Updated: Jan 16, 2021
I often have patients wanting to use acupuncture as a remedy for sleep issues. Although there is no doubt that acupuncture can help, it is, in my experience, not as effective as the interventions listed below. In short, try some of the natural remedies for insomnia listed below, and you likely won’t need acupuncture; don’t do the things below, and all the acupuncture in the world is unlikely to help.
Many of these items fall into the category of sleep hygiene—the habits and routines you are doing in the two hours leading up to bed and the environment of the bedroom itself. Let’s take a look at some key components of sleep hygiene.
1. Red Light / Blue Light
One of the most important things to recognize is that light shifted toward the blue end of the visible spectrum triggers the release of neurotransmitters that signal our bodies to wake up. On the other hand, light shifted toward the red end of the spectrum signal us to sleep. Natural daylight is shifted strongly toward the blue end of the spectrum, and things like the setting sun, firelight, candles, and moonlight are all shifted much more toward the red end of the spectrum.
Sadly, much of the technology we use each day (and night) are shifted toward the blue end of the spectrum, and, in turn, send powerful signals to our brains and bodies that it is time to wake up. Televisions, phones, tablets, and computer screens are all strongly blue-shifted. The best bet is to eliminate all screen time for at least 90 minutes before bed. If that is not an option, try using software that red-shifts your monitor. The latest IOS update for iPhones and iPads actually has this option built in. You can also purchase blue blocker glasses that many report being helpful. The best advice, however, is just to power down.
Another source of blue-shifted light is florescent bulbs, which includes the compact florescent lights that have become so ubiquitous. The older incandescent bulbs are red-shifted, so much more sleep-friendly. To send the best signals to your brain that it is time to sleep, I suggest both eliminating blue light and increasing red light. To the extent, you can surround yourself with firelight, candle light, or incandescent bulbs. One of my favorite prescriptions for sleep is to watch the sunset. The sunset is a shift from the blue light of the day to the red light of night. It sends a powerful signal to our primordial sleep systems. Once you have seen the sunset, it is important to not re-expose yourself to blue light until morning.
2. Bedroom Lighting
Make sure your room is as dark and quiet as possible. If there is light filtering in from outside, especially if it is blue-shifted, that can be a real problem. Get black-out blinds if needed. Also, make sure bathroom lights, night lights, and even the light from your alarm clock are red-shifted.
3. TV in Bedroom
This one amazes me. No one should have a TV in their bedroom. And this is especially true if you are having sleep problems. Seriously, if there is a TV in the bedroom, do yourself and your sleep a huge favor, and get it out of there. I will not treat any patient for insomnia until the TV is out of the bedroom; to do so is a waste of my time and their money.
4. Keep Cool and Snug
The best sleep occurs when you and your environment are cool. It is best, therefore, to avoid activities that generate internal heat. Avoid working out, hot baths, or showering before bed. Also keep your bedroom slightly cooler than the rest of your house and use an extra blanket if needed. In fact, research has shown that a heavy blanket helps induce better sleep. Along the same lines, avoid heat-generating foods, such as spicy foods and alcohol, before bed.
5. Eat a Low-Carb Snack
Eating a low-carb or, better yet, no-carb snack about 30–45 minutes before bed can be very beneficial. Fat and protein are both fine, but really limit carbs. This snack not only shifts some of your energy toward digestion and away from mental activities, but it also can keep you from waking too early, which is often the result of hunger or a sudden drop in glucose. Best options are things like hard-boiled eggs (including yolk), chicken breasts, avocados, or nuts. If you are going to eat cheese or dairy, avoid low-fat varieties, which are higher in carbohydrates. Worried about the calories? Recent research shows that full-fat dairy reduces the risk of both obesity and diabetes when compared to their low-fat counterparts, so eat up.
6. Clean Your Bedroom
Yes, you read that correctly. The energy of the early morning hours is one of increasing energy. From a feng-shui perspective, a lot of energy flows early in the morning, especially in the spring and summer. That energy needs to flow smoothly through your bedroom. Plenty of good articles and books on how to feng-shui your bedroom for insomnia are available, so I won’t go into those details here.
Cleaning any clutter out of your bedroom, and particularly from under your bed, is a great place to start. As the energy becomes active in the early morning, and moves through your room, it bounces off of things. By nature, fewer things means less bouncing energy.
Imagine a smooth mountain stream flowing through your bedroom. In the morning hours, that energetic stream is going to rise and move faster. You want it to continue to flow easily and not become a raging rapid as it bounces off all the clutter in your room. If the clutter is under your bed, guess where the big wave and whirlpools are going to develop? No wonder so many people can’t sleep! So, a few moments removing clutter can make a surprising difference in your ability to sleep longer.
The best time to go to bed is between 10 and 10:30 pm—or even earlier, if you need to get up super early like I do. The reason? Momentum. Every 24 hours of the day has a yin time and a yang time. Yin is still, quiet cool, and calm; sleep is a yin activity. Yang is active, moving, and warm; being awake is a yang activity. In short, day is yang, and night is yin.
Now imagine a pendulum swinging back and forth. When the pendulum reaches its maximum arc on the left, the pendulum stops briefly, reverses course, and swings toward the right. When the pendulum reaches its maximum height on the right, it again pauses briefly before reversing course and heading back to the left. With me?
OK, now imagine the left side of the pendulum arc is the yin part of the day, and the right side is yang part of the day. That moment of stillness at maximum height on the left side represents midnight, and the moment of stillness on the right is noon. When the pendulum is pointed straight down, it is either 6 am—if the pendulum is moving from left (yin) to right (yang)—or 6 pm, if the pendulum is moving right to left.
What does any of this have to do with sleep? Everything. If you’re still awake at midnight, you suddenly lose momentum, because the pendulum reverses course and starts moving toward the right, toward the yang, toward waking. It is usually much harder to fall asleep after midnight. If, however, you can get to bed by 10:30, you have a full 90 minutes of yin momentum, taking you deeper and deeper into that dark pool of yin stillness before the momentum shifts. Try it; it really does make a difference. Oh, and plenty of science supports this claim.
Many sleep studies have shown beyond any doubt that sleep loves routine. And a routine is being consistent with the time you go to bed, the time you wake, and your routines before sleep and after waking. Red light before bed, blue light upon rising. Let your body know when it’s time to wake and time to sleep, and be consistent with those routines.
Many herbs have a long history of safe and effective use for insomnia.
Chamomile: Although chamomile can be somewhat effective, it’s usually best for relatively mild cases. The active constituent in chamomile that is sedating is also very, very bitter. Much of the chamomile on the market today has been bred to taste good and, therefore, is not very effective. If you’re going to use a chamomile tea, find one that tastes awful.
Valerian: Easy to find in either tea or herb form, valerian is a wonderful herb for sleep. The interesting thing about Valerian is that it works well for about 85% of the population and is actually stimulating for the remaining 15%. I recommend trying it for about a week before determining into which portion of the population you fall.
Ye Jiao Teng: For waking early, one herb in particular stands above the rest—caulis Polygoni multiflori or Fleeceflower Vine. In Chinese herbalism, this herb’s name is Ye Jiao Teng, which translates roughly as “through the night vine,” a name that really sums up the herb’s action. Ye jao teng doesn’t as much help you fall asleep as it helps you stay asleep … through the night. In addition, I’ve found that adding a good dose of ye jiao teng to any of the number of herbal remedies will help a patient sleep deeper and longer.
Suan Zao Ren Tang: This Chinese herbal formula is helpful for falling asleep. In my practice I often modify it by adding Ye Jiao Teng, but it is readily available in many health food stores, herb shops, or at Amazon.
Little to no evidence supports that melatonin, especially at the usual dose, is effective. In fact, there is some evidence that the regular use of melatonin is counterproductive. What little research there is to support melatonin’s use shows that the optimal dose is much lower than what is usually available. The optimal dose appears to be 0.3mg. This is 1/10 or less than the 3.0mg or 5.0mg doses usually found on store shelves. Pure Encapsulations now has a 0.5g product available, which is what I sell to my patients who want to use melatonin, but more often than not, I avoid it.
On the other hand, some evidence supports the use of a calcium-magnesium supplement can help with sleep. No downside risk to this one at all, so go for it.
And while we’re on the topic of minerals and trace minerals, a simple mixture of Himalayan pink sea salt and raw honey has worked wonders for me and many of my patients. I love remedies that have a good chance of helping and no downside risk (which is exactly why I became an acupuncturist), and this remedy certainly falls into that category. All you need is:
5 teaspoons of raw unfiltered honey
1 teaspoon of pink Himalayan sea salt
Mix these two ingredients together and store in a seal-able glass or plastic container. You can make as much or as little as you want, but a 5:1 ratio works the best. Put a little bit (pea size) of this mixture under your tongue every night before you go to sleep, and let it dissolve naturally. You may need to stir the mixture every other day or so because the salt will settle to the bottom over time.
Why is this mixture successful? Himalayan sea salt contains more than 80 minerals and trace elements that are essential for our body for different processes and the production of neurotransmitters. Frequently, a shortage of these trace minerals prevent the body from producing the compounds needed to fully relax and recover from the day. The honey provides your brain with a small amount of readily accessible fuel source as well as makes the salt more palatable.
This one really should go without saying, but just in case: Avoid caffeine past noon if you are having any sleep issues.
12. ETOH (aka Alcohol)
Although alcohol might seem to help in the short term, the research is pretty clear that alcohol limits our ability to achieve deep sleep. It’s best to avoid alcohol completely, or have only one drink with dinner, fairly early in the evening
Many people live in urban environments or have partners who snore or are otherwise disruptive at night. Oftentimes, sounds at night will wake us without us even being aware that we heard something. I once had a patient who woke every night at almost exactly 4:30 am, and she couldn’t figure out why. I asked if there was a noise that was waking her, and she said no. I then asked her to set an alarm for a few nights at 4:20 am to see if was something waking her. Sure enough, one of her neighbors left for work every morning at 4:30, and he had a loud truck.
For many people a surprisingly simple way to improve sleep is to wear ear plugs. You can find dozens of types, sizes, and materials of earplugs, so you might need to try several before you find one that has the right mix of comfort and sound deadening for you. But be persistent; the right pair of earplugs can make a big difference.
In closing, the best advice is to take a look at the interventions above and make changes, incrementally, and as needed. Some combination of the above is likely to get your sleep back on track.