Hi, are you awake? Me too...
We spend about one third of our lives asleep… hopefully. According to the American Sleep Association, 50-70 million US adults have a sleep disorder.
“When someone is in a chronic sleep-restricted state they’ll notice excessive daytime sleepiness, fatigue, clumsiness, and weight gain or weight loss. In addition, being sleep-deprived affects brain function.”
Often sleep troubles are part of a larger pattern of disharmony, accompanied by a plethora of other complaints. While sleep deprivation itself can lead to a host of issues throughout the bodymind, it can also stem from imbalances occurring outside the expected sleep-associated realms.
A calm Mind is like a gentle lullaby
“If the Mind is calm and balanced, a person sleeps well. If the Mind is restless, the person sleeps badly”.
From a Chinese Medicine point of view, quality of sleep is, first and foremost, dependent on our state of Mind (Shen) and Ethereal Soul (Hun).
These two spirits - the Shen and Hun - are stored in the blood of the Heart and Liver respectively. When the Yin and Blood of these organ systems is abundant and stable, they act as a sort of cozy blanket to keep the spirits tranquil at night. When Heart and Liver Blood/Yin are scant or frenzied, the spirits drift from their corresponding abodes, and keep us awake with their wanderings.
While the Heart and Liver systems are predominately at play in sleep disorders, many other Organ Networks, such as the Spleen, Gallbladder and Kidney may also be involved. In Western terms, this loosely equates to mental-emotional, digestive, and hormonal imbalances manifesting as sleep problems.
In determining where your sleep troubles stem from, we can look to the constellation of symptoms and constitutional and contextual factors for guidance. Let’s look at some of the most common roots of insomnia from a Chinese Medicine perspective...
Why aren’t you sleeping?
Tossing and turning through the night due to physical agitation (which may also be present during the day), night sweats, palpitations, heat, and disturbing dreams is indicative of Kidney and Heart Yin deficiency. This type of pattern is often seen in menopausal folks.
If, on the other hand, a racing mind makes falling asleep a near impossibility, and you’re feeling extra anxious, lethargic, forgetful and distractible, the root is likely to be found in a weak Spleen, alongside deficient Heart Blood. This type of chronic insomnia comes with frequent nightmares, and is common amongst students, elderly, chronically ill patients, and those prone to excessive worry and rumination. In this case, the best way to restore sleep is to implement practices and remedies to temper excessive worry, while integrating nutritional changes to support healthy digestion (the Spleen is responsible for transforming energy from food into Qi and Blood).
Digestive disharmony in the form of indigestion can also contribute to restless, dream-disturbed sleep. It’s caused by over-eating/drinking creating phlegm accumulation and heat that disturbs the Mind. Nourishing the gut through diet/herbs, eating at regular intervals (not too late at night!), and avoiding too much alcohol and spicy or greasy foods can help relieve this type of sleeplessness.
Often insomnia is generated by copious stress, or unresolved or extreme emotions, such as anger, anxiety, or shock, which cause Liver Qi stagnation. Folks with Liver Qi constraint also feel irritable, tense and fatigued during the day. They’ll often consistently wake up around 3am - when Liver energy prevails. This is common amongst those who struggle with Premenstrual Syndrome (“PMS”). Other chronic emotions, such as grief, injure the Lungs, and can interfere with sleep patterns, but will often manifest around 5am, when the Lung Organ System is most active.
When Liver Blood is scarce, which is often seen shortly after each menses, or as a result of chronic excessive menstrual bleeding, difficulty falling asleep is accompanied by daytime fatigue, emotional instability, dizziness, and possibly blurred vision.
For those who wake up early in the morning and cannot fall back to sleep, a weak Gallbladder is often to blame. These folks are often easily frightened, indecisive, and pessimistic as well.
Sometimes, sleeplessness is secondary to allergies, acute illnesses, or other temporary external factors, such as sensory disturbances (noise, lights, room temperature, etc). As we move into Spring, allergies tend to be a common source of sleep troubles, since an overactive immune response keeps the Wei Qi on guard at night, when it is supposed to retreat inward.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to treating sleep disturbances
So, if something is keeping you from getting all the ZZZ’s you desire, it’s important to explore the details of your struggle and consider what else is transpiring in your life that might be to blame. If you’re lucky, the solution may be as simple as sleeping with an eye mask, but if the problem is persistent, chances are your emotions, digestion, or endocrine systems are also involved. Developing a successful treatment strategy is dependent on a clear understanding of the whole picture underlying one’s symptoms, and Chinese Medicine can help you get there.