Sleepless in Vancouver

November 2010

Insomnia is a common complaint that I see in my practice. It is the kind of condition that is neither urgent nor life threatening, yet it greatly affects your quality of life. Many people simply bear it and gradually get used to a kind of life where they always feel tired and don’t enjoy what they do. One patient in her late sixties told me when she first came for help that she has pretty much all she wanted in life now: a beautiful house beside the lake, lovely grandchildren, a comfortable life. However, because of a sleep disorder she’s been having for more than 10 years, she is too tired to enjoy what she has. And she’s willing to try anything to get her life back. After three months of acupuncture and herbal treatment, she is able to sleep through the whole night and, most importantly, she has more energy during the daytime, which allows her to play with her grandchildren.

Do you have difficulty with sleep? Do you know any of your friends or family has poor sleep? In this newsletter, we will talk about how Chinese Medicine treats insomnia effectively. You will also find helpful tips that assist you to have a good night sleep.

Please take a look at the following question and circle anyone that applies to you:

Sleep problems show in many different ways. Some are more severe, while others can be quite mild to start with. However, if you’ve experienced any of the above chronically then your sleep needs improving. Many people live with their sleeping problems for years because it is not severe. Yet this accumulation of sleep debt eventually leads to more severe health problems. It is much easier to clear financial debt before it accumulates too much; the same is true for sleep.

In Chinese Medicine, normal sleep reflects the balance of Yin and Yang Qi. As in nature, we see the sun in the daytime and the moon in the nighttime. In human beings, we also have the internal clock that decides the waking and sleeping cycle. The Yang (the Sun) Qi dominates during daytime, the Yin (the moon) Qi rules in evening time. During daytime, when Yang Qi is in charge, our body and mind are in an active state. We are awake, we work, exercise, actively engaged with problem solving, we are busy socializing with others. When evening comes, the Yin energy become more abundant. Our body and mind shift into a slower gear. We go home, have meals, relax with the family; we listen to music, and we sleep. However, when these two Qi become imbalanced, they are not able to do the smooth transition. This will manifest as sleeping problems.

There are several reasons that lead to the imbalance of the Yin and Yang Qi. The first reason is the poor functioning of the organ systems. Many organ systems are involved in sleeping problems such as the Heart, Liver, Spleen, Stomach, Gallbladder and Kidneys. Depending on which of them are involved, we decide the main pattern that causes the sleeping problem for the individual. Two people who have the same sleeping problem can show very different patterns, and so the treatment will be different. For example, two women both have problem of waking up in the middle of the night and having night sweats. The first one also shows symptoms of painful menstruation, easily feeling angry, a strong and tense pulse, which point to the imbalance of the Liver system. The second woman is around menopausal age and has symptoms like hot flashes, lower back pain, frequent night urination, heart palpitations, tight and rapid pulse, which indicate the poor functioning of the Heart and the Kidneys systems. When I treat these two women, they will receive different acupuncture points and herbal formula to restore the normal function of the respective organ systems so that the Yin and Yang Qi become balanced and sleep becomes normal.

Acupuncture has proven to be effective to reduce stress and restore normal sleep pattern. A clinical trial done in Toronto found out that acupuncture increases nocturnal melatonin secretion and reduces insomnia and anxiety. For details please read the article.

There are many herbs that have been used for thousands years and are proven to be effective to help sleep: Suan Zao Ren (Semen Zizyphi Spinosae), Fu Shen (Sclerotium Poriae cocos Pararadicis), Bai Zi Ren (Semen Biotae Orientalis), Yuan Zhi (Radix Polygalae Tenuifoliae), and Ginseng. We usually combine these herbs with other herbs that target specifically the malfunctioned organ systems to form a formula. That’s why each patient may receive a different herbal treatment.

Another important factor that causes Yin/Yang imbalance is your life style. How we arrange our activities during the day and evening affects the Yin/Yang balance. Ideally, we should arrange activity according to the Yin/Yang Qi shift. During daytime, we can do things that are more active, that requires more energy input and evokes more excitement. As evening approaches, we should shift to activities that are slower paced, more relaxing and nurturing, such as a relaxing meal, a warm and soothing bath, a slow walk, meditation, calm and friendly conversation, inward contemplation, simple and enjoyable reading, etc. However, our fast paced life style often extends the Yang activities well into the time of Yin Qi. You work until late at night; you go out dancing and partying until midnight; you stay up late thinking about the solution of a problem; or simply rush around to go shopping, getting other chores done. When the sleep time comes, you barely have any time to relax, to shift into the Yin activity. Your nervous system is still active and buzzing, your whole being is still controlled by the Yang energy. If this happens often, a pattern forms. Yin energy simply doesn’t take over the shift even when it gets late. Now you want to make sleep happen just like you do a chore or shop for an item. Sleep doesn’t happen this way. If the sun is shining brightly at mid-night, we will mistake it for daytime. While the Yang Qi dominates your body at night, your body will get confused and won’t be able to sleep well.

During treatments for sleeping disorders, it is essential that you modify your life style to help Yin and Yang to balance. For people who take responsibility in their own healing, the effects often take hold sooner and last longer. There is a lot you can do to help yourself. Here are some tips.

  1. Unwind 1-2 hours before bed time by choosing light and relaxing activities such as listening to calm soothing music, reading non-stimulating materials, hot bath, meditation, some stretching exercises, light conversation with your family or friends, slow walk etc.
  2. Soak your feet in the hot water and doing deep breathing for about 15 minutes. With every breath you take in, imagine you take in your breath through the bottom part of your feet, and with each exhale, let go all tension in your body and send it down to your feet. If your mind wanders away, bring it back gently by noticing the warm sensation in your feet in the water.
  3. Set up an intention to master your mind rather than let it dominate you. Before going to bed, write down things on your mind on a piece of paper, and leave it outside of the bedroom. Tell yourself that once you get into bed, you are not going to think about these things. They can wait until the next morning. If the thought comes back, simply visualize yourself writing it down again on the paper and leaving it outside of the bedroom.
  4. Use the pad of your index finger to press on your forehead, in the middle of the medial tip of your eyebrows. By pressing this point, you help yourself to regulate the secretion of melatonin, which is responsible for proper sleep.

Do you want to be physically strong and mentally sharp? Do you want to have a strong immunity? Do you want to stay young and delay aging process? Do you want to be happy and improve your life quality? Good sleep, both high quality and sufficient quantity, helps to achieve these goals. If you have chronic poor sleep, you are compromising many aspects of your health. Like the lady I mentioned at the beginning of the newsletter, you can improve your sleep and start enjoying life more. Please call Dr. Judy Zhu to discuss how Chinese Medicine and acupuncture can help you.