** This article comes from a series that I wrote for the old Apollo Sun Magazine, now the Your Neighborhood Magazine, in May 2004.
Few things are as frustrating as insomnia. It will leave you cranky, fatigued, restless, and unable to concentrate. This is not a receipt for an enjoyable or productive day. Sadly, you can’t even apply simple logic to the problem – if I’m so exhausted, why on earth can’t I fall asleep? It seems like a bad joke.
Often I’m pointing out the differences between Western and Eastern Medicine however, with regard to the problem of insomnia; we have quite a bit in common, at least as far as the reasons why you can’t get a rested night’s sleep. Before any tests have been run, any blood has been drawn, or any biochemical reason assigned, we have to look at your life and lifestyle. What has a “normal” sleep pattern been for you? Are you ingesting any substances (alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, etc.) that could have a serious impact on your ability to sleep? How much psychological stress are you under at work and home? How much physical activity are you getting? Do you have any un-related illnesses, especially ones with physical pain? Are you depressed? (Depression commonly disturbs sleep; either too much or too little, depending on the individual) Has your schedule shifted dramatically for any reason?
That is a significant list of circumstances that can affect your sleep! Yet, in Western medical literature, if insomnia is the only problem you have, the only entirely physical reason for it would be sleep apnea. Otherwise, we have to look to your lifestyle issues. Stress is one of the biggest reasons for insomnia from a Western perspective, which is why it makes sense that the primary mode of treatment is hypnotics (sleeping pills, sedatives, anti-anxiety medications, etc.). They knock you out so you rest, but they don’t address the underlying problem of why you couldn’t sleep in the first place. They also should only be taken for a relatively short period of time because they are addictive.
Insomnia, from an Eastern perspective, also has roots in stress but then stress is also seen as a symptom, not a cause. The most important energetic system in your body, when it comes to insomnia, is your Heart. I’ve said before that in Chinese medicine each organ relates to a system of energy (Qi, Yin, and Yang). Now I want to add the idea that each organ system also contains an aspect of your mind and each has its own emotion as well. The Heart is said to hold your “Shen”, which is most easily translated as Mind or Spirit. The Heart’s emotion is Joy. All of these subtle energies need to remain in balance for us to live healthy, harmonious lives. Different patterns of imbalance (for example; not enough Heart Yin or Heart Qi, or more complicated diagnostic pictures like Heart and Kidney Yin Deficiency, etc.) will give rise to different forms of insomnia. Some people fall asleep fine but wake up easily and often. Others can’t fall asleep for hours but once they do they manage to stay asleep. More will toss and turn all night, getting sleep fitfully. The Chinese medical view of insomnia has more causes for it than Western medicine does and I believe this is good because it gives you a greater range of treatment options.