“It's been seventeen days I can't sleep...” With these words, the story of a popular contemporary writer begins. Unfortunately, it is often not just a literary narrative. Insomnia becomes a day-and-nightmare for many.
How could traditional Chinese medicine help us with sweet sleep?
Insomnia does not just mean that we stay awake all night. This also includes the inability to “drop off”, waking up frequently during the night or in the morning, or when sleep is restless and shallow. How we need to sleep depends on our age. Of course, children need more sleep (infants sleep 16 hours a day, toddlers 13 hours, 10 to 12 hours are optimal at 12 years), the more mature we are, the need for sleep gradually decreases (9 hours at maturity, 7 - 8 hours are enough at middle age and people over 60 years we will be satisfied with 5 - 7 hours).
The key factors in insomnia are internal factors (more about them below) - but also external influences can often play a disturbing role, e.g. a sudden change in weather, the respective phase of the month, drinking coffee or caffeine tea, eating before bedtime (or digesting a “heavy calibre” meal from lunch), an uncomfortable bed, a time lag after arrival (jet lag) or unknown environment. Likewise, too much heat or cold in the bedroom can get us out of our night's rest, the same happens when we are too emotionally upset (we are “like a scalded cat”, “see red”, or “like after a cold shower”). However, if we cannot fall asleep due to other illness (asthma, itchy eczema, etc.) or pain (e.g. toothache), this is not considered insomnia.
The best way to bed down
In bed, we try to fall asleep in a variety of ways – on our back in the “sarcophagus” position, curled up or stretched out on our stomach. According to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), the best position for falling asleep is the so-called stabilized position. We are lying on the right side and our right arm is bent slightly on the pillow and stuck out – the left hand merges in freely with the body on the left side. As a result, the heart is higher than the liver and blood can circulate freely in the body. The precondition for remedial and healthy sleep also applies in the opposite direction, because blood can accumulate in the lower located liver, which soothes emotions and spirit. Even the intestines and stomach are not burdened in this position and can thus optimally digest everything that has been accumulated there during the day.
If we cannot fall asleep on our back, it is a state of Excess according to TCM. When we fall asleep only on our back and our arms are outstretched (on the duvet), it is a state of Heat. If we only fall asleep on our stomach, it is a state of Insufficiency (especially the Stomach pathway), and if we fall asleep exclusively on the left side (mirrored to the stabilized position), it is the insufficiency of Qi and Blood Energy in the Heart pathway. On the contrary, Excess is formed on the Liver pathway.
- Stress and emotions are now the driving levers, after they are set in motion, the inability to sleep peacefully is guaranteed. Excessive concerns, anxiety, a tendency to sadness and excessive melancholy and nostalgia, inner unease, irritability, repressed anger, (non-)manifested hatred, feelings of guilt and wrong, wagging one's chin and threshing empty straw - all this usually leads to exhaustion of Yin or Blood, which will stop nourishing our SHEN Spirit. Another possible direction is the stagnation of Qi - the Liver energy, which then turns into the Liver Fire and burns the Spirit of HUN based in the Liver. Our inner restlessness spirals up to the dizzying – and irreversible – heights. Primarily, therefore, we should strive for inner harmony and balanced flow – not only in the body but especially in emotions. In modern terms we could say that the primary concern is to be in “FLOW”.
- Overwork is reliably followed by emotional stress. If we work for a long time without adequate rest, in a stressful environment (e.g. in an unfriendly team), without regular nutrition and good diet, all of this will necessarily sooner or later exhaust the reserves of out body. This primarily exhausts Kidney Yin, which in turn causes “fire of emptiness” in the Heart. We have encountered such a disconnection of the Heart and Kidney pathway, especially in older people. Now, however, the young generation is “aging” before our eyes.
- Eating is the basis of life. In the case of poor food intake, however, we invite unpleasant days and nights. If we eat irregularly, opulently (overeat - especially before bed) with an excessive amount of fatty and junk food, we give rise to Heat RE in the body (which can also be generated by grilled, fried and baked foods, spicy and hot foods, but also alcohol and black coffee). This results in excessive gastric mucus, which again disturbs the SHEN Spirit in the Heart. Or, there may be frequent stagnation of food in the Stomach, which is a common cause of insomnia in children.
- Constitutional predisposition can also cause sleep disorder from birth (or conception). The weak pathway of the Stomach and Heart is then manifested in indecision, reduced self-confidence, complicated assertiveness, excessive timidity. Such people tend to have sleeping troubles throughout their lives (in particular, they wake up around four o'clock in the morning and cannot sleep again).
- Other factors may be, for example, hot toxins “nested” in the body after a fever (which may result in insomnia in chronic fatigue syndrome). Or if there was an excessive blood loss in childhood (during surgery or after injuries), in adulthood it may result in an inability to “cut off”. Likewise, long-term medications - hormones (including hormonal contraceptives), antibiotics, analgesics, etc. - have a devastating effect on sleep. In their effects, they weaken or block the Blood, which in turn does not nourish - or even disturbs - the SHEN Spirit in the Heart.