12 ways to help you sleep
Sleeping difficulties affect all of us from time to time – most commonly during times of stress1. They can present in a few different ways, including taking too long to fall asleep, experiencing periods of wakefulness during the night, and waking up too early and then not being able to fall asleep again.
If you’ve been experiencing any of those issues, the following tips might help. Importantly, they emphasise that preparing your body and mind for sleep is best approached as an all-day activity, not something you only need to think about after you’ve brushed your teeth at night.
1. Prioritise getting your body clock back into sync
So, what are some natural ways to get better sleep? Your body’s natural rhythm is to spend about a third of each 24-hour day asleep, and the remainder awake and alert. Poor sleep indicates that rhythm has been disrupted, leaving you awake when you’re meant to be deep in slumber. As a result, you’ll also often feel sleepy or have low energy during the day1.
This daily sleep-wake cycle is in part driven by the hormone melatonin, which your brain produces during times of darkness. To assist it in getting back into sync set the lights in your home to dim settings in the evenings.
Unplug from all your devices too, because the blue light they emit can interfere with melatonin production and therefore with the biological urge to sleep2.
2. Greet the sun: another way to get good sleep
Exposing yourself to the sun is another great way to help your body and circadian rhythms get into sync, signalling to your brain that it’s daytime. For optimal benefit, head outdoors into the sunlight as early in the morning as you can2. (As opposed to the measures you’re taking in the evening that are designed to promote melatonin production, this daylight exposure is intended to prompt it to switch off again in the morning).
3. Keep yin and yang in balance too
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) emphasises that healthy sleep occurs when the body’s own cycles are in rhythm with the world around us3, and that rest and sleep are an important opportunity for the body to replenish its store of qi, the life force energy that fuels all activity4.
In TCM, daytime is considered yang, so it’s a period when we’re meant to have an alert, focused mind and an active, energised body. It’s therefore the ideal time to focus on external activities, including working hard and exercising vigorously3,4. The idea is to be fully awake when it’s time to be awake, so that you’re well and truly ready to sleep come bedtime.
As evening approaches, and the earth moves into a yin phase, it’s time for you to do the same. This is when life is intended to be calm, relaxed and inwardly focused, so put your work and study away and instead engage in relaxing pastimes in preparation for sleep3,4.
4. Settle your spirit
According to TCM philosophy, another key to promoting healthy sleep is to ensure that the spirit is calm.
In TCM, the spirit (also known as shen) is said to rule thought, emotions, memory, consciousness and mental functioning. It lets the physical body know when it’s time to rest and when it’s time to be alert – so it governs the sleep-wake cycle too1,5.
When the spirit is calm, you’ll not only sleep well, according to TCM theory, but you’ll also be blessed with clarity of thought, a good memory and zest for life4,5.
On the other hand, sleeping problems can occur if the spirit is restless or agitated – for example due to mental stress or unhealthy lifestyle habits like overworking1. Keep reading for more ways to improve sleep!
5. Take ziziphus, traditionally used to reduce sleeplessness
In TCM, ziziphus is traditionally regarded as having calming effects on both the mind and the spirit.
Ziziphus is also used to induce sleep in TCM, where it’s traditionally taken to help you fall asleep more quickly and reduce sleeplessness and disturbed sleep.
6. Avoid overeating in the evening
In TCM, there’s a clear link between eating too much and experiencing sleeping problems1. If you’re keen to sleep well, TCM teaches that you should especially avoid consuming spicy, greasy or fried food in the evenings, as the effort it takes to digest them could generate excess heat and interfere with your body’s ability to sleep1,3. Instead, eat lightly in the evening, finishing three hours before bedtime1.
Good foods to include in your diet from the perspective of TCM include:
- Wheat, barley and mulberries, which are traditionally believed to nourish the heart organ-meridian system, where the spirit or Shen resides1
- Oranges, mandarins and celery, which are traditionally regarded as having smoothing effects on the flow of Qi, and therefore the ability to calm an overly active or stressed out mind1
- Spinach, carrots, lychees, grapes and mushrooms, which are traditionally used to help replenish Qi, and may be especially useful if you’ve been working too hard1
7. Skip the stimulants
It probably goes without saying that you should avoid stimulants like caffeine-containing beverages in the afternoon and evening if you’ve been experiencing sleeping problems2,6. Avoid alcohol and smoking cigarettes too.6
8. Implement a regular routine
To help your body recognise when it’s time to get ready for sleep, implement a relaxing evening routine and regular bedtime and stick to it – even on the weekends2. In the half-hour beforehand, wind down in preparation for bed by focussing on relaxing and calming activities, like listening to gentle music, doing some meditation or performing some gentle stretches. 2
9. Create a calm, restful environment: a good way to fall asleep easier
The environment you sleep in has a big impact on both the duration and quality of your sleep.
Light and sound are the first factors to consider here, so make sure your room is dark, quiet and cool. If it’s not, consider taking steps like installing block-out curtains and blinds, wearing an eye mask or earplugs, or purchasing a white noise machine or a fan for the bedroom2.
It’s also important that you’re comfortable, so if your mattress, pillow or bedding don’t make you feel like you’re in a snuggly cocoon of sleep-inducing bliss, it’s time to treat yourself to new ones! 2,6
10. Make exercise a core habit
Add getting a good night’s sleep to the long list of many reasons to make physical activity a part of your lifestyle7.
If you’ve been having trouble sleeping, aim for 20-45 minutes of moderate-intensity activity five days a week or more to help improve your sleeping habits over the long term.
In TCM, qigong is considered a particularly beneficial form of exercise for restoring balance to the sleep-wake cycle. Try it during the evening to help your mind switch off and prime your body for a good night’s sleep1 – our free qigong for inner peace class is a great way to get started.
As a general rule though, it’s best to avoid doing other, more stimulating, forms of exercise too close to bedtime, as doing so can have a stimulating effect, preventing you from falling asleep easily6.
11. Try passionflower, traditionally used as a sleep aid in Western herbal medicine
Passionflower has a long history of use for inducing sleep in Western herbal medicine, where it’s traditionally taken to promote refreshing sleep, relieve sleeplessness and reduce the time it takes to fall asleep.
Other traditional uses of passionflower in Western herbal medicine include relieving symptoms of stress and mild anxiety, reducing irritability and excess nervous energy, and supporting muscle relaxation.
12. Make sure your diet contains enough magnesium
If you’re not sleeping well, make sure you’re eating a diet that’s rich in magnesium, because healthy sleeping patterns can be disrupted if your consumption of this important mineral is inadequate. To learn more about foods to include in a magnesium-rich diet, check out our blog on this topic.
When dietary magnesium is inadequate, taking a supplement relieves sleeplessness and supports healthy sleeping patterns.
- Eagleton, J. & Tse, R. The Chinese way of promoting sleep. Undated (accessed October 2020): http://www.shen-nong.com/eng/lifestyles/tcmrole_sleep.html
- Suni, E. Sleep hygiene. 2020 (Accessed Oct 2020): https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/sleep-hygiene
- Ting E, Jas M. Total health the traditional Chinese way. Da Capo Press, 2009. Kindle edition.
- Enfield H, Korngold E. Between heaven and earth. New York: Ballantine Books, 1991. Kindle edition, location:
- Wang Y, Sheir W, Ono M. Ancient wisdom, modern kitchen: recipes from the East for health, healing and long life. Massachusetts: Da Capo Press, 2010. Kindle edition.
- American Psychological Association. Why sleep is important. 2020 (Accessed Oct 2020): https://www.apa.org/topics/sleep/why
- Hartescu, I. et al. J Sleep Res, 2015;24(5):526-534.
- Zou, L. et al. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med, 2017;20174548706.
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