By Maoshing Ni, L.Ac., D.O.M., Ph.D.
Nearly two out of three Americans are affected by insomnia and other sleep
disorders. With that many people resting poorly, it is a wonder anyone gets through the
workweek—let alone their whole life! While there are many pharmaceuticals available to induce
sleep, there are centuries-old traditional techniques that can get you your zzz’s naturally.
The traditional Chinese medical view on sleep
In Chinese Medicine, nighttime is considered yin time—the time when your body takes care of itself instead
of your desires. Proper sleep is necessary for your body to repair itself and regenerate. It is also
critical for the proper functioning of organs such as the liver, which performs most of its detoxification
at night while you are sleeping.
Insomnia is one of the most common conditions I see in my practice, usually as part of a pattern of
imbalances. Excessive worry,
Anxiety, and depression all negatively affect the delicate balance of the
liver, spleen, and heart, disturbing the spirit and activating the mind. Once the mind is active, it
becomes increasingly difficult to fall asleep. To reach deep, restful sleep, your spirit and heart must be
calm and your liver and spleen networks must work together to process nutrients.
Four traditional, time-tested ways to reach deep, restorative sleep:
1. Acupressure for sleep enhancement
Acupressure is an ancient healing technique, in which you use your fingertips to press key points on your
body to stimulate natural healing. Here are two acupressure points you can press to induce restorative
• Inner Gate, known technically as Pericardium-6 is three finger-widths above your wrist crease, between
the two tendons on the inside of your left forearm. Apply moderate pressure with your right thumb, holding
for 5 minutes and breathing deeply. Repeat on the other arm.
• Bubbling Spring, also known as Kidney-1, is on the bottom of your foot, at the center of the
indentation below the ball of your foot. Press down with your thumb, hold for 30 seconds, relax for five,
and again continue for five minutes.
For a deep, calming sleep, try to do 10 minutes of acupressure each night.
2. A traditional sedative: Jujube seed
In Chinese medicine it is thought that the heart houses the spirit. When the heart is weak, the spirit
becomes restless and cannot properly rest at night, which you experience as insomnia or poor, unrefreshing
sleep. The herbal remedy for this condition is the seed of the jujube date. A traditional sedative, jujube
seed calms the spirit, strengthens the heart, and supports a good night’s sleep. Research has shown that
this seed is rich in saponins, which promote relaxation and sleep while reducing irritability and
A typical dosage is 500 mg a day. Look for jujube seed in health food stores, online, and from
acupuncturists and Chinese herbalists, where it is often combined in a formula with other natural herbs.
3. Empty your mind before sleep
Rumination, the emotion of the spleen network, concentrates energy within the brain. For example, when one
continually ponders problems, the most frequent symptom experienced is insomnia. In this case, the energy
stays in the brain at night instead of following its normal course of descending to the lower part of the
body, which allows one to sleep peacefully. Try writing in a journal every night to get thoughts and
worries out of your mind and down on paper. Another way is meditation, which has long been practiced to
get beyond the thinking mind and into a deeper state of relaxation.
4. Four Exercises that target insomnia
The famous Taoist physician Ge Hong, who lived during the Han dynasty in the third century, promoted this
set of exercises as prevention and treatment of insomnia. Chinese studies indicate that these moves
effectively improved the sleep quality of chronic insomniacs when practiced nightly for two to four weeks.
Now you can try them.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent. Use your hands to pull your knees toward your chest and breathe naturally. Hold the position for one minute, then relax, straighten your legs, and rest your arms and hands at your sides.
- Remain on your back, inhale, and stretch both arms up above your head. As you exhale, bring your hands down and massage your body from your chest to your abdomen, then rest your hands at your sides. Repeat with every breath for one minute.
- Still on your back, make fists with both hands. Place them under your back as high as possible toward the shoulder blades, one fist on either side of your spine. Take three complete breaths, then reposition your fists downward one notch and repeat, moving downward every third breath until your fists are at waist level. Take five breaths here. Now put your fists on either side of the tailbone and take five more breaths.
- Lie face down and place your hands under your abdomen. Slowly inhale, filling your abdomen and chest, and feel the energy permeate your whole body. Then slowly exhale and visualize negativity leaving your body. Pause after each exhalation and relax every muscle. Do this for one minute.
5. A Taoist sleep position: The Deer Sleep Posture
Ge Hong recommended following the four anti-insomnia exercises above with this particular sleeping posture.
Turn partway over to sleep on your right side. This is called the “deer sleep posture” because it looks
similar to the position of a deer asleep in the wild. Bend your right arm at the elbow, with the palm
facing up in front of your face. Rest your left arm with your elbow on hip, hand dropped down in front of
your abdomen. The right leg is naturally straight, and the left knee is bent, resting on the mattress in
front of your right thigh.