregulated, insomnia can arise. 

The Yin Yang states can be applied to the two modes of the Automic Nervous System: The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). During the day, the SNS drives our ‘fight or flight’ response, keeping us active and alert. At night, the PNS is activated, driving our ‘rest and digest’ functions. This helps the body lower blood pressure, slow our heart rate, and promote healthy digestion. 

Just as Yin Yang imbalances can disturb your sleep cycle, a dysregulated nervous system can keep the mind and body overactive during the night, leading to sleep dysfunction. 

How TCM Treats Insomnia

According to TCM, there are a few different patterns and causes behind insomnia

For instance, insomnia might arise from ‘Liver Qi stagnation transforming into fire’. This happens when the liver is congested and overheats the heart, causing difficulty falling asleep. In this case, the patient might show signs of irritability and anger, have a red face, poor appetite, a strong thirst, and a rapid, fine pulse. A TCM practitioner might use moxibustion to stimulate Liver Qi and clear the heat. 

If you fall asleep easily, but wake in the night and struggle to fall back to sleep, this could be from a ‘deficiency of heart and spleen’. This happens when the spleen, the body’s major producer of nutrients, is overworked and fails to nourish the heart.

In TCM, the heart houses our Shen (spirit/consciousness/heart-mind), but cannot contain it when undernourished. And so Shen wanders restlessly, disrupting our sleep cycle. Common signs are dizziness, fatigue, palpitation, a pale complexion, and a fine, weak pulse. A TCM practitioner may use acupuncture points and herbs to strengthen the speen and heart and increase the flow of nutrient-rich blood. 

After determining the pattern behind your sleep disturbances, a TCM practitioner will work with herbs, acupuncture, and moxibustion to address the imbalance. Acupuncture especially has been found to improve sleep quality and duration, as well as reduce symptoms of disorders that cause insomnia

Aside from standard TCM treatment, there are many simple changes you can make at home to improve your sleep quality. 

1. Get aligned  

In TCM, it’s all about aligning the body to the natural cycles and rhythms of nature. The body is primed for sunlight, food, and stimulation during the day – all Yang qualities. But the night belongs to Yin. It’s the time when the lungs, large intestine, and liver/gallbladder are at their strongest, digesting and detoxifying. A balanced sleep cycle requires calm and stillness in the evening so these organs can do their work while we rest. 

How to align to the natural cycles:

  • Get plenty of sunlight and movement in the morning
  • Slow down mental and physical activity as the sun sets 
  • Keep your bedroom cool (a lower body temperature promotes deep sleep)  
  • Eliminate blue light from computer screens and smartphones at night 
  • Eat meals and try to go to sleep at regular times to enhance sleep quality
  • Don’t eat too close to bedtime, and keep meals small in the evening 
  • Limit sugar-rich foods, refined carbohydrates, fermented or smoked foods & plants from the nightshade family (these can contribute to insomnia) 
  • Avoid alcohol and caffeine before bedtime 
  • Take a hot shower just before bed. When your body cools afterward, it will go into Yin mode and slow down. 
  • Embrace stress management tools like meditation, aromatherapy (lavender is especially calming), or breathing exercises 
  • Try some calming Yin yoga before sleep, which generally involves gentle stretching to balance your energy before bed  

2. Herbal Teas & Remedies for Insomnia 

Humans have been drinking herbal teas for sleep and relaxation since the dawn of civilization.

One of the oldest calming remedies is chamomile, used perhaps since Neolithic times. Not only is chamomile clinically proven to reduce stress and anxiety, but the herb has been found to improve sleep quality. This is because chamomile binds to benzodiazepine receptors in the brain, inducing a gentle tranquilizing effect. But there are many soothing teas that can promote sleep quality. 

Valerian root exerts two natural sedatives called valepotriates and sesquiterpenes. 

Passionflower has flavonoids that bind to benzodiazepine receptors and when taken as a capsule, it’s been found to provide as much short-term insomnia relief as medication.

Magnolia bark reduces the time it takes to fall asleep by binding to GABA receptors and calming the body.

Melatonin has been found to help manage insomnia and improve sleep quality by boosting the body’s natural supply of the hormone that regulates our circadian rhythm.

3. Eat more yin, avoid eating yang 

To help get your body into balance, eat more cooling, Yin foods, and limit warming Yang foods. 

Yin foods are generally pale, simple, and contain lots of moisture. Tofu, cucumber, watermelon, green beans, lettuce, celery, yogurt, and bananas help cool the body. Mint and lemon balm teas will also cool the body. Eat plenty of salads and fruit, and drink lots of water (with slices of cucumber and mint for extra cooling). 

Yang foods to avoid are generally spicy, rich, pungent, or overly sweet. Avoid hot peppers, chilies, lamb, venison, trout, prawns, and shrimp. Any foods or drinks with sugar, alcohol, caffeine or strong spices should be avoided. 

4. Lean into ‘Yin Mode’ 

We tend to overrule the natural cycles in Western culture. But if TCM can teach us anything, it’s that the body works best when aligned with nature. By leaning into a Yin attitude in the evening, we’re sending a signal to our body that it’s time to release the ‘fight or flight’ mode of the day and ease into ‘rest & digest’ mode. 

It helps to create a soothing bedtime ritual. We recommend taking a break from screens and stress, wearing soft, comfortable clothes, taking a stroll in nature, playing relaxing music, lighting candles or incense, and letting yourself absorb the cooling, restful atmosphere of the night. 

Tessa Eskin


Tessa Eskin


This blog is not intended to provide diagnosis, treatment, or medical advice. The content provided is for informational purposes only. Please consult with a physician or healthcare professional regarding any medical or health-related diagnosis or treatment options. The claims made regarding specific products in this blog are not approved to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent disease.

Tessa Eskin


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