Click above to listen to a 30 minute interview of Dr. Cynthia Clark on Insomnia and Chinese Medicine by Dr. Sean Stringer.
Insomnia: If you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, you have some degree of insomnia. 95% of Americans have this at some point. It occurs chronically in 25% of the population, and in 50% of people over 50.
All sleep is NOT the same! Here’s Why:
Chinese medicine has a unique perspective on what happens WHEN in the body. Each organ has specific actions during specific times of the day and night. If you are awake during the 1 am-3 am time frame, for example, your liver will not do as good a job on detoxifying your blood, making bile and specific proteins for blood clotting. As a result, you may not feel as rested, not be as organized mentally, and be weak at planning…even if you get 8 hours rest from 3 am to 11 am! I talk more about the clock in the presentation above – click the audio above to learn more.
If You Don’t Sleep, You Will Die.
Really? I mean, we’ve all pulled all-nighters before, and I’m not dead yet. True, but that’s only one night. We can recover one night’s sleep loss the next night, and feel good. But keep doing it, and that’s a different story entirely.
The Rule of Threes
Roughly, we can live:
- 3 minutes without air
- 3 days without water
- 3 weeks without food
But it’s only 10 days for sleep. That’s right – we can live longer without food than we can without sleep. Stop a moment right now and think about how it would feel to go without food for a day, two days. Nothing to drink but water. Think about day 3, and how good your favorite food would taste.
Think about how hungry and cranky – “HANGRY” you get if you go without food for a few extra hours. How distracted you are thinking about eating SOMETHING, ANYTHING! In the next few minutes. Think about how quickly your willpower dissolves in minutes or hours of being hungry.
Now realize that same sequence happens when we’re a little short of sleep. If your body needs 8 hours of sleep, and you regularly only get 6 hours, your body, and especially your brain, is starving for more sleep. Do this over time, and it’s impossible to make up.
There are no do-overs for cumulative lack of sleep. WHY? Sleep deprivation is a well-known form of torture for humans and animals, so studies on it are difficult to find. Why is it so torturous?
Death occurs within a few months in humans who have fatal familial insomnia, a mutation which causes the affected person to suffer from a progressively worsening insomnia that ends in death within a few months. Morvan’s syndrome is another example of how lack of sleep causes death, and in this case, an autoimmune disease destroys the brain’s potassium channels – which leads to severe insomnia and death. Rats die from a severe lack of building new brain neurons due to high levels of cortisol – i.e. stress induced stupidity – in 3 weeks.
Because of its ability to cause high blood pressure and heart disease, each year sleep disorders add $16 billion to national health-care costs. And that does not include accidents and lost productivity at work, which in America alone costs us $150 billion each year in higher stress and reduced workplace productivity (21).
Disasters caused by lack of sleep (Really. Look it up.)
- Three Mile Island
- Exxon Valdez oil spill
So why is sleep deprivation fatal?
The brain is doing important work while you sleep. Looking at the Chinese Meridian clock, you can see which organs are doing the most work when. Our body NEEDS us to stop thinking and stop doing things with our mind, so that our brain can do the work it needs to. Think about it what it feels like if one of your team members is out for a day or two – how much harder you and everyone else needs to work in order to make things work. And how for a day, it’s a lot but it’s doable. But 3 weeks of that nonsense and you’re probably thinking of quitting!
That’s what it feels like when your brain is very very busy. Your digestive system doesn’t get as much blood flow as it does when you’re relaxed and enjoying yourself. Toxins build up in your muscles. Maybe you get a headache, or a stomach ache. You definitely KNOW you’re not thinking clearly.
My Dad was a JERK! (And it probably saved my life.)
Dad, a long time pilot, mechanic, and aircraft inspector, had a strict rule in the house: I was NEVER allowed to drive on less than 8 hours sleep. I mean, come on, I was a high schooler! Between homework, extracurricular activities, and phone time, that’s like impossible man! The rule stood no matter what, no matter why. Why was Dad such a jerk?
Because people who sleep 6-7 hours per night are TWICE as likely to get into an accident. People who sleep less than five were FOUR TO FIVE TIMES as likely to crash! Thanks, Dad!
Why Can’t I Sleep?
Functional Medicine Paradigm:
- Adrenal insufficiency: if the adrenals are weak, they won’t produce enough cortisol. This person may rely on coffee. They may also have low energy in the morning upon waking, having more energy late at night, difficulty falling asleep, having non-restful sleep.
- Liver insufficiency: if the liver is not able to properly store glycogen or factors which cause its release. This person may get tired in early evening, go to bed and fall asleep quickly, but wakes in a few hours and cannot fall back asleep.
- Blood sugar insufficiency: if insulin is imbalanced in the body, the brain may scavenge for sugar at night. This person may have difficulty staying asleep, and may wake up hungry.
- Vasomotor Instability: if blood supply to the brain is excessive. This person may have nervous energy, headaches, worries, restlessness, throbbing head, monkey mind. Deep breathing exercises help.
- For sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system overload: Exercise! Even a walk helps, but a good workout helps a lot. No coffee after noon, and best not to have caffeine.
Chinese Medicine Paradigm:
Click here for a great graphic on Insomnia. The Chinese Meridian clock (way above) works two ways – if you’re missing sleep during certain hours, you’re robbing those organs of energy. AND, if you’re waking up during those hours, there’s something going wrong with those organs. Your acupuncturist will incorporate those times into their treatment and herbal prescription for you. The major syndromes are expanded upon below, while the minor ones just have a short description.
- Liver Qi stagnation: Indicated by irritability, quick temper, and/or depression & Heart Fire: indicated by dream disturbed sleep, “monkey” mind with scattered thoughts.
- Sleep pattern: difficulty falling asleep, nightmares, or unable to go to sleep at all.
- Accompanying signs: irritability, bloodshot eyes, headache, bitter taste in the mouth, thirst, poor appetite, yellowish urine and constipation; the tongue is red and covered by yellow fur, the pulse is taut and rapid.
- Analysis: this type of insomnia usually occurs after emotional outbreaks such as depression or anger, and is also common in menopausal women. Stagnation of the liver creates fire and invades upwards to the head region. The fire belongs to a yang pathogen which disturbs the body’s qi so that it cannot move inward, thus hindering the sleep process. Moreover, even when individuals are asleep the pathogens keep irritating the shen (spirit), resulting in frequent and confused dreaming. When the liver fire is too strong, there will be irritability, bloodshot eyes and a bitter taste in the mouth. The excess of liver can suppress the stomach leading to a lack of appetite, and if the fire also irritates the organ, then thirst will develop. Other signs like yellowish tongue fur refer to overheated stomach, taut and rapid pulse indicates liver fire.
- Stomach disharmony: high or low appetite, gas and bloating, belching
- Phlegm Heat: Barking cough with profuse sticky-yellow or green sputum, shortness of breath, wheezing, a feeling of oppression of the chest, a feeling of heat, thirst, insomnia, agitation.
- Sleep pattern: difficulty falling asleep, shallow sleep and frequent waking. The sleep problems are usually caused by an improper diet.
- Accompanying signs: feelings of annoyance, heaviness in the head, blurred vision, chest tightness, excessive throat secretions, nausea, loss of appetite and belching. The tongue has yellowish and greasy fur; the pulse is rolling and rapid.
- Analysis: the insomnia is mostly caused by food retention or typically aggravated by it. Since this impairs the spleen and stomach, excessive dampness develops and there is an accumulation of phlegm, the evils turn into fire as end products. When the phlegm combines with the fire and invade upwards to the heart and irritate the shen (spirit), there will be difficulty in sleeping as well as feelings of annoyance. The retained food and phlegm affect the qi (vital energy) flow, and affected individuals will experience chest tightness and dizziness. The middle burner will become affected and the digestive process will be disturbed with a subsequent loss of appetite, belching and nausea. The tongue will be covered by yellow greasy fur and there will be a rolling and rapid pulse.
- Stagnant Blood: Sluggishness inside the body. Red or purple nose, may have stabbing pain or heart palpitations, or blackish stool, or coughing blood, or disorders of blood in the reproductive system like endometriosis or painful periods. Possible dizziness or cold limbs. For more details of this complex pattern, please see: https://www.carolinasnaturalhealth.com/a-look-at-blood-stasis-and-common-chinese-herbs-for-treatment/
- Heart and spleen qi deficiency:
- Sleep pattern: dream-disturbed sleep, easily awakened from sleep, difficulty going back to sleep or early awakening.
- Accompanying signs: absent-mindedness, palpitations, dizziness, blurred vision, low spirits, fatigue, loss of appetite and pale complexion; the tongue is pale; the pulse is thready and weak.
- Analysis: this kind of insomnia is often seen in the elderly, those suffering from anemia and during recovery of major diseases. People with this type of difficulty usually fall asleep without difficulty but have many dreams and are easily awakened. The heart governs the blood circulation and stores the shen (spirit) within it. The spleen acts as the source of the nutrient production inside the body. When the body has overly used the nutrients or under utilized the nutrient supply, the heart can’t hold the spirit properly, which becomes wandering and appears absent-mindedness, forgetfulness, palpitations and restless sleep. Furthermore, disturbance of qi flowing along the yin meridians often cause individuals to awaken frequently at night. And because of insufficient blood and qi to flow, dizziness, blurred vision, paleness, fatigue and low spirits appear. Spleen weakness leads to a loss of appetite and a bland taste in the mouth.
- Heart and kidney yin deficiency:
- Sleep pattern: difficult falling asleep, restless sleep, or all-night wakefulness.
- Accompanying signs: absent-mindedness, palpitations, feverish sensations in the chest, palms and soles, dizziness, ear ringing, night sweating, soreness in the waist and knees, nocturnal emission, menstrual problems and mouth dryness. The tongue is red and the pulse is thready.
- Analysis: the insomnia usually occurs in those with chronic conditions. Physical weakness brings about kidney yin deficiency, when disruption between the heart and kidney develops, which makes the kidney fail to restrict the actions of the heart and liver, which create fire in these organs, disturbing the shen (spirit), resulting in restless sleep, palpitations and uneasy feelings. Exhaustion of kidney essence leads to inadequate marrow production for the brain, lead to dizziness, ear ringing and poor memory. Kidney weakness also leads to sexual dysfunction, as well as soreness in the waist and knees. The feverish sensations, mouth dryness, red tongue and typical pulse signs are all associated with yin deficiency and lack of nourishment in the body.
- Heart and gall bladder deficiency:
- Sleep pattern: dream-disturbed sleep, sudden awakening due to fear.
- Accompanying signs: timidity, palpitations, being easily frightened, breath shortness, low spirits, fatigue, perspire easily, clear and profuse urine. The tongue is pale and the pulse is weak and taut.
- Analysis: The insomnia always occurs after a sudden shock, as the qi in the heart and gallbladder is greatly exhausted, resulting in dysfunction of the shen (spirit). The sleep is shallow, full of dreams, easily disturbed with the affected individual feeling very alert after waking up. Low spirits, fatigue and spontaneous perspiration are all signs of qi deficiency, while a pale tongue and a weak pulse indicate insufficiencies of the blood and qi.
- Liver yin and blood deficiency: Cramps, numbness, Dry hair, Blurred vision, floaters, Dry and/or brittle nails, Insomnia and excessive dreaming (when Liver-Blood fails to house the hun at night), Scanty periods or no periods
What is my brain doing when I sleep?
- It’s taking out the trash – removing cellular garbage.
- And repairing itself.
This is the brain’s time to tidy it’s house. Specifically, it’s reorganizing neural networks, cementing new memories, making sense of things. All day long we’re inundated with pieces of data. The phrase, “let me sleep on it,” alludes to our brain’s ability to figure things out when our conscious mind is out of the way. One of the most effective ways to memorize new information is to take a 20 minute nap after a study round.
If the brain doesn’t get time to organize and tidy, things start building up and becoming a chaotic mess. You run out of place to store new memories. If you want to make yourself stupid FAST, skip a few hours of sleep. Over time this affects all of the functions of the body that the central nervous system regulates:
- Difficulty regulating temperature
- Weakened immune system
- Increase in stress hormones like cortisol and catecholamines
- Imbalances in appetite, blood sugar regulation, and metabolism
- —YES, this DOES mean not sleeping enough can make you fat!
- Increase inflammation via interleukin and C-reactive protein…
It gets worse as you go along of course. Eventually you experience malnutrition, hallucinations, malfunction of the autonomic nervous system in the form of heart arrhythmias, kidney and liver function, etc. Also changes at the cellular repair and rebuild level, like changes in cell adhesion and cell clotting abilities, skin lesions, and DNA damage.
As a triathlete, I can attest that it is EASY to see in my workouts when I don’t get enough sleep. The body is full of inflammation, hormone imbalances and blood sugar dysregulation, and operating well below peak mental and physical capability. It sucks.
When you’re tired, you’re dumb. Many people live most of their adult lives this way and think it’s normal to feel like a zombie.
Why do you feel like a million bucks when you get a good night’s sleep?
Because you get a surge of growth hormone and testosterone, which repair muscles and brain neuron grown. So, yes, you’re smarter and sexier when you sleep! What else works well when you sleep? Liver detoxification, adrenal gland restoration, and your immune system!
So the next time you hear someone bragging about how little sleep they got, and inside you’re shaking your head, bust out your picture of the Chinese Meridian Clock and let them know all the goodness they’re missing!
If you’ve been missing sleep for a while, remember: you’re not thinking as clearly as you usually do, and that means you’re not as smart as you usually are. Drink a big glass of water, take a deep breath – and ask for help for goodness’ sake! It’s a heck of a lot harder to figure out how to fix things when you can’t think straight! Call your local natural health care practitioner today!
- Maciocica Fundamentals of Chinese Medicine
- Dr. Royal Lee Treatment Strategies
- International Foundation for Nutrition and Health
- Ben Greenfield