Sleep: The TCM Point of View

Good sleep is a sign of good health. If sleep is poor, this is a sign of imbalance in the body. If left untreated, poor sleep can lead to chronic insomnia which can persist over several months to years and cause many serious health problems along the way.

Insomnia can be described as: difficulty or inability to fall asleep, waking throughout the night, restless sleep, waking in the early hours of morning with the inability to fall back asleep, and dream-disturbed sleep.

Regularly disturbed sleep affects almost every aspect of your being from physical decline to mental illness. Physically, we suffer from lack of energy, lowered immune function and impaired motor skills. Mentally, people with poor sleep are more inclined to have issues with anxiety and depression as well as poor cognitive function. Longer term insomnia sufferers are more prone to serious diseases because immune function declines and the body cannot heal properly without adequate sleep.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) considers insomnia a symptom and not a disease. TCM also breaks down insomnia into “true insomnia” and “transitory insomnia”. True insomnia is mainly caused by prolonged emotional upset and stress, improper diet, and a weak constitution following an extended illness. Transitory insomnia is usually due to external or temporary changes such as outside noise, weather changes, coffee and other stimulants, eating too late at night, and a recent emotional upset.

Sleep disturbances due to pain, itching, asthma or other breathing disturbances are not considered true insomnia. These issues must be treated to allow a restful night’s sleep. As with many disorders in TCM, there is never just “a one treatment fits all” for insomnia because there can be many different causes for different people. The key is diagnosing the organ imbalance and treating accordingly.

For example, insomnia caused by anger, frustration, resentment and emotional turmoil is usually associated with a liver imbalance. Often people with this organ imbalance will wake between the hours of 1 am to 3 am. There are specific acupuncture treatments to balance out the liver which relieves the patient of these emotions so peaceful sleep can return.

Another common cause of insomnia is a stomach imbalance caused from improper diet, eating late at night, and wrong food combinations creating stagnation in the stomach which lead to poor sleep. Acupuncture along with dietary improvement can resolve this sleep disturbance.

The most common cause of insomnia in women over 45 is hormone fluctuations. This pattern is almost always a result of a Kidney imbalance. Acupuncture is a wonderful tool to use when it comes to restoring imbalances in the kidney. Replenishing the Kidney yin especially will help hormones balance out so the patient can sleep well again. 

Tips For Better Quality Sleep

Go to sleep every night at 10:30 P.M.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine it is believed that 10:30 P.M. is the best time for a full cycle of sleep. Because at 11:00 the Qi in the liver regenerates itself, in Chinese medical theory the liver controls a lot of our emotions.

Walk around barefoot
Walking around barefoot naturally balances the energy in the body. Being barefoot helps to clear your mind and naturally ground you and reconnects you with yourself. In Chinese Medicine, it is believed that it massages the meridian points in the feet which are correlated with sleep.

Get acupuncture
Acupuncture has been used for thousands of years to treat insomnia. In China, it is one of the first treatments given to a patient to improve the quality of their sleep. Improved quality of sleep leads to improved quality of overall health.

Avoid over-stimulating food and eating late at night
Hot peppers, alcohol, and coffee overstimulate the nervous system causing an imbalance in the liver, which will disrupt your sleep. Eating late at night burdens the body by having to turn it’s attention toward digestion instead of sleep.

Keep your room dark and free of electronic devices
Sleeping in darkness is important for melatonin production. Melatonin is produced by the brain at night when it’s DARK to regulate our sleep-wake cycle. It lowers blood pressure, glucose levels, and body temperature — key physiological responses responsible for restful sleep. Sleeping with too many electronics that emit light, or living in an area where outside street lights shine through the windows unnaturally elevates cortisol levels at night, which disrupts sleep and introduces a host of problems relating to body-fat levels, insulin resistance, and systemic inflammation. It also contributes to sleep debt.  Try to remove any electronics in your room that have bright lights to make the room darker.  It’s not good to have electronics in the bedroom anyway since they emit electromagnetic frequencies that interfere greatly with our sleep cycles. Invest in dark curtains to shut out outside lights, and make the effort to turn your bedroom into a peaceful sanctuary that you look forward to retiring to each night.

If you’re tossing and turning in your bed, try to get up and meditate. You can even practice meditation while lying in bed, just focus on your breathing and clear your mind of racing thoughts. Often times our minds won’t shut off disallowing sleep, meditation is a helpful tool to get the mind to shut down and calm your nervous system.