Night after night, you lie awake: sleep refuses to claim you even though you follow all the rules that supposedly guarantee a good night’s sleep. You become increasingly exhausted and find it harder and harder to cope with everyday issues as they arise. Perhaps it’s time to take a different approach and consult a qualified traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioner. They won’t prescribe pills or potions, but instead will work on restoring balance in your body, for TCM theory attributes insomnia to either too little or too much energy.
A: Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) may hold some answers – although don't expect your practitioner to prescribe herbs specifically to help you sleep, because there are no sleeping herbs per se in the Chinese pharmacopeia.
Instead, the practitioner may give you herbs designed to restore balance within the body, for in Chinese theory insomnia is always related to either a deficiency or excess in energy.
“Mostly with insomnia, it's a lack of yin energy,” says TCM practitioner Yun Niu, Ph.D. “Yin energy represents anything to do with the night time: the moon, stillness, calmness, coolness and slowness. After midday, yin energy gradually increases, becoming more dominate after the sun goes down, and reaching its peak level at midnight. Blood circulation slows, and the circulating qi (energy) settles to a slower, very harmonised level. Your spirit calms down, your heart settles peacefully, and you go to sleep. We say the spirit must reside in the heart for a good sleep.”
Where there's a lack of yin energy, yang energy may get out of control because it's not being balanced by the yin energy. So, Yun explains, you become restless, overheated, bad tempered, your mind is active – and you experience insomnia.
However, insomnia can also arise from an excess of yin energy, which causes you to become bloated, sluggish, depressed, or feel too cold.
To ensure a good night's sleep, yin energy needs to be nurtured in the evening to give yang energy a chance to rest. In ancient times, people would go to sleep when the sun went down. While our modern lifestyle makes this impossible, you should certainly avoid heavy activity – such as going to the gym – once it’s dark.
“Night time is the time to eat your dinner, relax, meditate,” says Yun. “We suggest going to bed by 11pm, certainly no later than midnight, because this is the time yin energy peaks. After that, yang energy – which relates to the daytime, to activity, to everything that opens outward, to fire, to courage – gradually starts to emerge. This is why sleep during the hours before 1am is always better. And most importantly, people who suffer from insomnia find it’s worse after 1am.”
Ideally, you should finish eating no later than two hours before going to bed to ensure proper digestion. While digestive energy is at its lowest when you're asleep, the activity that is happening will prevent you from settling. Apart from that, if you go to bed almost immediately after eating, the food will not be digested properly and you'll wake feeling bloated and tired. “Some insomnia is related to food stagnation resulting from this way of eating,” says Yun, adding that too much fluid in the stomach can also affect sleep.
To promote good digestion, try to walk around after your meal, or at least stand up, rather than sprawling on the couch to watch television.
Environment can be the cause of acute insomnia: some people feel restless when there's a full moon, for example, and many people can be disturbed during windy weather, because the wind stirs up the energy around you. “When the bigger universe is not settled, then the qi in the smaller universe – the body – is also unsettled,” Yun explains.
Another culprit is emotion: we've all experienced times when we've been anxious or stressed and can't sleep well. “In Chinese medicine, emotions affect your energy, which means your energy in not settled. For example, anger and stress may affect the flow of your liver energy or qi, disrupting the heart so it can’t settle. Or it can invade the stomach, which causes discomfort in the digestive system during sleep. These symptoms may be subtle, but enough to prevent a restful sleep.”
Organ function can also be excess or deficient. As mentioned, your heart and spirit need to settle at night, but this relies on energy to help it to settle. If there's a lack of blood supply to your heart, which is a lack of energy, then your heart will feel shaky or you'll feel anxious, but you don't know what you're anxious about.
“Meditation can help with this,” says Yun. “However, if the physical lack of energy to the heart is so bad it's causing insomnia, treatment by a qualified practitioner is recommended. This usually involves herbs that will restore the heart's energy.”
Another effect of emotion is a lack of yin energy in the kidney. Yin energy produces coolness in the body, but this coolness is defined as settled blood circulation rather than cooling the body temperature. “When there's an excess of kidney yang energy, you wake up feeling hot, which relates to blood circulating too fast. The hot flushes associated with menopause – a common cause of insomnia – result mainly from lack of yin energy in the kidney. It can also be lack of yang energy at the same time, or unbalanced yin and yang energy. A TCM practitioner will identify the cause.”
When you have issues that cause you not to sleep, such as being under a lot of stress, it's good to seek professional help. “The issue you're worrying about doesn't necessarily have a connection to sleeping,” says Yun. “Instead, the emotions affect the energy of the organs. If the organs are not settling down because the energy has been disturbed by the emotions, you have a sleeping problem. Treatment, whether acupuncture, massage, meditation or herbal medicine, can help break the connection between the issue and your physical sleeping activity by settling the emotion. The issue will remain, but it will no longer affect your organs or your energy through your emotions.”
Most people who experience insomnia put up with it until it seriously impacts their daily lives and the way they function. “While it's not too late to leave treatment to this point, it does make the treatment harder and the recovery longer,” says Yun. “Often there's a pattern to your job or life that lets you identify when you're likely to experience stress and sleeping problems, so aim to have treatment before that time.”
Western medicine believes there is a physical problem that causes snoring. “However, in Chinese medicine, while we recognise this is physically what happens, we also believe when people in their late 40s and beyond present with the problem, it's because their body energy starts to decline.”
The other factor, Yun adds, is phlegm, or mucous. “While this may be a direct link to the lung energy, it can also result from excess fluid. Too much fluid in the body for too long can behave like mucous.”