31 Dec Insomnia

Insomnia is defined as difficulty initiating or maintaining sleep at least 3 nights per week, in addition to complaints of sleep-related daytime impairment. Sufficient and restful sleep is a human necessity. The average adult needs slightly more than 8 hours of sleep a day, but only 35% of American adults consistently get this amount of rest!

People with insomnia tend to experience the following sleep disturbances:

• Difficulty falling asleep at night

• Waking too early in the morning

• Waking frequently throughout the night

• Sleep that is chronically non-restorative or poor

Signs of insomnia may include:

• Not feeling refreshed after sleep

• Inability to sleep despite being tired

• Daytime drowsiness, fatigue, irritability, difficulty concentrating, and impaired ablity to perform normal activities

• Anxiety as bedtime approaches

• Tension headaches

No known physical or mental condition primarily causes insomnia, although doctors suspect it may stem from a disruption of the body’s circadian rhythm, an internal clock that governs the timing of hormone production, sleep, body temperature, and other functions. Everyday anxiety and stress, coffee, and alcohol are the most common culprits. Other conditions that lead to insomnia include: substance abuse, menopause, hormonal changes during menstrual cycle, vision loss, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, excessive computer work and a partner who snores.

Western medicine offers many different groups of medications to treat insomnia. They include bezodiazepines (Ativan, Xanax), the newer “Z”-drugs (Ambien) or various antidepressants, like SSRIs or SNRIs. All of the above have side effects and all lead to serious dependence. I don’t recommend any of these drugs for insomnia treatment, not even for a short period of time.

Many methods have been used historically in Traditional Chinese Medicine to treat insomnia, including herbal remedies, acupuncture, acupressure, Chinese massage (tui na), and Qi Gong. TCM recognizes the importance of adequate sleep for physical, psychological and spiritual well being. Traditional Chinese Medicine sees insomnia as an imbalance of Zang (heart) functions. Stress and poor diet produce stagnation of Qi, this stagnation of Qi travels as fire to the heart Zang, which is also the repository of the mind and spirit; the damage done by the fire results in insomnia and sleep disorders.

Acupuncture has been used very effectively to treat insomnia, without any of the side effects of prescription or over-the-counter sleep aids. Improved sleep is only one of the benefits reported by people who have used acupuncture to treat insomnia. As in all things TCM, acupuncture for insomnia does not just treat a symptom. Rather it attacks the root disharmony in the body causing the condition. Therefore those who use acupuncture for insomnia achieve not only better sleep, but also an overall improvement of physical and mental health.

Sleep is critical to maintain Qi and a body in harmony. Lack of sleep causes the body to over produce stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, which cause people to be nervous and more aggressive. Increased levels of cortisol due to chronic stress is also linked to high blood pressure, suppressed immune system, and weight gain. Unlike western medicine there is not one “prescription” for using acupuncture to treat insomnia. Each TCM practitioner will use acupuncture for insomnia effecting a different combination of meridians or points specific to the patient’s individual needs. Each person’s body is considered unique in TCM with its own individual Qi flow and resonance. Therefore there are as many forms of acupuncture for the treatment of sleeplessness as there are insomniacs.

Traditional Chinese Medicinal herbs have also been used for over 2000 years to treat insomnia. They include Poria (Fu Ling), Chai Hu (Bupleurum root), Bai Zi Ren (Biota seeds), Suan Zao Ren (Jujube seeds) to name just a few. These herbs have a rebalancing, relaxing, calming, yin promoting, and sleep inducing effect. Like all other Chinese herbs, they do not cause dependence and can be stopped at any time without causing  any withdrawal symptoms. 

Falling, and staying asleep, is as much a mind game as a physiological experience. People should try to avoid trying too hard to fall asleep and they need to learn how to “fall in love with sleep again”. This must be invoked through rituals and pleasure. Alcohol is not a good way to induce sleep because it keeps you out of delta (deep) sleep, which is where most of the cellular repair work is done. Plus it’s a diuretic, which means bathroom breaks will interrupt natural sleep. Recently, the mechanism by which a good night’s sleep improves learning and memory, has been discovered. Especially deep or slow wave sleep is necessary for memory formation. During this phase, the brain is “replaying” the activity from earlier in the day. Last year, it was discovered that the brain used sleep to wash away toxins built up during a hard day’s thinking.

The core issue is learning to surrender, to let go. Sleep is delicious – it’s not just a servant of waking life, it is to be indulged.