Desperately Seeking Sleep

Photography by: Felix Wirth
Desperately Seeking Sleep

Are you reading this—or doing anything else besides sleeping—in the middle of the night? If so, you have plenty of company out there. One in 10 Americans suffer from chronic insomnia, and chances are good that most of them, including you, have already read plenty of advice about how to deal with the problem. You know to lay off the caffeine and alcohol before bed. You reserve your (dark, cool) bedroom for sleep and sex. You avoid scary movies and news shows in the evening. You schedule your exercise at least four hours before bedtime. You’ve tried everything from lavender sachets to chamomile tea to prescription sleeping pills. So why are you still struggling to get the rest you need? It may be that you need to approach the problem in a whole new way. Here’s how two ancient medical traditions can help you identify the underlying source of your insomnia and address it in a more holistic manner.

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM)
In TCM, any sleep disturbance is seen as a disorder of the heart, says North Carolina-based Randine Lewis, Ph.D., L.Ac. “We’re not just talking about the anatomical beating heart,” she says. “Our spirit makes its home in the heart. If it can’t find rest there, it will agitate the mind.” What affects the spirit affects the body instantaneously, Lewis explains, so it pays to examine your life for symptoms of emotional or spiritual unrest. These are unique to each person but likely to fall into one of three patterns:

KIDNEY YIN DEFICIENCY In TCM, “the kidneys are associated with survival, and they represent our life’s purpose,” Lewis explains. “If we are not living in alignment with our own true purpose, we can’t get grounded and will never find rest.” When you’re not rooted in kidney yin (the soothing watery force that offsets the heart’s fire), you feel fearful or anxious and may lie awake worrying.

INADEQUATE NOURISHMENT FOR THE HEART “The blood carries messages to the heart,” Lewis says. “If you’re living in an imbalanced way in which your spirit is not honored and nourished, there can be restlessness and incessant chatter in your mind that keeps you awake at night.”

LIVER CHI STAGNATION This refers to both the actual organ and the metaphorical one, which helps us process and assimilate all that comes our way. “The liver governs our ability to accept life,” Lewis explains. “If we are resisting what is, we’re frustrated and angry.” If you’re up at night replaying a fight with your husband or ruminating about office conflicts, liver chi stagnation might be your problem. Regardless of the source of your insomnia, a heart-soothing nighttime routine is essential. Lewis recommends this routine:
Soak your feet. Fill a tub ankle deep with warm water and immerse your feet for 10 minutes. “The evening foot soak dilates the vessels in the lower extremities, which draws energy away from the head,” says Lewis.
Visualize. While you’re soaking, try this simple visualization-based meditation. “Imagine that all your thoughts are gathering at the center of your forehead,” Lewis advises. “Then visualize them dropping down, as in a waterfall, to the pool of the heart. Let the water wash your thoughts away and simply allow everything to be as it is. Nothing is resisted, nothing is denied.”
Get out your journal. Using your nondominant hand, write down your feelings. Don’t try to organize your thoughts, analyze them or aim for an epiphany—just let them flow. “If you have unresolved issues, this will help you get into that part of your brain that’s holding on to hurts,” Lewis says.
Do acupressure. Resting comfortably, close your eyes, breathe deeply and massage your temples in a circular motion as you relax your jaw. “This draws your focus and energy away from the external world,” Lewis explains. Next, find your Anmian (translation: peaceful sleep) points: Midway between the indentations behind your earlobes you’ll find another indentation at the base of the skull—massage them gently for three to five minutes. “This will activate the chemicals that produce sleep,” Lewis says.
Let sleep happen. “There is no trying in falling asleep,” Lewis notes. “Chinese medicine arises from the Taoist concept of nonresistance.” Relax, and allow sleep to come and find you.
Try herbs. You can see a practitioner to get a formula tailored just for you or try one of these combinations (find each at maxnature.com):
ANMIAN PIAN These “calm sleep tablets” are the best place to start if you’re not sure about what’s keeping you up or if you have an undernourished heart.
TIAN WANG BU XIN DAN This is the best choice for treating kidney yin deficiency.
SUAN ZAO REN PIAN (aka Ziziphus formula) is the best choice for liver-related insomnia.