Insomnia and Traditional Chinese Medicine

By Christina Morris, L.Ac.

Insomnia is a sleeping disorder that affects 1 in 10 Americans and around 50% of seniors. It is often more prevalent in women. Since September 11, 2001 these estimations have increased. Insomnia covers a range of sleep patterns including; inability to fall asleep, waking up during the night, restless sleep, waking up early in the morning, and dream disturbed sleep.

Stress, anxiety, depression, environmental change, extreme temperatures, a change in sleeping and waking schedule, caffeine, alcohol, side effects of medications, cigarette smoking, excessive napping in the afternoon or evening, and certain health conditions, may all contribute to insomnia. Some of these contributing factors are behavioral and are simple lifestyle changes and can be avoided, leading to a sound night’s sleep. Others are not as easy to control and need treatment. Most adults need 8 hours of sleep to feel rested. As a person ages less sleep is needed, usually around 6 hours after the age of 60.

There are different degrees of insomnia. Transient insomnia is short term and may last anywhere from 1 night to a few weeks. Intermittent insomnia comes and goes occurring only time to time. Chronic or constant insomnia lasts for a month or more.

From a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) perspective insomnia may be due to energetic imbalances of the heart, spleen, liver, and/ or kidneys. The following explanations are not to be taken literally. Traditional Chinese Medicine believes that the mind is consciousness in the day, and at night the mind rests in the heart. If there is an imbalance with the heart such as a deficiency or pathogenic excess, the mind cannot rest and is bounced between consciousness and rest, creating a sleepless or restless night. In Chinese Medicine the spleen is responsible for blood production and the dispersion of energy throughout the body. If the spleen’s energy is weak it cannot nourish the heart with blood and will not allow the mind to rest peacefully at night. Energetic imbalances with the liver may also lead to insomnia and dream-disturbed sleep. Emotional depression can cause an energetic blockage or stagnation that directly affects the liver and with time can create fire that rises up to the head, disturbing the mind, creating insomnia. TCM also believes that insomnia can be a result of an energetic imbalance dealing with the kidneys. The kidneys have a water energy that cools the heart. If this water fails to ascend smoothly to cool the heart energy, this can create an imbalance leading to the flaring of heart fire unsettling the mind, causing insomnia. A licensed acupuncturist can diagnose and treat insomnia, according to the individual, based on the theories of Traditional Chinese Medicine with a thorough intake, observation of the tongue and feeling the pulses on both wrists.

Traditional Chinese Medicine can treat insomnia through acupuncture and herbs. Acupuncture treatments and herbal regimens vary from person to person, treating the body as a whole and addressing conditions based on the individual. As a general nutritional recommendation it is best to avoid spicy, greasy, fatty foods, caffeine, alcohol, and processed foods. Dietary recommendations are based on the individual according to the diagnosis. A tea of chamomile, peppermint, hops, catnip, yarrow and skullcap is often helpful for relaxation and in the treatment of sleep disorders and can be drunk before bedtime. It is advised that people with allergies to ragweed avoid chamomile completely. It is important to educate people on alternative treatments available for insomnia. Everyone deserves a good night’s sleep!