Are you starting to feel the rising Spring energy? The winds, chaotic weather, and beginning of more daylight? With this shifting and rising energy many people may notice some kind of sleep disturbance. Almost one-third of the US population is affected by insomnia on at least an occasional basis. Given the prevalence of insomnia in today’s society, the need is great for effective treatment. Though drugs used in Western Medicine may provide acute relief, they often fail to address the root cause of the insomnia and may have unwanted side-effects. The approach taken by Chinese Medicine is to balance the individual as a whole and treat the root energetic cause of the imbalance.
What is sleep?
“If sleep doesn’t serve an absolutely vital function, it is the greatest mistake evolution ever made.” -Allan Rechtschaffen, Ph.D.
Sleep is generally defined as an active state in which the body and mind are less responsive. It is believed that sleep is a restorative process.1
Sleep is composed of different stages:1,2
- Stage 1– light sleep, between awake and falling asleep
- Stage 2– onset of sleep, disengage from surroundings, regular breathing and heart rate
- Slow wave sleep (3-4)-deepest and most restorative, blood pressure drops, slower breathing. Relaxed muscles, tissue growth and repair, energy restored, hormones released
- REM– 25% of night, about every 90 minutes, energy to brain and body, brain is active, dreams occur, eyes move but otherwise immobile
- “Good” sleep allows all stages to be completed in many cycles (3-4).
What is insomnia?
“The problem of insomnia in our society is huge and complex. However, from the perspective of the average citizen, it is like the weather – everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything.” -William C. Dement, M.D., Ph.D.
Insomnia is characterized by difficultly initiating or maintaining sleep. Consequences of insomnia include impaired daytime functioning, irritability and mood disturbance, fatigue and sleepiness. Insomnia comprises both daytime and nighttime components, with the perception that sleep is short or fragmented with associated negative daytime consequences. 3
- Most frequent sleep disturbance- 30-35% “mild” or “occasional;” 10-15% “severe” or “chronic”
- Negatively impacts work, physical, and social performance and overall quality of life
- May come from general hyperarousal
- More easily aroused from sleep and slower to return
- Link with levels of waking arousal (heart rate)
- Elevated HPA-axis activity and cortisol
Despite the prevalence and impact of insomnia, it is not often recognized or treated by many physicians.4 When insomnia is treated in Western Medicine, pharmacological treatments are often used (though cognitive behavioral therapy has been shown to be effective). Chinese Medicine focuses on the individual’s unique pattern and designs a unique treatment to balance the individual’s qi.
The Yin and Yang of Sleep
Ideas about health in Chinese Medicine are based on the yin and yang energy. These energies are interdependent, in opposition, always in motion, and transform into each other. To be in good health, one’s yin and yang energy must be balanced moving, not blocked.
In Chinese Medicine sleep and wake are viewed as yin-yang to each other. According to this, consciousness and waking are the result of yang energy rising to the head.5 Sleep is the result of the yang energy descending back to the core after it has been used by the day’s requirements to be nurtured by the yin. 5 During sleep, yang energy that has been depleted is nourished and revitalized to be used again upon awakening. The body’s yin and yang energy follow the light of the sun and ascend and descend accordingly.
Causes of Insomnia
For good sleep, yin and yang energy must be balanced. According to Chinese Medicine, one reason insomnia may result is because the yin energy becomes very week (e.g., as a result of aging) and cannot control the yang energy. Thus, the yang energy may flow upward and ascend when it should not. The yang energy may be depleted by the end of the day so that the person is able to fall asleep, but if there is inadequate yin energy to keep the yang down it will rise upward too early, resulting in an inability to fall back asleep. In general, anything that results in yang energy rising and moving outward will exacerbate insomnia.4 Chinese medicine (e.g., acupuncture) may treat insomnia by stimulating the body to produce more blood and yin.
Factors leading to insomnia through an imbalance of yin and yang in the body include:
- Excessive/ over-active thinking
- Frustration or emotional stress depressing flow of qi OR Yang energy, moves upward, disturbing the tranquility of the heart.
- Excess activity; Yang hyperactivity resulting from insufficient yin
- Lack of exercise, poor diet (including eating greasy or fatty foods).
- Being overweight
- Overeating a large meal before bed; causes an acute case of insomnia by blocking the yang energy from returning to the body’s interior.
Tools and Practices to Improve Sleep
Practices that address Yin/ Yang imbalance:
- Acupuncture and Acupressure
- Improves sleep quality and quantity6
- Improves daytime functioning following sleep loss7
- May decrease sleep need in long-term meditators7
- Spending time outside in Nature
- Essential Oils
- Lavender inhalation improves sleep quality8
- Lavender works to decrease general arousal and excitability of the body and nervous system.9
Evergreen Practitioner & Contributing Writer: Tracy Rupp Hockmeyer Ph.D., M.Ac., L.Ac. practices Five Element Acupuncture; a nature inspired and based medicine with its fundamental principles based on the movement and energetics of nature. She specializes in sleep and addressing sleep complaints. With her background in research and practice as an acupuncturist, Tracy offers a knowledge base from both Eastern and Western medicine. She addresses individuals’ sleep complaints using acupuncture, essential oils, and lifestyle recommendations.
- Purves D (2004). Sleep and Wakefulness. In Purves D, et al., ed. Neuroscience, 3rd ed.. Sunderland, MA, U.S.A.: Sinaur Associates, Inc. Ch. 27.
- Drake CL, Roehrs T, Roth T (2003). Insomnia causes consequences and therapeutics: An overview. Depression and Anxiety18, 163-178.
- Sateia, M.J. (2002). Epidemiology, Consequences, and Evaluation of Insomnia. Sleep Medicine. Editors Lee Chiong, T.L., Sateia, M.J., Carskadon, M.A. 151 – 160.
- Flaws (1997).
- Cao et al. (2009). Acupuncture for Treatment of Insomnia: A Systematic Review of Randomized Controlled Trials. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 15 (11).
- Kaul et al., (2010). Meditation acutely improves psychomotor vigilance and may decrease sleep need. Behavioral Brain Function, 6.
- Goel, N., Kim, H., & Lao, R.P. (2005). An olfactory stimulus modifies nighttime sleep in young men and women. Chronobiol Int, 22, 889-904.
- Duan X, Tashiro M, Wu D, et al. (2007) Autonomic nervous function and localization of cerebral activity during lavender aromatic immersion. Technol Health Care, 15, 69–78