Struggling to Sleep Without Western Aids? Hear from the East

If you’re worried and you can’t sleep… 

Have a nightcap to unwind! Take some cough medicine. Eat a second helping. Pace the hallway. Squeeze your eyes shut. Give your social media one final scroll.

Right?

For a need that all humanity has in common, there are some pretty common misconceptions about sleep, how to get it, and what it looks like when it’s healthy. And frankly, most of the advice is Western-leaning. 

Let’s clear a few things up right out of the gate.

  1. You can’t catch up on sleep. If you get two hours one night, and ten hours the next night, it doesn’t even out.
  2. Drinking alcohol before bed means that the alcohol is metabolized through the night and will reduce your REM sleep (or rapid eye movement).
  3. Counting sheep actually prolongs your journey to slumberland.

Nearly a third of all Americans sleep less than six hours per night. The other huge contributing factor is how busy most of our lives are. Sleep is the place most people feel comfortable cutting corners.

And it’s an enormous mistake.

Our toxic relationship with sleep is a Western malady. Perhaps the solution ought not be a Western one.

You see, in traditional Chinese medical physiology, everything falls into one of two categories: yin and yang qi (or energy). Yang energy is characterized by physical exertion, logical analysis, ambition, stress, etc. Yang energy rules your waking self.

Yin energy is the opposite — it’s responsible for our emotional selves, intuition, creativity, sleep, softness, and darkness.

So to activate powerful and restful sleep, you have to perform a delicate clutch shift from the yang energy of the daytime to the yin energy of the nighttime.

Here’s what Eastern practices recommend…

Eating More Yin (Cooling Foods)

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), undersleeping is associated with a yin deficiency, just as sleeping too much would be point to a yang deficiency.

If your diet contains too many “yang” foods – like spicy food, alcohol, caffeine, and sweets – it’s likely that your liver is overwhelmed with yang energy. 

Introduce more “yin” foods into your daily diet. Yin foods have a high water content, like cucumber, watermelon, tofu, watercress, bananas, carrots, cabbage, star fruit, crab, duck, and more. 

Trouble sleeping suggests an energy imbalance. Restore the balance

Chrysanthemum tea

Made from the leaves of the flower, chrysanthemum tea is a common floral remedy in TCM. They do all kinds of things – promote circulation, preserve energy, clear wind and heat, cool the body, and drive toxins out of the body.

Chrysanthemum tea can be a very powerful sleep aid, as it dissipates heat and encourages cooling in the liver and the rest of the body.

It’s very effective in tea form, which means your only responsibility is to have it in the house, and use it when you need it. Make sure that you’re sourcing your teas from organic and certified tea vendors. Avoid buying tea bags contained in plastic wrapping, for example, and opt instead for loose leaf tea that you can brew with hot water.

Acupressure Massages

Although acupuncture itself can be a very useful tool in dealing with insomnia, not everyone can afford it, nor is it a practical solution at the moment of sleeplessness.

However, the lessons of acupuncture can be applied at home. For example, there is a pressure point right behind your ear, called anmian, or “peaceful sleep.”

You can find it about an inch behind your lobe, between your ear the base of your skull. There’s a slight depression there, and if you gently massage it in a circular motion (about 100 times), you should find yourself in a more relaxed space and better able to fall asleep.

Hot Water Foot Soak

Most people should be able to do this in a pinch.

Here’s the idea: When you can’t sleep, you’re overstimulated. Whether the imbalance of energy is located in the liver, the heart, or the brain, you’ve got to find a way to deplete the yang energy in the body and encourage the yin.

Helping the blood flow away from the brain can be a game-changer. Soaking your feet and lower legs in hot water expands the blood vessels and draws blood away from the top half of your body. 

You can even add ginger powder to your soak to promote yang energy if you’d like. And when you can feel yourself sweating slightly, that’s an indication that the qi channels in the body have become unblocked. 

Nothing is a foolproof method.

Just like in Western medicine, sometimes different methods help some more than others. 

If chrysanthemum tea doesn’t work for you, it’s possible soaking your feet in hot water will! Try your best not to become discouraged. 

As with anything in our lives, intention and patience make the difference. Learn how your body responds to external forces. 

And sleep tight!

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Dr. Pedram Shojai

NY Times Best Selling author and film maker. Taoist Abbot and Qigong master. Husband and dad. I’m here to help you find your way and be healthy and happy. I don’t want to be your guru…just someone who’ll help point the way. If you’re looking for a real person who’s done the work, I’m your guy. I can light the path and walk along it with you but can’t walk for you.