Sleepless nights have plagued all of us at some time or another, however with more than 60 million Americans suffering from insomnia or regular sleep deprivation it’s not a topic to be taken lightly. Sleeplessness is one of the most issues I am hearing right now from clients, friends and family. It’s not a surprise. 2020 has hit us hard – as individuals and as a collective.

Temporary sleep disturbances are not something to be overly concerned with unless the pattern continues for more than 3 weeks, then it is considered chronic and your overall health is compromised.  The senses dull, healing slows, immunity weakens, moods shift, depression sets in – the list goes on.  

So what is happening? Why are so many people suffering from insomnia or restless nights? The list was long before 2020 showed up carrying a pandemic, political and social unrest and climate concerns.

A good night’s sleep is important and you should feel rested and revitalized when you awake, so it makes sense to take a little time to evaluate your sleep patterns and see where you might improve.  In the past few years, I’ve definitely seen an increase in sleeplessness and other emotional concerns – many of them stemming from concerns in our political climate, culture and climate concerns. I cannot deny an underlying unease that has cropped up for many. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I do have some insights.

First, some brief details about sleep.

How much sleep do we need?

Most studies and experts agree that the ideal amount of sleep is about 7 1/2 to 8 hours of sleep a night. On average, Americans are clocking in at 6.9 hours–not too bad, but when you take into account that some people get 10 hours of sleep a night while others only clock in  3 or 4 hours, it starts to look bleak for millions.

What happens when we sleep?

EEG machines that track brain wave activity help us to break sleep into two broad categories. Quiet Sleep (Non-REM-rapid eye movement) and Active Sleep (REM).

Quiet Sleep or Non-REM Sleep

Quiet sleep is the state when we become less active and responsive.  This falls into four different stages based on what is happening in the body and the brain. In the deepest stages (3 & 4) healing and renewal.  Yes, please, I’ll have that.

  • Stage 1 – You begin to drift into sleep – about the first 5-15 minutes from being awake to light sleep.  Brain waves are still fairly active.  The body temperature begins to drop, the eyes may shift slowly from side to side.  During this stage you can be easily startled or jarred awake.
  • Stage 2 – This is the start of established sleep, about 10-20 minutes into sleep. The eyes become still, the breathing rate slows and stabilizes and the heart rate slows.  During this stage the brain is still a bit active and there are brief bursts of fast activity about every 2 minutes.  On an EEG machine, you will see a spike of activity if you call the sleeping person’s name at this time – but they aren’t going to pop up startled.
  • Stage 3 and 4 – Deep sleep finally arrives.  There are fewer processing centers running in the brain.  Breathing becomes slow and regular, body temperature is still cooler, blood pressure drops by as much as 25% (something to note for those of you with high blood pressure).  You become less responsive to external stimulus – we might have to yell your name to even cause a stir.  During this stage, less blood in the brain means the body can work on renewing itself.  The Pituitary gland releases hormones that stimulate cell regeneration, healing, growth and even immunity.  Who couldn’t use extra time here?

Non-Quiet Sleep or REM

In REM sleep the body is still or paralyzed but the mind is very active.  The eyes are closed but move rapidly, body temperature rises, blood pressure increases, the sympathetic nervous system is active keeping you in a state of fight or flight.  This is where dreaming occurs.  Your body may not be moving, but you aren’t getting much rest in this state.

Insight from Asian Medicine on Insomnia and sleeplessness

Let’s start with the very simple and profound concept of Yin and Yang.  One of the founding principles of Asian (Chinese) medicine Yin and Yang can be used to identify anything – all phenomenon in nature, pathology, personality and treatment.  Everything can be broken into Yin and Yang.  They are opposites that describe each other and identify each other.

The Taiji. Black represents the qualities of Yin and white represents the qualities of Yang.

The Taiji. Black represents the qualities of Yin and white represents the qualities of Yang.

Yang – literally the sunny side of the mountain–refers to anything that has characteristics of activity, work, growth, movement, warmth, summer, morning and daytime, building, and transforming.  Yang is represented in the white part of the symbol above.

Yin – literally the shady side of the mountain–refers to anything that has characteristics of inactivity or rest, renewal, coolness, replenishing, evening and nighttime, winter,  storing and fluids. Yin is represented in the black part of the symbol.

Confusing? The concepts are different from western logic and Aristotelian thought – Yin and Yang are opposite but complementary qualities. Each thing or phenomenon can be its self or its contrary.  Once you understand the general qualities of what makes something Yin or Yang the rest all comes down to comparison. Where the sun is Yang (active, hot, warm) the moon is Yin (cool, dark, quiescent).  Fire is Yang, water is Yin.  Just look to opposites or the continuum of which has more characteristics than another.  Campfire or a raging forest fire? The campfire, although hot, is Yin by comparison to an active raging forest fire, which would be Yang.

Back to sleep  

Sleep is a Yin quality – something that replenishes and nourishes the body, allowing us to recharge. Without Yin, there is no oil to fuel the fire of our Yang activity.  If you constantly go and never recharge, you will eventually break down in some way.

This is a hard concept for some of my clients.  The idea of slowing down and resting is often perceived by some as doing nothing – a non productive time.  It’s not, you are recharging…which you must do to be able to keep going.  Just coming to terms with giving yourself permission to rest works wonders.

In Asian medicine there a many patterns that can lead to insomnia.  Remember: Asian medicine looks at the functional energetic properties of organs, having an imbalance in the Heart network and channel doesn’t necessarily mean you have any western heart condition like high blood pressure.  And most energetic imbalances will not show up on western tests.  

Ideally, if we are tired we should have no difficulty falling asleep, staying in a peaceful and deep sleep, then arising feeling rested and ready to go (that’s a Yang quality – the energy to get up and go).  Our sleep should not be overly bothered or disturbed by our dreams either.  Dream disturbed sleep (that’s the Asian term for it) is an indicator that something is unsettling.  As for those people

Blood deficiency – Lack of Blood to adequately nourish and settle the Shen (mind, housed in the Heart) these patterns will have a pale tongue and weak pulse.  The person may be anemic, easily startled, anxious yet tired, and spacey.  This person may have difficulty nourishing themselves physically and emotionally.  Untreated, Blood deficiency will evolve into deeper patterns. 

Heart Fire – A very red tip of the tongue is the key indicator here. It is caused by 3 main things – either you sleep with your mouth open, you burnt your tongue or you have heat or fire in the Heart – and I’m seeing a lot of Heat in the Heart in Zoom consultations. Too much heat, often from emotional issues, stress and worry, agitates and creates restlessness. There can be panic, anxiety and nervousness, they may laugh excessively or at inappropriate time or stutter and have speech impediments.  Red tip of the tongue, rapid pulse, slurring of speech, agitation. This person may have a habit of running “hot and cold” and from apathy to exuberant passion. The Fire element organs play a large role in restful sleep and these organs are particularly vulnerable to excess heat – it’s not uncommon to see an uptick in sleep disturbances during hot months. 

Heart Blood deficiency – Being able to identify where the Blood deficiency is specifically allows for concise more effective treatment. Very pale tongue, cold hands and feet, weak feeble pulse.  This person is anxious, tires easily, and may be timid.  

Phlegm Fire Obstructing the Mind – Accumulation of phlegm clouds the orifices and the unsettles the Shen (mind). Think ADD, ADHD and mania type patterns. Red tongue, thick yellow coating, surging pulse.

Liver Qi Stagnation – Liver’s function of ‘free and easy flow’ is compromised and qi and blood stagnate leading to frustration, PMS, anxiety. The sides of the tongue become red and the pulse tight.  The Hun is the spirit associated with the Liver–it’s closest likeness in western terms would be the ethereal soul.  When the Hun is unsettled, the person may feel as if they are floating in and out of their body, not feeling rooted or grounded. 

These are just a few of the most common patterns that cause insomnia – disharmonies in the Kidneys, Stomach and Lungs can also sleep disharmonies.  It’s the practitioner’s job to find out which pattern a client fits and then specialize the treatment to that client.  

Many clients with insomnia or sleep disturbed patterns are often sensitive – to noises, changes in environment, full moons, other people’s thoughts and emotions.  I consider these sensitivities only a problem if they inhibit the person from being able to live in a meaningful way.   When the Shen and/or Hun (the spirit of the Heart & Liver, respectively) the person will be ungrounded the person will find themselves in turmoil and will have weak boundaries.

A few tips to lessen sleepless nights

Meditate – many insomnia patterns have an emotional component lurking in them.  Taking time out to settle your mind works wonders on all planes of being.

Set up a bedtime routine – Evening is a time of Yin – time to settle down and nourish. Try to go to bed at the same time every night. Our bodies thrive when we give them a little routine especially with eating and sleeping. Take time before this to settle your mind. Write out a list of your ‘to dos’ for the next day, turn off the TV or computer, go for an evening stroll, meditate.

Know thyself – First rule in the 8 Branches of Chinese medicine is to know yourself.  Our bodies love routine, but we have different ideals.  For example – I’m a morning person and do better if I go to bed earlier and rise earlier.  I will do very well trying to stay up into the evening, but others might not.  Take a moment to reflect on times in your life when you were able to rest peacefully. What might you be able to change now to improve your sleep?

Get the tech out of the bedroom – Too much constant stimuli increases brain activity (yang) and doesn’t allow the blood to settle and nourish which happens when we close our eyes.  Get the temptation to peruse the internet out of the bedroom. Avoid doom scrolling.

Turn out the lights – Decrease in light stimulates the body’s natural desire to rest. Light stimulates the Kidneys and yang to move. 

Take Calcium and Magnesium – Minerals anchor the spirit and nourish the Yin, so consider taking calcium or a mineral combination before bed.  More on Calcium?

Avoid stimulants and alcohol before bed  – Coffee, alcohol, chocolate, sugar, spicy foods.  Ingesting stimulating foods before bed can definitely chase away a good nights sleep. On the mental note, too stimulating of conversation, watching too much screen time or getting wrapped up in a thrilling debate or novel will not allow the mind to settle down. Remember how minerals nourish Yin? Vitamins tonify Yang, so technically fall into the stimulant category. Avoid vitamins before bed.

Warm up – Take a warm bath and make sure your feet aren’t cold when you go to bed.  Drink a cup of warm chamomile or sleepy time tea.

Kefir and fish oil – Drink a 1/4 of Kefir with a teaspoon of fish oil in it to nourish and settle yin and the nervous system.

Don’t eat large meals late at night – You are asking your body to digest (a yang function) during the yin time when it should be sending energy inward to rest…not transform food.

Get real with yourself – Chronic disturbed sleep is often reflective of an perpetuated emotional pattern in yourself.  Are you doing what you need to? Are you avoiding something that needs to be faced? Are you engaging in your life meaningfully.  When we go against what we know to be our highest–we feel fractured and split and the souls become ungrounded.

Use herbs and foods that calm – On the opposite end of the spectrum from the stimulating foods and herbs are those that calm. Lemon balm, lavender, chamomile to name a few.  Try diffusing them in the room, drinking calming teas.  Let’s not overlook the calming effect of using a little ceremony or routine for your evening cup of lemon balm tea. I might recommend a formula like Suan Zao Ren or Schizandra Dreams for you during an appointment.

Certainly, these aren’t all that can be done to work with insomnia.  There are numerous Chinese and western herbs that work wonders when matched to the right pattern and Amma therapy, herbs and nutrition can work wonders with helping you get back into a restful and replenishing sleep.

Here’s to more peaceful nights.