How to Fall Asleep and Stay Asleep Naturally

 Article by Ariel Okin

When it comes to falling asleep and staying asleep, the first thing many people seek out is a prescription pad. Over 40 million Americans suffer from chronic sleep issues and another 20 million complain of “sleep problems”… that’s a lot of Ambien to go around! But don’t fret: below, Dr. Jill Blakeway, acupuncturist, herbalist, and director of The Yinova Center in New York, provides the top tips for getting those Z’s without a trip to the doctor.

P U T   D O W N   T H E   P I L L S

“In Chinese medicine, we believe in getting to the root of a problem and not just treating the branch,” Blakeway states. “By that, we mean we prescribe a gentle herbal sleep aid to treat the sleeplessness, but we also prescribe a formula for whatever is causing the insomnia - the root of the problem. This can range from digestive disturbances, to overheating, to worry and stress or a hormonal issue. We don't consider our work to be done until a patient can sleep without using a sleep aid, so solving the root issue is really important to us.”

Blakeway usually recommends Botanicalm PM to her patients--a pill that contains Valerian Root Extract, Jujube Seed Extract , L-Theanine, Passionflower Extract and Hops Strobile Extract. Yet, while each of those ingredients are sleep aids, none get to the root of the issue - which means when you stop taking the supplement you'll likely still suffer from insomnia. This is where Chinese medicine comes in.

“We combine a sleep aid with a root formula to address the problem holistically. And that highlights the difference between having trouble falling asleep and staying asleep: in Chinese medicine, they are very different conditions - and have different diagnoses,” Blakeway says.

In Chinese Medicine, not being able to fall asleep is related to Liver Blood Deficiency. To put it simply: your body is depleted and stressed in a way that results in over-thinking. “We often describe this as being tired but wired,” Blakeway says. “For this root condition, we prescribe a well-known Chinese formula called Gui Pi Tang, which takes the edge off anxiety but doesn't make people more tired over time (which some anti-anxiety prescriptions do).”

Chinese Medicine pinpoints Yin Deficiency as the main cause for not being able to stay asleep. This is often related to a hormone imbalance or overheating. Blakeway says patients often describe this as feeling fidgety and restless. For this, she prescribes a formula called Liu Wei Di Huang Wan, which nourishes yin.

Blakeway recommends combining these customized root formulas with the Botanicalm PM as a sleep aid, and then slowly tapering off the sleep aid and the root formula as things balance out. But don’t try to diagnose yourself at home - sleep issues are quite complex, and require the background knowledge of a medical professional.

N E E D L E S   C A N   B E   N I C E

“At Yinova, we find that our patients with insomnia respond very well to acupuncture. We diagnose them according to Chinese medicine in order to treat them, but research shows that from a biomedical point of view, acupuncture really works.” The latest research shows the efficacy of one the of the most common acupuncture points used to treat insomnia, An Mian. This point is also called the “peaceful sleep point.”

Next time you have trouble sleeping, Blakeway suggests finding this powerful point. “First, find the hollow at the back of your neck, near the skull, on the outside of the trapezius muscle; then, find a point just behind the earlobe. An Mian is located halfway between those two points, along the border of the skull. Press into this point with your thumbs. While pressing, visualize your body from toe to head, gradually relaxing every muscle.”

G E T   O N   A   G Y M   S C H E D U L E . . . 

Studies show that moderate-intensity aerobic exercise (e.g., walking) reduces the time it takes to fall asleep and increases the amount of time people stay asleep. Vigorous aerobic exercise, (e.g., running), or lifting weights, however, can negatively impact sleep. “The advice we give our patients with insomnia is to do vigorous exercise in the morning and more moderate exercise at night,” Blakeway says.

. . . A N D   A   S L E E P   S C H E D U L E

“I recommend that our patients try to establish a wind-down routine that helps them relax before they go to bed,” Blakeway says. Some suggestions? A warm bath, a cup of chamomile tea, reading, yoga, prayer, meditation, and breathing exercises. “What we suggest is anything that signals to your body that it’s time to change pace. That also means turning off computers and electronic devices to signal to your body that the work day is done. If you don’t fall asleep within half an hour, get up and repeat one of your wind-down techniques for 15 minutes before trying again,” she says. And don’t nap during the day, even if your eyes start to close during that 4PM slump. “It’s tempting to try to catch up on sleep by taking a daytime nap but that will make you less likely to sleep later on.”

E A T   R I G H T  T O   S L E E P   T I G H T

Finally, a healthy diet can treat the underlying conditions that cause insomnia. “To treat the branch of the issue, we also recommend eating protein foods that are rich in an amino acid called tryptophan. This helps boost the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin. Chicken, turkey, milk, dairy, nuts and seeds are all good choices. Combine these with rice, pasta or potatoes to help the body get the most benefits from tryptophan,” Blakeway suggests.

Want to learn more about healthy ways to catch your z’s? Check out these studies:

Acupuncture for Insomnia 
Effects of Acupuncture on Insomnia and Related Anxiety and Depression