Improving your sleep with TCM
Philippa Harvey, our TCM Specialist, explains how we can beat insomnia.
“I can´t sleep!!” This is a very frequent issue in clinic. “I wake up at 4am every night then I can’t get back to sleep” is also another common problem when people talk about sleeping difficulties. It can be at 4am or 2am, but the pattern of walking up at the same time is also a recurrent theme.
So, before I go into details of how we see insomnia in TCM, I would like to mention our biological clock. According to TCM principles our organs have their “own time slot” in the 24 hours of a day. We could say, a moment in which they are most active, or if we were a computer it would be the moment we would be booting up after being in standby.
Our biological clock in the ideal world, let’s assume we are already at home by 19:00. This is the perfect time to relax, from 19:00 pm to 21:00 is the time for our Pericardium (the area around our heart).Pericardium enjoys the feeling of protection, safety and love. This would be the perfect time, for making love, meditation or light reading. Hopefully we would have had a light meal before 21:00.
Between 21:00 and 23:00 our body starts to prepare for sleep. This is the time for what TCM refers to as, The Triple Burner, or endocrine system. When this is activated our hormones are swapping roles from the stimulating wake me ups to melatonin, and relaxing hormones, the metabolic rates are working to light up the path to our beds.
Between 23:00 and 1am is the best time to be asleep. This time is for the Gallbladder, bile is released, and our blood is running around at full speed cleaning up the days dead cells, and fixing and repairing others.
1am and ·3am belongs to the Liver. We should be in deep sleep by now; our blood is in detox mode, and our body in rest and recovery. When we wake up repeatedly within this time frame, we will generally not wake up feeling rested. The liver is associated with the emotions of frustration or anger, perhaps something is really bothering us.
Now the time slot between 3am and 5am, belongs to our Lungs, we should still be in deep sleep, we normally have dreams and memories pop up. We are in Lung detox. A lot of people wake up at this time, this normally indicates anxiety and perhaps some pent up sadness.
Ideally we should be waking up between 5am and 7am, this time-frame belongs to our Large Intestine. The organ has been busy collecting residues and toxins over night and now it is time to eliminate.
Hopefully we arrive well slept, ready and relaxed for our breakfasts between 7am and 9am. These hours belong to the Stomach; this is the time to concentrate and get ready for the day. This understanding of our natural biological body clock and how it works will naturally help sleeping problems.
Unfortunately, our life does not always go along with this natural biological clock. When this happens apart from digestive and other issues we may suffer insomnia. In clinic the problem of “I can´t sleep”, is followed by my question, of “How would you define this as a difficulty falling asleep, a difficulty maintaining sleep or non-restorative sleep?” In TCM we categorise insomnia into these three main sleeping disorder patterns. Understanding which one is affecting us will allow us to manage the issue:
- Blood & Qi deficiency: not having the right foods, excessive exercise, or overstimulation of the brain
- Yin deficiency: prolonged illness, strong emotional life changes.
- Excess (heat, fire, phlegm, or food retention): dietary habits such as overeating, heavy meals high consumption of coffee and alcohol
How can we help insomnia? Diet will help for deficiencies in blood, for example: bone broth, watercress, wheatgrass, other dark greens/grasses, berries, and oats can be added eaten. Yin-building foods include tofu, sesame, bean sprouts, seaweeds, fish, beans, and eggs. You may need to take some mineral supplements, if you do not get enough mineral rich foods, particularly rich in iron calcium and magnesium
Additionally, acupuncture and QI Gong (Tai Chi) are excellent ways of helping insomnia issues as this helps balance the QI, as does meditation and relaxing music. Don´t forget that avoiding electronic devices at least half an hour before bed time will also help the mind relax.
So when you can´t sleep check your TCM Biological Clock and routine, see which areas need some changes. Consult a TCM specialist before insomnia takes too much energy out of your daily life. And remember we may be running too low on energy (QI), or is there too much. TCM can help you to regain a natural sleeping pattern. Our Yin and Yang needs to be balanced as we say, in the day, Yang QI dominates and as day turns into night, the quiet and nourishing Yin QI dominates. And this is the continual cycle of nature and life.