TCM Approach to Insomnia

The average person spends roughly 8 hours a night sleeping. That's a third of your day. That's a third of your life! Think about that for a moment. That's 2,920 hours a year, or on the larger scale, for the average 75-year life span, that's 219,000 hours. That's a lot of shut-eye! Now, I'm sure I don't have to tell you that when you miss out on even a few of those hours, life can become unbearable. So what is the body trying to tell you when you can't fall or stay asleep? This is where a TCM approach to insomnia has all the answers.

What helps us fall asleep?

The hours that we spend lying still as we sleep are the most "Yin" time of our day. Or at least they should be! Remember when it comes to yin, think to yourself "cool, quiet, still, relaxed, dark". Basically all the requirements for a good night's sleep.

We lay down and stop moving. This allows our body to cool down, quiet metabolic activity, relax the tension of the day, and mentally and emotionally connect to the peace of the darkness around us. Now it's easy to tell our body to stop moving. But telling our mind and heart to do the same is often easier said than done.

The mechanism is a bit complex, but try to stay with me. Our essence given to us from mom and dad known as "jing" provides the spark that gives us life. That spark ignites our energy known as "Qi". That Qi warms and invigorates our body as it moves our blood. The blood nourishes the tissues of our mind and body.

Think of it this way, the blood our heart pumps around our body provides transportation for the firey "Yang" energy needed to sustain life. As the polar opposite to "yin", when it comes to yang, think to yourself "warming, loud, moving, activated and bright". Basically, all the things to get you motivated and moving in your day.

Although blood is warm, it is still fluid, and fluid is the yin to fire's yang. So if fire's yang aspect is needed to get you moving, it's blood's yin aspect that is required to anchor you into sleep.

Why does thinking keep us awake?

The mental processing of today's complex world of never-ending stimuli can eat up a lot of energy. Remember, that energy is provided by the nutrients in the blood. So if you lay your head down on the pillow at night connected to a body filled with exhausted and deficient blood, there is no yin to anchor the yang and your mental wheels will keep spinning.

Your body is exhausted and needs to rest. But for your mind to rest it needs a nourished body. To make things worse, the ideas generated by weakened and exhausted blood tend to be incoherent and unorganized. This leads to a never-ending cascade of useless tangents where nothing is accomplished other than keeping you awake.

As I've spoken about many times, in articles such as "TCM's Approach to Nutrition" or "The 5 Pillars of health", our body uses the air we breathe and the food we eat to make the energy and blood needed for it to function. So if you are having trouble falling asleep because your monkey mind won't take a break, it might be time to have a look at how you are spending your day and nourishing your body.

What wakes us up at night?

There are several reasons why we suffer from insomnia and wake multiple times a night. Although the effect on different organs is often the result, of the six major reasons for insomnia, the cause is almost always "Too much heat!"

TCM Approach to Insomnia #1 - Nightmares

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No one likes to be woken by bad dreams. Even though we instantly realize it was "only a dream", it can often take us quite a bit of time to emotionally calm back down after the shock of our own self-made mental movie. The heart and mind are connected by blood. Blood anchors Qi, as yin balances yang.

So similar to falling asleep, if the body is too yang due to the weakened state of the blood, heat is generated. Heat creates pressure, pressure creates friction, friction creates irritation, irritation creates anger. Once asleep, that extra heat stimulates our subconscious to generate dreams with strong emotional content and often violent actions. In effect, it creates dreams that are "heated up", and not in a good way if you know what I'm saying!

TCM Approach to Insomnia #2 - Night Sweats

With all this talk of yin and yang, you might guess that night sweats are the result of too much yin basically leaking out of the body. Although you would be right that it is the yin that is leaking out, it's due to a deficiency rather than an excess that is to blame.

Once again remember yin anchors yang. So at night which is the most yin time of your day, the yin fluid of your body is supposed to anchor the yang fire. Once again if there is not enough yin to anchor yang, the yang heat rises to the surface of the skin. As it does it pulls what yin fluid there is with it. The rising heat opens the pores and the rising yin is released causing you to sweat.

So in opposition to sweating, being the body's cooling reaction to excess heat, Night sweating is the result of a relative deficiency heat which is created by too little fluids. In this case, it's time to address how much water you are drinking during the day.

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TCM Approach to Insomnia #3 - Nocturia (nighttime urination)

Now we get to the effect on our organs. As always we begin with the organ that serves as the foundation of all others, the Kidney. As the most yin organ in the body, our kidneys are easily stimulated during the most yin time of the day.

Every two hours of the day, the body's energy is focused on one specific organ. The kidneys are at their peak between 5-7 pm, but during the night, it's the organs that move Qi and air, namely the liver and lungs that take the top spot.

The liver moves the Qi and the lungs descend fluids downward through the body. But it's the kidney that is responsible for "water transformation". Think of the kidney as your old bunsen burner in grade nine science class. The kidney heats and transforms the descending water into a mist that can rise back up and be used by the rest of the body. It's our very own built-in water recycling plant.

The kidneys can be injured by many factors. Emotions like fear and fright can derange its flow of energy. Stress can cause liver heat to dry them out. Depression can stop the lungs from moving the water down which they need to provide their transforming service. Or simply drinking too much water before bed can ask too much of the kidneys when they are in a weakened state.

Any of these detrimental stimuli will have an effect on the kidney's ability to transform water, and instead of a mist you end up with a river, and you also end up in the bathroom in the middle of the night.

TCM Approach to Insomnia #4 - Stress

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11pm - 1am is Gallbladder time, and 1am - 3am is Liver time. These organs work as a team to move Qi smoothly throughout the body. But like any good team member, stress, anger, and irritability can throw a monkey wrench into the works.

If your day was filled with emotional stress levels above your ability to cope. That emotional stimulus will injure your Liver and Gallbladder, stagnating their Qi. Remember that stagnation builds up pressure, pressure creates friction, friction creates irritation, irritation creates anger, and as I said before, all the added heat is one way or another WAKING YOU UP. It's amazing how until the clock literally strikes 3 am that you can once again fall back asleep once the energy in your body moves on to the next organ.

TCM Approach to Insomnia #5 - Breathing Problems

As the clock strikes 3am the body moves into Lung time. If you are waking regularly from then till 5 am it's time to examine the health of your lungs. I mentioned before that the lungs descend fluids down to the rest of the body. But if they are injured for some reason, those fluids can move in the wrong direction leading to nasal congestion. Once our nose is blocked our mouth opens and injury to the lungs is exacerbated even more.

The lungs need a moist environment to work efficiently. It is why we are designed to breathe through our noses. The hair in the nasal passage serves to warm and moisten the air. This makes it much easier for the lungs to do their job. Mouth breathing moves air more quickly which cools and dries it out, all of which leads to an unhappy lung.

In addition, sadness, grief, and depression consume the Qi of the lungs leaving them weakened. Once again they fail to move fluid down leaving the nose blocked and the mouth open and the negative cycle in full effect.

To make things even worse, all that cool dry air cause the body to dry out leading to a greater imbalance of yin and yang and a corresponding negative effect on the different organs of the body.

TCM Approach to Insomnia #6 - Pain

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Finally, we come to the last reason we can't get a good night's sleep, and that's pain. Whether it's in the joints, tendons, or muscles, body pain can glue your eyelids open. Achy pain tells you Qi isn't moving properly, and sharp pain tells you blood isn't moving properly. But either way, what it's really telling you is that it's YOU that isn't moving properly.

Whether your body is too weak (deficient) to move Qi and blood properly, or your body is built too tightly (excess) to move Qi and blood properly, finding balance is always key. Physical activities like Qigong, which cultivate flexibility, range of motion, and muscular stability is what keep you pain-free and active during the day and most importantly, pain-free and restful during the night.

Whether it's falling asleep or staying asleep I hope you can now see that a TCM approach to insomnia can provide you with the right question to ask and the answers to follow to wake up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed tomorrow...Give it a try.

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