From a TCM
point of view, the sleep cycle is a dynamic interaction between Yin and
Yang, coupled with an underlying spirit (Shen, as it is called in TCM terms)
Sleeping is a
critical component for maintaining balance of Yin and Yang within the
body. From a broader scale, the daily
(and even seasonal) cycles in nature are an expression of the waxing and waning
of Yin and Yang in the universe. Because
TCM theory sees a strong relationship between individual and universal Yin and
Yang, the human body is programmed to live in harmony with the rhythm of nature. Sleep itself, therefore, is a critical
component for maintaining the balance of Yin and Yang within the body.
As it is
stated in one of the classical TCM texts (the Lingshu, or Spiritual Pivot),
“when Yang Qi is at its limit and Yin Qi is abundant, one's eyes are closed. When Yin Qi is at its limit and Yang Qi is
abundant, one is awake.” Likewise, we
naturally go to bed at the Yin predominate time (night) while wake up at the Yang
predominate time (day). The Yin or Yang
in this sense can also refer to the fluctuating levels of each in the
body. At night, the body enters a more
“Yin” state, and during the daytime, it is in a “Yang” state.
If there is an
imbalance in Yin and Yang in the body, sleep is often affected. People who are unable to fall or stay asleep
at night tend to have deficiencies in either Yin or Blood (defined a nutritive
substance within the body that tends to have Yin-like qualities). When we use acupuncture and Chinese herbal
medicine to treat sleep issues, we often use points and herbs that build Yin
and Blood so that the transition into and maintenance of sleep becomes easier
and more consistent.
On the other
hand, if a person feels sleepy all day long and cannot seem to feel rested
after getting even 10 or 11 hours of sleep (plus naps), he or she most likely
has a deficiency in either Yang or Qi (Qi is considered to be similar in nature
to Yang energy in TCM theory).
Similarly, when we treat patients with such symptoms, we use acupuncture
points and herbs that supplement Yang energy and Qi.
In addition to
Yin-Yang balance, the sleep cycle also involves the concept of spirit, or Shen.
In TCM, Shen generally refers to the state
of consciousness and mental functions that keep the mind sharp and alert. It is the highest authority of the physical
body that orders it to rest or work. In
coordination with the natural rhythm, Shen retreats to the internal organs (TCM
organs) at night for recharging, and comes out during daytime to exert its
the Shen is too active or excited, sleeping problems can occur. Causes for its overactivity include emotional
conflict, stress, anxiety, overthinking, use of stimulant substances, or even
vivid, scary, or violent dreaming. In
this case, when we treat patients for Shen-related sleep disturbances, we use
acupuncture points and herbs that “calm the Shen” and help the body to become
addition to acupuncture and herbs, we also like to recommend lifestyle
suggestions for those suffering from sleep issues. The following are tips that may be helpful
those with problematic sleep (in this case, we focus on inability to sleep):
- Avoid stimulants such as caffeine, nicotine, and
alcohol too close to bedtime. While alcohol is well known to speed the onset of
sleep, it disrupts sleep as the body metabolizes the alcohol, causing arousal.
- Exercise can promote good sleep. Vigorous exercise should be taken in the
morning or late afternoon. A relaxing
exercise, like yoga, can be done before bed to help initiate a restful night's
- Food can be disruptive right before sleep; stay
away from large meals close to bedtime. When you eat a lot right before bed, you
naturally rev up your body’s metabolism, making it hard to fall asleep.
- Ensure adequate exposure to natural light during
the day. Light exposure helps maintain a
healthy sleep-wake cycle.
- Establish a regular relaxing bedtime routine. Try to avoid emotionally upsetting
conversations and activities before trying to go to sleep. Don't dwell on, or
bring your problems to bed.
- Associate your bed with sleep. It's not a good
idea to use your bed to watch TV, work on your computer, or text message – keep
the electronics out of the bedroom as much as possible.
- Make sure that the sleep environment is pleasant
and relaxing. The bed should be comfortable, the room should not be too hot or
cold, or too bright.