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How Tai Chi Improves Sleep

John Bankston John Bankston August 3, 2021
Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen

There are lots of reasons why so many adults are so tired. Estimates are that at least one out of three Americans are not getting enough sleep. Stress is a huge factor. Last year’s lockdowns along with ongoing concerns about COVID-19 have left many tossing and turning. So have related anxieties about work or money. Insomnia is also more common in older people and those with health conditions like obesity. 

 

If you’re not getting enough sleep, you’ve probably tried a number of solutions already. Yet you may have missed an elegant exercise thousands of years old. Here’s how tai chi improves sleep.

 

ZZZZZZ Pill Option

 

Although nearly everyone copes with an occasional sleepless night, some ten percent of adults battle chronic insomnia –– getting inadequate rest at least three nights a week over the course of three months. This is a serious health condition. Yet many more people get less than the recommended seven to nine hours a night. Studies have linked insufficient sleep to a host of health problems including  diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, diabetes, stroke, and even obesity.

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Insomnia - Long-term Dangers

Insomnia - Long-term Dangers

There are plenty of pills that can help you sleep. Unfortunately, drugs bring their own dangers. Besides the risk of addiction, it’s frightfully easy to forget how many sleeping pills you’ve taken and accidentally overdose. Enjoying a glass of wine or three with dinner, also increases the risk. Even worse, the Food and Drug Administration has warned that prescription sleeping pills have been linked to “complex sleep behaviors” including “sleepwalking, sleep driving, sleep cooking, or taking other medicines.” There have been reports of people wandering outside in the cold or even shooting themselves after taking prescription sleeping pills.

 

Sleeping pills work by slowing your brain activity. Over-the-counter medication, which often contains an antihistamine, can sometimes provide the same benefits. The supplement melatonin has brought blessed relief to some insomniacs. Your body produces this hormone naturally –– the levels of which increase in the evening, calming your body and mind. Taking one to three milligrams of the supplement a couple of hours before bedtime has helped millions. Although it’s generally safe, it doesn’t work for everyone. Plus, most doctors recommend discontinuing use after two months.

 

The Mind Body Connection

 

Unfortunately, there’s no magic pill that delivers peaceful slumber to everyone who takes it. Researchers studying the benefits of exercise have concluded that moderate physical activity can improve the quantity and quality of sleep. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that healthy adults engage in moderate exercise like walking at least 150 minutes every week or more intense exercise like jogging for a total of 65 minutes. Since this can be broken up –– so that one can walk for half an hour five days a week –– it’s attainable for many. Left out of the equation, however, are older adults who can’t safely engage in even moderate activity along with people who are overweight or otherwise unable to start a fitness program. For them, for anyone really, tai chi may be the answer. 

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Insomnia - Tips

Insomnia - Tips

Developed in China over 2,000 years ago, the martial art is also known by the names tai chi chuan or taijiquan. Like karate or Krav Maga, tai chi was designed for self defense. However, its methodical and graceful movements promote meditation and relaxation. Each set of movements is paired with deep breathing. The activity also promotes gentle stretching –– as practitioners grow more adept, each pose flows into the next without pause. It is a low-impact exercise, one that has been shown to reduce stress and depression while increasing energy and stamina. It has been taught in nursing homes and cancer wards

 

In 2013, an examination of studies showed that tai chi “significantly improved sleep quality in both healthy adults and patients with chronic health conditions.” Besides being an alternative to sleeping pills, it can also be an alternative to behavioral therapy –– a common treatment for insomnia. Early in 2021, a study showed that it was as effective at promoting healthy sleep as more vigorous exercise –– good news for anyone challenged by the CDC’s fitness recommendations. 

 

A proven stress buster, tai chi should be approached with caution by those who are under a doctor’s care or suffering from osteoporosis. Because the poses are easier to follow than conventional yoga, it’s possible to find acceptable online options. However, taking a class with a skilled instructor will not only help you perfect your poses but provides a great way to interact with others. During the warmer months, there are even outdoor options! So before you reach for a pill, reach up your arm in the tai chi fruit stretch.

Doctor Profile

John Bankston

Author

John Bankston is a published author of over 150 nonfiction books for children and young adults including biographies of Jonas Salk, Gerhard Domak, and Frederick Banting.

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