01.03.2016 Eastern Healing

Treating Insomnia with Oriental Medicine

Insomnia is one of today’s major but probably understated health issues. Olivier LeJus offers some Eastern wisdom

Sleeping disorders are among the most common clinical presentations one will see in an acupuncture practice. In the old days, when most of the world’s population was living in rural areas, people’s lives were dictated by the circadian cycle of the sun. They rose at dawn to work in the fields, and they went to bed after dusk.

With the invention of electricity at the end of the 19century, and the onset of the Industrial Revolution, our lifestyle suddenly changed. We stopped following the law of nature, our lives became more stressful, and our sleeping patterns never fully recovered.

There are many forms of insomnia. For some people falling asleep is a big problem, while for others it is waking up in the early hours and being unable to go back to sleep that causes them a lot of grief. As people get older they often become light sleepers, easily disturbed by the slightest noise. Or they are awoken by dreams or nightmares throughout the night. Finally, there are some poor souls who just lie awake all night staring at the ceiling, only drifting off for a few minutes of sleep now and then.

When the sleeplessness is only temporary, for example, when bright lights, noise, or recent emotional setbacks are the cause, the symptoms often quickly improve once the external causes are removed.

Finally, the sleeping difficulties can also be the consequence of illness such as cough, fever or pain, when the medical condition needs to be treated, rather then insomnia.

Whatever the cause, one should look at making lifestyle changes first, before considering taking sleeping medications.

In the Oriental medical framework, the daytime period is Yang, and nighttime is Yin. The Yang energy reaches its peak at midday, and then slowly begins to decline as the Yin energy gradually increases to reach its peak at midnight. After midnight, the Yin begins to decline as the Yang rises.

Most people who have trouble sleeping have an excess of Yang energy when they go to bed. This is the reason there should be a slowing down period before bedtime where mental stimulation is gradually reduced. Practising relaxation for a few minutes every night, instead of spending time on Facebook, or watching TV, can definitively help. I recommend a free meditation app called “Headspace” that you can easily download onto a smartphone.

In my personal experience, writing down all the things you need to do the next day before you go to bed can definitely reduce a great deal of stress and anxiety before falling asleep. Regular exercise is also a great mental help.

I recommend a free meditation app called “Headspace” that you can easily download onto a smartphone.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, sleeping problems are divided into deficiency and excess patterns.The excess conditions result from temporary factors such as overwork or emotional stress, while the deficiency patterns are caused by long-term imbalances ranging from a weak constitution, to chronic illness, depression or anxiety. As excess conditions are more recent they are usually easier to treat, while deficiency patterns, which are more chronic, tend to require more treatments.

As we previously mentioned, one of the main cause of insomnia is an excess amount of Yang energy at nighttime. A very common excess pattern is called “Liver Yang rising”, or “Liver fire“. It occurs when the liver energy, which has been stagnating due to suppressed emotional stress or anger, gradually turns to heat. Since the liver meridian rises to the head, the excess heat soon disturbs the mind, and the person gets headaches, becomes very irritable, and finds it very difficult to fall asleep.The evidence of heat is confirmed by the presence of red edges on the side of the tongue, and a fast and hard pulse quality.

Menopausal women are often victims of a similar pattern called “deficiency heat”. It occurs when the cooling Kidney Yin energy has become too weak to regulate its warm Yang counterpart.

Since the Yang is not in excess, we see only partial evidence of heat rising to the head, while the hands and feet remain cold. Women who are affected in this way become anxious easily, complaining of episodic night sweating, palpitations, and a light sleeping pattern disturbed by vivid dreams, or nightmares.

Another dysfunction comes from patients who worry a lot, and who are afraid of change. These patients are easily depressed and suffer from a lack of energy. In Oriental medicine, fear and anxiety weakens the Gallbladder energy, which, in turn, affects the heart. For them, the problem is not in falling asleep, but waking up in the early hours already sick with worry, and carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders.

For most long-term patterns, the acupuncture treatments are supplemented with herbal medicine. Some Chinese herbs have sedative properties similar to their Western counterparts valerian or chamomile.

But the problem will not be resolved until the specific underlying imbalances have been addressed. Additional herbs, which stimulate the blood, clear the heat, and harmonise the imbalanced organs like the Liver, Gallbladder, Heart or Kidneys will need to be included to finally overcome the fear of darkness.

Olivier Lejus

Olivier Lejus BHSc.MHSc. is a registered acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist practising in Sydney. A former casual university lecturer and tutor in Oriental medicine with over 15 years experience in clinical practice, Olivier specialises in Japanese- style acupuncture for the treatment of male and female infertility, migraine, pain, and insomnia.www.olejusacupuncture.com