Insomnia Cure with Chinese Medicine, Acupuncture and Ayurveda–Sleep Culture and the Idea of Sleep
I recently had a treatment of insomnia cure of a patient with chronic insomnia whose husband insists on keeping an elaborate array of media devices that operate a stereo system and entertainment center in the bedroom. This patient was under a lot of stress from a family issue other than the problem of her husband refusing to compromise on this issue, and also with her high pressure job.
How does one cure a case of insomnia such as this with Chinese Herbal Medicine, Ayurveda, and Acupuncture?
In my view, real medicine involves getting to the root of problems, in the same way as real gardening does. If you have a fungus on your grape vine from overwatering the plant, there is no point spraying some toxic chemical to kill the fungus if you won’t stop over watering the plant.
One of the main reasons people have insomnia is because they have not yet learned how to shut down their mental and physical drive, how to put themselves into the state of deep relaxation one achieves with a good yoga practice.
And what happens is, when people are under stress, when they are fearful, angry, frustrated, sad, and on top of it they don’t know how to unwind, and if on top of that they have an elevated Pitta or Vata character type in Ayurveda, which equates, generally speaking, with a kind of elevated level of intensity or nervousness, then its a perfect insomnia storm. And you can’t treat with a pill what you have created with a lifestyle, we create good health with healthy lifestyles, and that includes your sleep lifestyle and how you treat your mind, how you deal with the vicissitudes of being human. In order to cure insomnia, you have to learn how to relax at night. There is no way around that, and acupuncture helps, and what you do at home helps, too.
Humans, like many mammals, evolved to sleep at night. Night was once dark. Night is supposed to be dark. Darkness triggers sleep and the array of hormonal biochemical reactions that give us deep sleep. Most of us have to live in cities, where the sky is not dark as it is in the country side. Light pollution is a real issue. But at least we can optimize for darkness within our own homes, within our own bedrooms. This is part of what Bio-medical docs now call sleep culture. There is healthy and unhealthy sleep culture. In Chinese medicine this is simply part of wisdom, or a subset of diet and lifestyle.
What is Sleep Culture and Its Role in Insomnia Cure?
Sleep culture is the whole gamut of things we do to transition from day to night. If you stop and think about it, most of us transition in the morning for night to day. We wake up and snooze a little longer. We get up a little groggy, we go to the toilet, we wash our face and brush our teeth, some of us bathe in the a.m., and then we drink our tea or coffee and/or eat a little something, and then only are we ready to go.
Likewise, the transition from day to night involves a slowing down and turning off of our minds and body’s. Sleep has such enormous restorative value, the negative effects of chronic poor sleep are horrific. You owe it to yourself to think about what you are doing and challenge your assumptions and or practices.
10 Tips for Healthy Sleep Culture and Insomnia Cure
- Human beings benefit from routine. Its also classical conditioning. Healthy sleep culture starts with having a routine for winding down in the evening. A point when you stop stimulating yourself with electronic media like television and the computer screen. You cannot cure insomnia with drugs alone. If someone is not willing to deal with media addiction, there isn’t a lot anyone can do. What is great is that acupuncture and chinese herbal medicine can help people get into the kind of relaxed state that is amenable to change.
- Another key point, and this comes back to the case i began to present about the women whose husband insists on having the entertainment center in the bedroom, is that according to bio-med sleep experts, its best if the bedroom is reserved for sleep and family life. Again, classical conditioning. You enter the cave of the bedroom and your mind says, “its time for sleep.”
- Keep the bedroom free of clutter. Clutter sends the message there are things to be entangled with. If clothes need folding and things need putting away it is harder to make the separation from wakefulness to sleep.
- Keep all media out of the bedroom–phones, televisions, radios, etc. Again, looking at it from the standpoint of classical conditioning, when you look at your cellphone it makes you think of things that need to get done, which stimulates your nervous system into action, not sleep. Watching the news before bed is a great way to stimulate your busy mind with worry about the world. And we know from science that the blue light from smart phones and tablets throws off your sleep-wake cycles. See this article from a recent Scientific American for the science.
- If there are things on your mind that are bothering you before bed, write them down. Make a to do list early in the evening so you can stop carrying plans in your head. If you have powerful dreams, write them down in the morning. Dreams are a way the mind processes daytime affairs and history; writing them down gives your subconscious mind another chance to bring the material into consciousness so it can be either examined or discarded.
- If you are feeling anxious or frustrated, meditate before bed. Meditate before bed anyway, you will get very good sleep.
- Learn how to do body scanning if you are lying in bed feeling anxious or restless. Body scanning comes from yoga, and there is a good body scanning lesson in my favorite meditation book: Calming Your Anxious Mind.
- Keep the bedroom well aired. Fresh air helps you sleep, especially if you are an anxious type.
- Create a night time ritual. Turn everything off. Read a little from a book, not the newspaper. Change out of your work clothes or your casual clothes into your sleep clothes. Wash your face, floss and brush your teeth. Meditate. Say a prayer.
- Find a way to keep the bedroom very dark. Get blackout curtains if you need to.
Cure of Insomnia and Sleep Disorders with Chinese Herbal Medicine and Acupuncture
The Concept of Sleep in Chinese Medicine
Chinese Medicine describes the nervous system to a “t”. It says that all emotions are processed through the heart. The heart is the emperor and in Chinese medicine plays the role of both the brain and the emotional center. The heart is the seat of consciousness. The word Shen is used for both consciousness and the heart itself. All emotions move through the heart, even though we may experience them in different part of our body. (For example, anger gets felt in the face, head, neck and shoulders, whereas fear is felt in the gut and if severe, in the legs, as in trembling. Or sadness is felt in the lungs especially. Grief provokes sobbing and sighing, products of the lung Qi.
The Chinese character for the heart includes a radical with the image of a cave. The concept of sleep is very interesting in Chinese medicine. During the waking state our consciousness bounces back and forth between our own internal sense of self and the things we are in relationship with–other people and all the experiences mediated by the five sense organs. But when we sleep our consciousness must retreat from all things external–your sense organs get disconnected from outside stimuli, indeed, if you pull open the eyelid of someone in deep sleep, nothing happens, their mind is there, they are alive, their eyeball works, but consciousness has retreated to a deep place. Even you say their name, if they are a deep sleeper, they don’t wake up. They still have a perfectly functional sense of hearing, but they hear nothing. So what is this process called sleep, and how is disrupted producing insomnia?
Chinese medicine conceptualizes the heart as a cave. During the day consciousness (the Shen) comes and goes at will in and out of the cave. One minute you are dreaming about that delicious chocolate ice cream cone you had when you were a 5 year old at Grunings restaurant in New Jersey, and the next minute you are answering the phone. One minute you think about what you will present in class tomorrow, the next second you experience a little anxiety, then you get in your car and drive on the road engaging all your senses in relation to the external world.
But at night, in order to sleep, your Shen, or consciousness must return to the cave. No more contact with external stimuli. But two problems can occur. One is, what if the Shen gets lost on the way home. This is what you see with deeper psychological problems like psychosis, where there is a real disconnect between the inner self and its relationship to the outside world. But this can also occur with severe stressors like divorce or other relational issues, and especially with emotional trauma and violation in which the way home is blocked.
But the more common problem is when the Shen consciousness tries to get back into the cave to sleep and the cave is already full. Full with what? Full of strong emotions–the fire of anger and frustration, the cold of fear and anxiety, the wind of worry and over thinking; the mind that won’t shut down. Now there is no room in the cave of the heart for consciousness/Shen and it must wait outside the cave pacing back and forth because it can’t get in. This is what insomnia looks like in Chinese Medical thinking. Chinese medical thinking is imagistic, and i think this paints a pretty good picture of what happens when we can’t sleep when our minds (shen/consciousness) are too full of thoughts and our body’s too tense and unrelaxed. To sleep is to drift off into sleep and you can’t drift away when you are holding on.
Good sleep culture engenders drifting away. Bad sleep culture keeps you in your conscious mind, whether it is stimulation of media and electronic devices, whether it is an inability to let go of what is on your mind, whether it is an inability to relax, all these factors keep the mind conscious rather than unconscious, ergo, asleep.
The Role of Dreams in Sleep.
In sleep your conscious mind no longer exists; that is why the doors of the unconscious open in deep REM sleep producing wild and weird dreams that make no “sense.” Or why we have dreams of experiences from long ago that we have not recently been thinking of, or of deceased parents, or with odd characters that seem to give voice to aspects of ourselves we make be disconnected from, or afraid of. Someone who is historically very strong may be afraid of being vulnerable or weak, and someone historically weak and timid might actually have the potential to be assertive, but is somehow blocked. But in a dream they are suddenly very assertive. This can be a kind of practice, your mind giving you the experience of your aspiration so that you have some practice. Dreams do make sense, just not to the conscious mind. But when you record your dreams you will often have a felt experience of meaning, and may even have deeper intellectual understanding of their “meaning.” In ancient culture dreams were considered very important; hence all the stories with dreams in them in the Bible. In Jewish tradition dreams are called “messages from God.”
next: Treatment Methods of Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda, and Acupuncture.