Relief for Insomnia with Chinese Herbs and AcupunctureKate Kent, R.TCMP, R.Ac. January 4, 2021
(“Chinese Medicine for Insomnia” updated Jan. 5, 2021)
It is common knowledge that the immune system works best during sleep. This is the time when our natural killer cells are generated. Sleep deprivation can lead to an array of serious diseases such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity, and depression.
We study sleep in sleep clinics, we take sleep medication to force ourselves to sleep, and still we are one of the most sleep-deprived societies in the world. As Nietzsche said, “Sleeping is no mean art: for its sake one must stay awake all day.”
Insomnia is a problem commonly brought to the offices of health professionals, and it’s important for the practitioner to differentiate between an inability to sleep due to external or temporary influences – and true insomnia.
If the lack of sleep is due to noise, change in weather, pain, temporary emotional upset, or too much caffeine, it will be restored when these influences are removed.
However, if there is a deeper energetic imbalance, it is insomnia. The term “insomnia” covers many different problems such as difficulty falling asleep, waking during the night, restless sleep, night sweats that disrupt sleep, dream-disturbed sleep, waking too early in the morning, and being unable to return to sleep. And of course, there is the common complaint of not waking rested.
One of the first rules of thumb is to use your bed to sleep in, not as another entertainment or work room. I recently was talking to a man with a high-powered job who has been suffering from severe anxiety and sleep deprivation for years, and he casually remarked that he always “worked” in bed before turning out the light. I suggested he stop that practice. He took my advice and his sleep has been more peaceful ever since.
Reading something stimulating, or watching the news before sleep, is totally ill-advised. And eating late at night, especially if alcohol is included, will disturb the heart qi and will almost definitely cause a sleepless night.
One patient who found it difficult to leave work behind at the end of the day, and who consequently took a lot of stress home with him, created a new routine that really worked. Every night, when leaving his office, he would diligently write all his worries and concerns on a piece of paper, which he would then screw up and toss in the wastebasket. Then he would shut his office door, while saying out loud “The day is done!” He found this simple practice to be very effective – he not only slept better, but also had a better evening with his family. In The Art of Happiness, the Dalai Lama’s cure for anxiety and stress is: “If there is a solution to the problem, there is no need to worry. If there is no solution, there is no sense in worrying either.”
Traditional Chinese Medicine takes the interrelationship between the body and mind very seriously, because strong emotions affect different organs which, when stressed, will disrupt the balance of other organs, leading to disharmony. Think of a powerful dam. If it is properly maintained, the water will nourish the agriculture, livestock, and people of the community. If it develops cracks, it can have devastating consequences.
The qi of the body works in the same way. Well-balanced qi supports the health of the individual, whereas disrupted qi causes great discomfort and disease, and a feeling of being “wired.” Sleep is dependent on a calm mind, and the mind is rooted in the heart. If there is too much ‘heat’ or deficient blood in the heart – sleep will be next to impossible.
For example, anger and frustration stresses liver qi over time, causing a buildup of heat which can easily overflow into the heart, causing palpitations, mouth sores, anxiety, headaches, and insomnia. It can also disrupt the qi of the stomach, causing poor digestion, which, in turn, disturbs heart qi. Too much worrying affects the spleen and, again, will affect heart qi.
Difficulty Falling Asleep
This is due to a deficiency of blood in the heart and spleen and is a very common cause of insomnia, especially in older people for whom there is a physiological decline in qi and blood. Difficulty falling asleep is often accompanied by palpitations, fatigue, poor appetite, poor memory, and dizziness.
Acupuncture points are chosen to tonify the spleen and heart qi, nourish heart blood, and calm the mind. A practitioner might also use Gui Pi Tang, an herbal formula that can be taken in between treatments and continues the work of the meridians.
Restless Sleep and Waking in the Night
This often occurs after the common cold which, if not completely cleared, can settle in the interior of the body and turn to ‘heat’. This heat can move upwards and disturb the heart and mind. There will often be a feeling of stuffiness in the chest, epigastric discomfort, and a general feeling of restlessness, even when awake.
The treatment consists of acupuncture and herbs to clear the heat and calm the mind. Heavenly Emperor’s Formula is commonly recommended, because it consists of herbs that nourish the yin and blood of the heart, calms the mind, and is a good substitute for tranquilizers or sleeping pills.
This condition is extremely common in women during menopause and will often be accompanied by dry throat, palpitations, and poor memory. It isn’t really insomnia, because the lack of sleep is caused by night sweats, but I bring it up here because it is so common and is the cause of much anxiety, which further exacerbates the lack of sleep.
Night sweats are caused by heart-yin deficiency. Yin is an aspect of blood and is cool. It should naturally be present at night, like the night itself, but if it is deficient, the yang, or heat, aspect will rise instead). This leads to discomfort.
Acupuncture treatment for night sweats focuses on nourishing the yin and using “astringent” meridian points to stop the sweating. There are many herbs that can be used in many different combinations, but my favorites include a seed called Semen Biotae (Bai Zi Ren), which not only stops sweating, but also nourishes the heart and calms the mind, and Rhizoma Anemarrhenae (Zhi Mu), which has the ability to clear deficient heat, enrich the yin, and stop sweating.
With this causes of insomnia, there will often be nightmares, mental restlessness, tongue ulcers, palpitations, constipation, and dizziness. This is known as ‘heart fire’ and can be quite unpleasant.
The diet of people with this problem often consists of greasy, spicy foods and too much alcohol, all of which contribute to the ‘heat’. In order to permanently restore a normal balance, this diet needs to change.
Acupuncture and herbs focus on draining heart fire and calming the mind. A practitioner may use an herb called Plumuia Nelumbinis (Lian Xin), which is bitter and cold and drains fire from the heart.
Waking Too Early
This indicates a gallbladder and heart deficiency, and both the heart and the gallbladder qi need to be strengthened by acupuncture, and perhaps herbs, for normal sleep to return.
Chinese medicinal herbs are a great adjunct to acupuncture. Each herb in a decoction, and each patent formula, is carefully selected to treat a particular disharmony.
* To consult with an expert in Traditional Chinese Medicine, contact:
– Tom Fung, R.Ac., (Markham) 905-554-8849 visit: www.drtomfungclinic.com
– Quan Fu Zhou Chinese Medicine & Acupuncture Clinic (downtown Toronto) 416-603-0236, visit: www.hunsing.com