Natural Dietary and Lifestyle Therapies for Treating Sleep Disorders

Beyond pharmaceuticals there are safer, more effective ways to promote healthy sleep.
Natural Dietary and Lifestyle Therapies for Treating Sleep Disorders
(Olena Yakobchuk/Shutterstock)
Dr. Kuo-Pin Wu
Jennifer Bateman

We may not be fully aware of the benefits of a good night's sleep until we're not getting it. Lack of quality slumber reduces our cognitive abilities, affects our mood, and can lead to weight gain and premature skin aging.

When sleep deprivation becomes chronic it can weaken the immune system, thereby increasing the risks of various other conditions such as dementia and cardiovascular diseases.

While the use of sleeping pills comes with potentially significant side effects, traditional Chinese medicine utilizes herbal and acupuncture treatments to address various sleep disorders, ensuring both safety and effectiveness. This article introduces several traditional dietary therapies, along with simple yet effective natural remedies, aimed at improving sleep disorders.

Types of Sleep Disorders

Generally speaking, sleep disorders are classified as instances where sleep problems occur for at least three days in a week, or when insomnia persists for a month. Brief episodes of insomnia lasting just a few days don't fully qualify as sleep disorders.
There are five main types of sleep disorders commonly observed in clinical practice:

1. Difficulty falling asleep

Children or adolescents who struggle to fall asleep within 30 minutes after lying in bed with their eyes closed, or within 1 hour for adults.
In cases of severe insomnia, some individuals might find themselves tossing and turning in bed for hours. This can lead to growing restlessness, making it even harder to fall asleep. In such circumstances, it is recommended to get up and move around for a while to ease the mind's tension before attempting to sleep again.

2. Nighttime awakenings

People experiencing this type of sleep disorder often wake up multiple times during the night and take more than 30 minutes to fall back asleep each time. Under normal circumstances, the number of awakenings during the night should not exceed two times.

3. Chronic shallow sleep

Individuals with this type of sleep disorder do not have trouble falling asleep. However, they experience extended periods of light sleep with very short periods of deep sleep, resulting in poor sleep quality. Despite sleeping for seven to eight hours, they may still wake up feeling fatigued.

People with allergies often experience nasal congestion, prompting them to resort to mouth breathing. Consequently, their mouths can become dry, causing them to wake up during the night to drink water. Such disruption can result in nighttime awakening or chronic shallow sleep, leading to poor sleep quality.

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) treatments yield positive results for issues related to nasal congestion and nasal polyps. In clinical practice, TCM practitioners often utilize acupuncture to target acupoints like Bitong, Suliao, Yintang, Shangxing, and Baihui, effectively alleviating nasal blockages. When combined with Chinese herbal medicine, allergic symptoms can significantly improve, leading to better sleep quality. In contrast, Western medicine treatments for nasal allergies often involve antihistamines or other medications, which can lead to daytime drowsiness as a side effect.

According to traditional Chinese medicine, meridians are the channels through which energy flows in the human body. The body consists of 12 major meridians, each corresponding to a specific organ. Along the meridians, there are specific points known as acupoints, which possess unique functions. By stimulating the corresponding acupoints through techniques like acupuncture and massage, it is possible to treat diseases related to specific organs.

4. Early morning awakening

This refers to waking up at least one hour earlier than usual or having an overall sleep duration of less than five hours. Normal sleep duration typically ranges from 6.5 to 8 hours, and both inadequate and excessive sleep can lead to fatigue.

5. Excessive dreaming

This refers to experiencing numerous vivid dreams during sleep. Some people may dream of being chased or running tirelessly, and upon waking up, often feel exhausted.

In traditional Chinese medicine, this type of sleep disorder is often addressed through acupuncture on the Laogong acupoint or the use of a Chinese herb known as Huanglian. Both methods are direct and effective.

(The Epoch Times)
(The Epoch Times)

The Adverse Effects of Poor Sleep

The human body undergoes self-repair during sleep, highlighting the significant impact that sleep disorders can have on overall health.

1. Impaired brain function and increased risk of dementia

Inadequate sleep can lead to declines in brain function and memory deterioration. This is because the short-term memories stored in the hippocampus can only be transferred to the frontal lobe and become permanent memories during deep and restful sleep.
Poor sleep can impact the hippocampus' memory storage function, potentially leading to issues such as dementia, and even brain atrophy and degeneration.

2. Weakened immune system

Poor sleep can cause disruptions in the functioning of the nervous and endocrine systems, resulting in a weakened immune system.

3. Disrupted metabolism and increased risk of obesity and cardiovascular diseases

Sleep disorders can affect the body's metabolism, potentially leading to metabolic syndrome. This increases the risk of obesity and significantly raises the chances of developing conditions like diabetes, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, and stroke.
Individuals who have high blood lipids despite taking cholesterol-lowering medications should consider whether they have sleep disorders. Addressing sleep issues can lead to improved metabolism, offering potential benefits in tackling conditions such as high blood pressure, high blood triglycerides, and high blood sugar levels.

4. Dull skin and premature aging

Generally, the body initiates a process of cleansing and repairing the skin around 3 a.m., which helps maintain its radiance and youthfulness. Therefore, poor sleep quality can result in premature skin aging.
People often talk about "beauty sleep" to preserve a youthful physique and appearance. It is recommended to go to bed by 10 p.m., aiming to enter a deep sleep phase around 3 a.m. This practice fundamentally allows the skin to receive optimal care, potentially surpassing the benefits of using any skincare product.

Primary Causes of Insomnia

Sleep disorders are often caused by psychological factors. Anxiety, depression, and significant mental stress can all contribute to the development of insomnia. An ancient Chinese saying, "Rest the mind before resting the eyes," emphasizes the importance of calming the mind and easing away excessive thoughts before closing one's eyes to promote better sleep.

Additionally, factors contributing to insomnia include shift work or long-distance travel, as they can disrupt the body's internal clock. Smoking or consuming stimulating substances like caffeine-containing tea and coffee before bedtime can also negatively impact sleep quality.

Another contributing aspect to disrupted sleep quality is physiological factors, including conditions like frequent urination, coughing, sleep apnea, and bodily pain.

Certain environmental factors, such as noise, extreme heat or cold, bright light, and insect bites can also affect our sleep.

Dietary Remedies for Better Sleep

In traditional Chinese medicine, there are specialized treatment approaches for sleep disorders caused by various factors, that often offer advantages over Western medicine's approach.

1. Traditional Chinese herbal remedies for better sleep

  • For individuals experiencing sleep difficulties due to anxiety, Xiao Yao San can be a suitable remedy.
  • If restlessness is a contributing factor to poor sleep, an adjusted formula known as Jia Wei Xiao Yao San, which contains Mu Dan Pi and Shan Zhi Zi, may be more effective.
  • Additionally, adding a small amount of Liu Wei Di Huang Wan to the formula helps improve sleep.
  • Individuals experiencing symptoms of palpitations and chest tightness can benefit from the addition of Tian Wang Bu Xin Dan to the formula, leading to effective treatment outcomes.

2. Traditional dietary recipes to prevent nocturia and promote sleep

An ancient Chinese dietary remedy for better sleep called Gan Mai Da Zao Tang can help stabilize emotions and promote restful sleep.
  • 30 grams of Fu Xiao Mai
  • 4 to 5 jujubes
  • 9 grams of licorice root

Add 800 ml of water to the herbal mixture and simmer for 30 minutes. Take 200 ml about an hour and a half before bedtime. This can help induce pre-sleep urination and prevent nocturia (the need to get up during the night to urinate), thereby avoiding disruptions to your sleep.

Another recipe that promotes sleep is Xiao Mi Zao Ren Zhou (millet and jujube porridge).

  • 100 grams of millet
  • 15 grams of sour jujube kernel powder
  • 30 grams of honey
  • 1000 ml water
Directions: Cook ingredients together to make a porridge to help calm the mind and improve sleep. Eat at any time of day.

Five Natural Ways to Improve Sleep Disorders

Dr. Wu Kuo-pin, the superintendent of Taiwan Xinyitang Heart Clinic, recommends five simple and effective natural remedies for improving sleep quality.

1. Sunbathe

Exposing your body to sunlight for at least 30 minutes in the morning can help regulate the autonomic nervous system and the pineal gland in the brain, thereby normalizing melatonin secretion. Alternatively, sunbathing for an hour in the afternoon can also be beneficial.

2. Pre-sleep foot bath

Scientific research has found that the closer the temperature of the body's internal organs is to that of the limbs, the easier it is to fall asleep. Normally, the temperature of our internal organs is higher than that of our hands and feet. Soaking the feet in hot water can help reduce the temperature difference between the extremities and the internal organs, thereby promoting better sleep.
The water temperature for foot soaking should be maintained at around 102 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit (39 to 40 degrees Celsius), and it should not exceed 107.6 degrees Fahrenheit (42 degrees Celsius). Temperatures beyond this range can stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, leading to increased excitement and difficulty falling asleep.

3. Take a hot bath

When taking a hot bath, the temperature of the internal organs slightly rises, but it will decrease to a level lower than usual after bathing. This narrows the temperature gap between internal organs and the limbs, making it easier to fall asleep. Additionally, taking a bath activates the parasympathetic nervous system in the body, promoting relaxation and improving sleep.
Water temperature for bathing should be maintained at around 102 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit, similar to that for foot soaking. It is recommended to take a 15-minute bath about an hour before going to bed. After the bath, drinking some water can help relax the body, which is beneficial for a good night's sleep.

4. Perform stretching exercises before bedtime

Engaging in some stretching exercises before bedtime can help relax your joints and muscles, as well as calm your mind, making it easier to fall asleep. Falling asleep can be difficult if your muscles are tense.

5. Practice rehabilitation exercises for the cervical spine

People with chronic sleep disorders often have neck stiffness, which can affect sleep. Even if they manage to sleep, it tends to be shallow and of poor quality.
According to Dr. Wu, the most effective clinical treatment method for neck stiffness is adjusting the cervical spine. In a previous Epoch Times article Dr. Wu introduces nine techniques to self-rehabilitate the cervical spine that can significantly improve your sleep.

Dr. Wu tells of a patient in her seventies with a sleep disorder. Despite taking melatonin supplements, she still struggled to sleep. After seeking advice from other traditional Chinese medicine practitioners, there was some improvement, but she still felt the need for sleeping pills.

One day, she came across Dr. Wu's self-rehabilitation exercises for the cervical spine and after practicing them for just three days, she found herself sleeping soundly without the need for medication. Impressed, she consulted Dr. Wu, who further improved her sleep quality through additional cervical spine treatment.

Note: Some herbs mentioned in this article may be unfamiliar, but they are generally available in health food stores and Asian grocery stores. It is important to note that treatment methods may vary depending on the individual. Please consult with a healthcare professional for a specific treatment plan.
Dr. Kuo-pin Wu is the superintendent of Taiwan Xinyitang Heart Clinic. In 2008, he started to study traditional Chinese medicine and obtained a bachelor’s degree from China Medical University in Taiwan.