Understand and counter insomnia with TCM

Insomnia is a form of sleep disorder where a person experiences difficulty in falling or staying asleep. Symptoms also include waking up often during the night and having trouble going back to sleep. Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) recognises that insomnia stems from a fundamental imbalance of energy, or yin and yang qi.

Sleep is part of the natural rhythm of yin and yang qi in the body. Yin and yang qi play opposite roles – in the day, yang qi dominates as it fuels the body’s activities and keeps us warm and alert. However, as day turns into night, the cooling, quiet and nourishing yin qi dominates. It helps slow down the body’s activity so that it is relaxed and calm for a good night’s sleep. When this natural rhythm is disrupted, there is an imbalance of yin and yang qi, which results in insomnia.

Some factors that cause yin and yang qi imbalance:

  • Dietary habits such as overeating, heavy meals and consumption of caffeinated and alcoholic beverages
  • Emotions such as anger, sorrow and extreme happiness
  • Exhaustion from activities such as excessive exercise, or overstimulation of the brain
  • Prolonged illness
  • Old age

In TCM terms, underlying factors that contribute to the development of insomnia include:

  • Liver fire (“heatiness”)
  • Liver and gallbladder damp heat
  • Heart qi deficiency
  • Heart fire
  • Spleen qi deficiency

Insomnia can also be the symptom of a larger health issue. If left untreated, energy levels can be affected, which can have dire consequences on work performance, overall health and quality of life.

There are some TCM remedies you can use to improve quality of sleep. Adding spinal date seed (酸枣仁), lily bud (百合), dried longan (龙眼肉) or bo zi ren herb (柏子仁) to your daily diet and consuming warm herbal teas such as chamomile (洋甘菊), Albizia julibrissin flower (合欢花) and rose bud (玫瑰花) may help in balancing qi. Supplementing herbal remedies with acupuncture may also bring relief to those who suffer from insomnia. Depending on the underlying contributing factors, massaging acupuncture points such as the Nei Guan and Shen Men can aid in qi circulation and dissipate the heat accumulated at the respective area.

Other lifestyle habits that can help relieve insomnia:

  • Soaking feet in warm water for about 20 minutes before bedtime
  • Breathing exercises or meditation
  • Listening to soothing music
  • Avoid using electronic devices at least half an hour before bedtime