Insomnia: Tips for easier, peaceful sleep

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Many people who come see me are hoping to improve their energy. In addition to suggesting dietary changes (see Easy stress-free diet on this site), I often find that these patients are regularly getting less that seven hours of sleep.

Perhaps we could get away with that when we were 20, but most of us need at least seven hours of good sleep. Many of us are sleep-deprived, and I believe that this is a common reason for complaints of low energy.

If I suggest to patients that they go to bed at an earlier hour, they often respond “But Iʼm not sleepy then!” Many other patients get to bed early, but toss and turn, wake frequently, and rarely feel rested in the morning.

Finding the reason(s) for your insomnia often involves a bit of detective work.

Chinese Medicine acknowledges three general patterns of insomnia
 

First, there is the inability to initially fall asleep. The mind wonʼt shut up. We canʼt stop fretting about all we need to do, or all the things we could have done better. Sometimes, it feels physical—our body just wonʼt relax. Secondly, although we might fall asleep easily initially, we wake up many times during the night and rarely feel we achieve deep REM sleep.

Some people do sleep soundly, but wake very early in the morning, 4 or 5 a.m., and are not able to fall back to sleep. This is the third pattern. The three patterns of insomnia often occur in combination.

For all types of insomnia, it is helpful not to eat within 2½ hours of going to bed
 

That goes for anything, even light snacks. Water and herbal tea should not be consumed after 1½ hours before bed. Limit caffeine (coffee, tea, chocolate) to morning hours. Naturally, everyone is different, so these time limits are somewhat flexible. Pay some attention to what, how much, and when you eat and drink, and how this might be affecting your sleep.

Make your bedroom as dark and quiet as possible. If it is noisy, consider using soft ear plugs, a white noise machine or quiet air filter to block the sounds. Make your bedroom a computer, music, and TV-free zone.

Pay attention to the amount and time of day you exercise each day, and how well you slept that night. There is almost always a correlation. Try to get at least a half hour of moderate exercise each day (but not right before bed!)

Insomnia of any type can be helped with some combination of acupuncture, nutrition, and Chinese herbs. In addition, there are some things that you, the patient, can do to improve your sleep. These are described below, under each pattern. The more you learn about your patterns, the easier it will be for an acupuncturist to help you achieve restful sleep.

First pattern
 

You go to bed, but lie awake fretting. You mind wonʼt shut down, your body wonʼt rest.

If your diet largely consists of simple carbohydrates (bread, pretzels, beer, sweets, etc.), consider shifting towards a diet higher in fresh vegetables and protein. Your acupuncturist can explain how diet is related to insomnia, and can help you make easy, gradual, healthy shifts in your diet.

Donʼt use the bed as a worrying place. Before you lie down, sit in a chair and entirely indulge in all of your concerns. These might include making plans for the next day, or fretting over a past conversation, Use a notepad if there are things you want to remember the next day.

Second pattern
 

You fall asleep easily enough, but wake frequently during the night, for either short or long periods, and rarely feel you experience deep sleep.

The next several times you wake in the middle of the night, ask yourself what it is that woke you up. You might find that you have to get up to pee, but is that what woke you? Possibilities include noise, stress, feeling a bit too warm, bad dreams, not breathing clearly, or an old uncomfortable mattress. A clear sense of what the problem is will make it much easier for your acupuncturist to quickly help you achieve peaceful sleep.

If you wake up with a dry cough, you are likely allergic to something in the room, possibly your pillow. If changing your pillow doesnʼt help, mold or dust mites might be bothering you. There are many online resources for eliminating these from your bedroom. You can toss the pillows into the dryer for 20 minutes to eliminate dust mites. You might need to have a HEPA filter in your bedroom.

Chinese Medicine equates restlessness with heat. Often, people are unaware that their restlessness is caused by being too warm. Try removing a blanket. Have a few sips of water. Limit consumption of hot spicy foods. Do not do invigorating exercise right before bedtime.

If it is your own or a partnerʼs snoring that wakes you, I recommend the homeopathic “SnoreStop Extinguisher,” available in any drug stores (Bartell Drugs in Seattle). Try not to let pets disturb your sleep. A line of sticky tape next to the bed can dissuade some pets from jumping up. Better yet, keep pets outside the bedroom if possible, while you work on improving your sleep.

Third pattern
 

You fall sleep easily, sleep most the night, but wake at 4 or 5 a.m., unable to fall back to sleep.

As with the second type above, pay attention to what was going on when you woke up. Limit your intake of fatty foods and alcohol. Determine whether there is a correlation between eating fatty or fried foods, drinking alcohol, and waking early.

This is also often caused by some kind of stress. Acupuncture is wonderful at reducing stress, and might be all you need.

Yet more reasons for insomnia include muscle cramps, restless leg syndrome, and side effects of pharmeceuticals. Acupuncture with nutrition counseling can help relieve all these symptoms. Usually, just a few sessions will make a difference. If insomnia is listed as a side-effect of your medication, ask you doctor to make a change.

I wish all of you a good nightʼs sleep.