Do you toss and turn all night long or wake of refreshed and energized?  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.

Temporary sleep disturbances are not  something to be overly concerned with, but if the pattern continues for more than 3 weeks 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.  

A good night’s sleep is important and you should feel rested and revitalized when you awake. 

What is happening? Why are so many people suffering from insomnia or restless night.  Why are millions of prescriptions for sleep aids like Ambien written every year?  Each person’s pattern is different and each pattern can be improved on.  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.  It is interesting to note here that recents studies have popped up about “first and second sleep.”  Apparently, there is documentation from the late 1800’s and early 1900’s where people commonly went to bed and slept for 3-4 hours, woke and puttered about for an hour or two, before settling back into their “second” sleep. It could be that some people might thrive with popping a wake for a wee bit and then snoozing back off. Something to keep an eye on.

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–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.  Let’s face it, your body may not be moving, but you aren’t getting much rest in this state.

Insight from Chinese 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 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.

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 to the left.

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 complimentary 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? Campfire, although hot is Yin by comparison to an active raging forest fire.

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 construed 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 Chinese medicine there a many patterns that can lead to insomnia.  Remember: Chinese medicine looks at the functional energetic properties of organs, having a Heart pattern in CM doesn’t necessarily mean anything would show up on western tests.

  • Blood deficiency: Lack of blood to adequately nourish and settle the Shen (spirit) these patterns will have a pale tongue and weak pulse.  The person may be anemic and startle easily, anxious yet tired.
  • Heart Fire: Too much heat often from emotional issues agitates and creates restlessness. Red tongue, rapid pulse, slurring of speech, agitation.
  • 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
  • Phlegm Fire Obstructing the Mind: Accumulation of phlegm clouds the orifices and the unsettles the 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.

And there are many more….

With just the few patterns listed above  you can see how many different patterns can lead to insomnia, and how their treatment would be different.  It’s the practitioner’s job to find out which pattern a client fits and then specialize the treatment to that client.

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.
  • 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
  • Turn out the lights-Decrease in light stimulates the body’s natural desire to rest. Light stimulates the Kidney–now yo
  • Take Calcium and Magnesium-Up to 1,000 milligrams to help relax the muscles.
  • Avoid stimulants and alcohol 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.
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 acupuncture or Amma therapy can work wonders with helping you get back into a restful and replenishing sleep.
Here’s to some great zzzzzz…
April Crowell 2012   reposted with permission from