An Integrative Perspective on Sleep

Chinese Medicine is all about diagnosing and treating the body using a holistic approach, which is why one of the key aspects I focus on in my consultations is sleep. Our sleep quality and quantity contributes significantly to our health and wellbeing, and if these aspects are compromised, it can have a devastating impact on our current and prospective health. In fact, there have been many research studies conducted over the past few decades in investigating the side effects of poor sleep quality. In this article, I integrate my knowledge and expertise in Chinese Medicine and research results found in systematic reviews to help you understand the important role of sleep on our health and wellbeing.

There are 7 questions that I ask all of my patient's sleep, and I encourage you to honestly answer the following questions:

  1. On average, how many hours of sleep do you get per night?

  2. What time do you go to sleep?

  3. How long does it take you to fall asleep?

  4. Do you ever wake up in the middle of the night, and if so, what time and for what reasons? Does it take a while for you to go back to sleep?

  5. Do you dream easily?

  6. What time do you wake in the morning?

  7. Do you feel refreshed when you wake up?

I have realised over the years that many of my patients have been taking their sleep quality, or lack of, for granted. Most people are under the impression that a good night's sleep means having an 8-hour sleep, which I myself mistakenly thought was the magic number for me as well. Little did I realise that it's not just the quantity that we should focus on, but the quality as well.

What does a good quality sleep mean?

By Chinese Medicine standards, a good quality sleep means going to bed early, at around 9:30 pm and waking at 5:30 am. This is primarily due to the Traditional Chinese Medicine Body Clock, where the 24 hours in the day is divided equally between the 12 organs (think of the TCM Body Clock as similar to the circadian rhythm). The function of this TCM Body Clock allows for Qi (or Vital Energy) to rise and fall between the different organs. For example, the Liver organ is the most dominant in Qi between 1 and 3 am, but is at its weakest at 1 and 3 pm. If you find that you wake up easily between 1 and 3 am (which happens in about 50% of my patients), then this is a major indication that your Liver is overwhelmed by external factors such as stress, alcohol or drugs (including caffeine).

From a medical point of view, researchers suggest that unbroken sleep is crucial in helping the body repair and restore itself. Sleep involves five stages, of which four are non-rapid eye movement (nREM) and the last being rapid eye movement (REM). nREM are the precursor stages to REM, where the first stage is either awake or very light sleep, the second stage is a slightly deeper sleep and the heart and breathing rate slows down, and the third and fourth stage represents a deep sleep where the muscles relax, blood supply to the muscles increase and the body repairs and regenerates cells and tissues. In the final stage, REM, the body and brain go through several processes, including rapid eye movement, increased brain activity, and increased oxygen consumption by the brain. The REM stage typically occurs when a person experiences a vivid dream. Most people experience about 3-5 cycles of REM, which is indicative of a refreshing and healthy sleep.

What are the possible health issues that can occur as a result of not enough or too much sleep?

Sleep has been and still is a commonly researched topic due to its implications in health and wellbeing. A systematic review on sleep and morbidity showed that not enough sleep (less than 7 hours) and too much sleep (more than 8 hours) had the same impact on multiple health factors. This included:

  • Mortality

  • Cardiovascular disease

  • Type 2 diabetes

  • Hypertension

  • Respiratory disorders

  • Obesity in both children and adults, and

  • Poor self-rated health

In addition, broken sleep has its health consequences as well, which is associated with a lack of REM sleep. These issues include lowered learning rate, poor memory and concentration and weight gain. There is also a common pattern among the patients that I treat whose sleep quality and quantity is compromised. These vary from muscle tension, headaches, digestive complaints, lowered immune response and fatigue.

What are the common contributors to poor sleep?

These are the commonly identified factors that can compromise sleep quality and quantity:

  • Stress (work and personal stress)

  • Over-consumption of caffeine

  • Exercise (too much or too little can impact sleep quality)

  • Diet high in sugar or carbohydrates

  • Eating a big meal at night

  • Drinking too much water towards bedtime

  • Excessive technology use at night

If you identify with one or more of the above factors, try changing them and see if these adjustments help you to sleep better. Remember, a good sleep isn’t just about getting a solid 8 hours of sleep - try to get to bed earlier to help improve your health and wellbeing.

Can acupuncture help to improve my sleep?

Yes! A systematic review found that acupuncture had the same effect as sedative medications for sleep. The benefit of acupuncture in these studies was that acupuncture had no side effects, unlike some medications that can cause drowsiness and lethargy the following day. In fact, this is the main reason why a majority of my patients seek acupuncture treatments for sleep.

If you would like to find out more about how acupuncture can help you or your loved one with improving your sleep, please reach out to me via email at Alternatively, book online here to kick-start your journey into a better night's sleep.


  • Cappuccio FP, D'Elia L, Strazzullo P, Miller MA. Sleep Duration and All-Cause Mortality: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Prospective Studies. Sleep. 2010; 33:585-592

  • Patel SR, Hu FB. Short Sleep Duration and Weight Gain: A Systematic Review. Obesity. 2012; 16:643-653

  • Cao H, Pan X, Li H, Liu J. Acupuncture for Treatment of Insomnia: A Systematic Review of Randomized Controlled Trials. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 2009; 11:1171-1186