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Insomnia and anxiety are among the most common health issues in the United States. But a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) approach to these interlinked difficulties may help you get more restful sleep when other tactics leave you tossing and turning.
Nearly every patient who comes to see me for treatment invariably suffers either anxiety or insomnia, or both. In fact, this situation is so common that many people don’t consider it a problem that can be helped. Rather, they see it as a part of life that they must “deal with” or try to ignore.
Generally speaking, insomnia is going to bed and not being able to fall asleep or falling asleep but not being able to remain asleep. And this happens either because the body is suddenly no longer tired or the mind is so active (racing with thoughts) that it can’t shut down.
In Chinese medicine we refer to these circumstances as yang (active) not giving way to yin (passive) at night, which is the domain of yin. At bedtime, yang reigns supreme in an insomniac. But on waking, yin has not had time to nourish yang, so the person feels tired and sleepy.
And where there is insomnia, there is anxiety. One engenders the other, and they generally coexist as a pair.
In Chinese medicine we also identify three basic reasons for insomnia: too much heat in the mind (heart), heart blood deficiency and disharmony between heart and kidneys. Let’s look at each of these individually.
Heat Disturbs The Mind (Heart)
The TCM perspective recognizes that the issues of the mind are caused and cured by treating the heart, that the heart is directly related to the mind or psychological issues. Also, it holds that the spirit resides in the heart.
The spirit becomes uncomfortable when heat gathers in the chest. And heat gathers in the chest from turbulent emotions and poor diet. For example, stress and loss cause a stagnation of qi (energy) in the liver and chest, respectively. And this stagnation causes energy and blood to become hot, because the free flow, which is cooling, stalls. Overconsumption of alcohol and coffee causes the liver and blood to heat, which also causes heat to form in the chest. As a result, heat in the chest causes restlessness and anxiety, which causes the insomnia that keeps you from staying asleep for long periods.
This type of insomnia is caused by a racing mind, which wakes you and causes further anxiety, which, in turn, leads to further insomnia. And the cycle goes round and round.
I have found the combined use of the herbal formulas Xiao Yao Wan and An Mien Pian to be quite effective in treating insomnia that arises when heat disturbs the mind.
Heart Blood Deficiency
A heart blood deficiency insomnia is food-related. Because blood forms from food, the quality of the blood slips when your diet is poor or insufficient. A spleen qi deficiency can also cause this condition, since splenic energy is formed by food and then nourishes the blood. And when the blood is malnourished, it cannot supply adequate nutrients to the heart and mind.
This type of insomnia keeps you from falling asleep. People who suffer heart blood deficiency also tend to experience fatigue (from lack of nutrition) and poor digestion (also from poor diet).
I have found that the formulas Gui Pi Wan and Suan Zao Ren Tang work well for this type of anxiety/insomnia.
Heart And Kidneys In Disharmony
TCM views the body’s organs in terms of five elements: water, wood, fire, earth and metal. Each organ is dominated by a particular element. When the body functions in balance, these elements sustain a healthy equilibrium.
The kidneys reflect the water element, and the heart reflects the fire element. Thus, when we say there is disharmony between the heart and kidneys, we are saying there is an imbalance between fire (yang) and water (yin). This also leads to yang not giving way to yin. To return the organs and elements to balance, you need to strengthen the kidneys and sedate the heart: Water needs to overcome fire.
This type of insomnia/anxiety causes vivid dreaming, nightmares, heart palpitations and worry. For this, I have found the best solution is to combine the formulas Tian Wang Bu Xin Dan (Emperor’s Teapills) with An Shen Bu Xin Dan.
In light of the fact that there are several types of insomnia and that anxiety is a close partner, do you know which type you are? Once you are able to define your type of insomnia with anxiety, you can better get a handle on how best to deal with it by changing your diet or taking Chinese patent herbal medicines. The best way to do this, of course, is to make an appointment with a qualified TCM or acupuncture practitioner in your area.
Until then, I wish you sweet dreams.