Alternative Medicine That Works for Regular Folks





Back to Basics: Sleep
by Jennifer M. Moffitt, MS, L.Ac., Dip. OM


Jennifer Moffit is a Licensed Acupuncturist with a Masters of Science in Traditional Oriental Medicine. She received a Bachelor's of Science in Environmental Toxicology at UC Davis, teaches Oriental Medicine to medical students at UCSD, and practices in San Diego at the West Coast Center for Integrative Medicine.

Last time, we explored the concept of food as medicine, and the role that diet, micronutrients and supplements play in maintaining or improving your health. In this section we are going to discuss the importance that sleep plays in the healing process, and how to best make the most out of your sleep time.

While everyone understands the importance of a good night's sleep, many people in our culture are chronically sleep deprived, and don't realize that they either 1) don't get enough sleep or 2) don't benefit from the sleep they receive.

The Good

First before we cover anything else, let's define what constitutes a good night's sleep. Generally speaking, most people need 7-10 hours of sleep (surprise, surprise). The sleep should be deep, continuous and uninterrupted. Upon waking, you should feel rested and refreshed. Generally, it is considered normal to get up at night one time to urinate, but you should be able to fall back to sleep easily and quickly.

The Bad

Frequent sleep patterns I observe in patients that are not healthy, and that are problematic:

  • You find it hard to fall asleep or stay asleep (It should not take 2 hours!)
  • You wake frequently during the night, or don't achieve a deep sleep
  • You wake early in the morning (>4 AM and can't go back to sleep)
  • You need to urinate more than once per night (I have patients who thought it was normal to get up 2-4 per night).
  • You don't feel rested in the morning
  • You have frequent active dreams or nightmares
  • You suffer leg cramps or pain that make it difficult to sleep

Join the PulseMed mailing list

The Western Medical Perspective

Now from the perspective of western medicine, insomnia is defined as the following:

  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Waking up frequently during the night with difficulty returning to sleep
  • Waking up too early in the morning
  • Unrefreshing sleep

Do you fit any of these categories? Surprisingly, the number of hours you sleep is not a determining factor in diagnosing insomnia. Rather, it is the quality and regularity of sleep that is most important. In allopathic medicine, it is generally accepted that people over 55 generally have shallower sleep that is more fragmented, with frequent waking and decreased daytime alertness.

Many patients with chronic pain or illness are surprised to discover that what they consider a "normal" sleep cycle may be very poor indeed. In my clinic, almost without exception I find that patients with pain, inflammatory conditions and chronic fatigue have poor sleep patterns, and that their subjective experience of pain is almost double that of someone who sleeps well. Like it or not, in order to achieve the best health possible, some time and attention must be given to improving your sleeping habits.

Sleep deprivation can make you fat…

In our discussions of qi and vital energy, it makes sense that if you don't sleep, then you don't get enough rest to recharge your batteries. But it is much more complex than that - chronic sleep deprivation interferes with the chemical messengers (called hormones) that the body uses to communicate on a cellular level. Now most of us think of hormones as those pesky critters that cause problems in personal relationships, a lá Mars-Venus, or what changes during menopause, pregnancy, etc. But there are literally dozens of hormones used by the body to communicate between systems - we understand a mere fraction of how they interact with each other. But to disrupt the endocrine system means that even if you give the body the best nutrition and supplements in the world, it may not recognize the fuel that you give it or be able to use it appropriately. The body's failure to recognize its own fuel it may explain some of the overeating patterns seen in our society today.

Researchers at the University of Chicago found that they were able to induce a pre-diabetic state in their healthy male subjects (ages 18 - 27) merely by limiting their sleep to 4 hours per night for one week. They found that the metabolic and endocrine changes from significant sleep debt mimic the aging process, and suggest that chronic sleep loss may not only hasten the onset but also the severity of age-related ailments such as diabetes, hypertension, obesity and memory loss. (1,2,3) These metabolic changes were particularly strong when tested in the morning, with glucose tolerance tests that were consistent with the diagnostic criteria for impaired glucose tolerance, an indication of early-stage diabetes. Furthermore, patients with chronic sleep deprivation had higher circulating levels of interleukin-6 (IL-6) with implications for inflammatory disease such as rheumatoid arthritis. (4)

The good news, however, is that all study patients returned to baseline levels after spending more than 12 hours in bed, with added benefits noted when they consistently spent more than 8 hours in bed per night. The studies suggest that our health may be improved by getting more than 8 hours of sleep on a regular basis.

Turn off the computer…

When working with a new patient, before I consider herbs or other measures, I find it helpful to consider behavior when it comes to bedtime and sleep. How do you typically spend the evening hours? Believe it or not, our activities in the evening have a profound impact on our ability to have restorative sleep, and minor activity changes can yield dramatic results with little other intervention.
It is important to establish an evening sleep ritual. Parents of young children already know this - my friends with young children jealously guard regularity and bedtime like mother tigers. This does not change as we age - the body likes and needs regularity, and you can actually help re-train the body to sleep by following the same patterns every night before bed.

Make a rule with yourself to turn off the computer or stop studying/book work by 9 PM or so. Many times, folks who work on the computer or in the office until it's time for bed are surprised when they cannot fall asleep. From the perspective of Traditional Chinese Medicine, analytical work causes the qi to rise to the head, which can lead to the mental-hamster-wheel that so many of us experience in the evening. If this seems unrealistic, remember that the time sacrificed working in the evening is often made up for by greater productivity and better health during the day. Whatever benefits you may have derived from working or studying late are soon wasted after a night tossing and turning.
Other supportive practices include:

  • Take a hot bath or shower, and give yourself a nightly massage on the feet with pure therapeutic grade lavender oil to help to calm the mind and move the qi out of the head. (I stress pure lavender oil here because perfumed soaps and lotions do not have the same medicinal properties that pure plant extracts do. Therapeutic grade oils can usually be found at Henry's, Whole Foods, or your local health food store. Young Living Essential Oils makes a very pure Lavender oil which you can purchase online. Young children and folks with sensitive skin should dilute pure lavender oil with olive oil before rubbing onto their feet.)
  • Avoid any caffeine, soda, green tea or chocolate after 5 pm.
  • Go to bed on an empty stomach!! This one is HUGE: the body's digestive processes slow down at night, and a heavy meal such as roast beef, gravy, french fries and cheesecake can keep your stomach busy digesting for over 8 hours. You won't sleep as soundly during this process, and some of my patients don't sleep at all. A low-fat meal such as fish and veggies can be digested in a few hours, and you can facilitate this by the use of a digestive enzyme. For folks with heartburn, hiatal hernia, or Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD), this is even more important. If scheduling is a problem, then you might choose to make lunch your biggest meal, and eat more simply in the evenings to avoid the "boa-constrictor-like" lump that will sit in your tummy and interfere with sleeping.
  • For my patients with nocturia (frequent urination at night) it is often helpful to avoid beverages after 7 PM until we strengthen the bladder and kidneys.
  • Gentle, slow moving hatha yoga or qi gong can help relax the body and calm restless mental chatter. Be careful to maintain slow ground postures which do not induce sweat or strain. The focus should be to clear the mind and relax the body rather than a work out or strengthening.
  • Go to be a little earlier to take advantage of the Yin energy available before midnight.

Remember that we described yin as cooling, night, inert, and in TCM theory, sleep is described as falling into "the envelope of yin," which is at its peak before midnight. The most beneficial sleep is, in fact, that which is achieved before midnight, with every hour before worth 2 of the hours afterwards. Whether that is literally the case remains to be seen, but it is generally harder for the body to slip into that "cool mantle of yin" after 12 AM.

If you take all these steps and still do not have restful sleep, accept the fact that you may need to get some outside help to restore the body's sleep cycle. For patients with chronic disease and pain, this is even more important.

Acupuncture and oriental medicine can be extremely helpful for treating many types of insomnia, and you may want to start there.

Remember that chronic insomnia disrupts many areas of the body's chemistry, so it will take time and patience to see results, sometimes several months. Don't stop treatment before the miracle happens… most of my regular senior patients now sleep better than I do.

This allows me to segue neatly into our next section called…Bodywork.


1. Plat, L., Leproult, R., L'Hermite-Baleriaux, M., Fery, F., Mockel, J., Polonsky, K.S., & Van Cauter, E. (1999). Metabolic effects of short-term elevations of plasma cortisol are more pronounced in the evening than in the morning. Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, 84, 3082-3092,
2. Spiegel, K., Leproult, R., & Van Cauter, E. (1999). Impact of sleep debt on metabolic and endocrine function. Lancet, 354, 1435-1439
3. Van Cauter, E., Leproult, R., & Plat, L. (2000). Age-related changes in slow wave sleep and REM sleep and relationship with growth hormone and cortisol levels in healthy men. Journal of the American Medical Association, 284, 861-868.
4. Redwine, Laur, Richard L. Hauger, J. Christian Gillin and Michael Irwin. Effects of Sleep and Sleep Deprivation on Interleukin-6, Growth Hormone, Cortisol, and Melatonin Levels in Humans The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism Vol. 85, No. 10 3597-3603 (
5. Pathophysiology of the Endocrine System (


About The PULSE
All information herein provided is for educational use only and not meant to substitute for the advice of appropriate local experts and authorities.

Copyright 1999-2074, Pulse Media International, Brian Carter, MSci, LAc, Editor