A single poor night of sleep can derail an entire day or even week. Imagine what chronic poor sleep can do to the mind and body! Western medicine includes some potentially valuable sleep treatments, but they also have considerable drawbacks. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is less well known as a sleep health treatment, but is similarly powerful. Let’s take a look at both approaches:
Western medicine often prescribes sleeping pills to help sleep. These should not be taken for more than two weeks. While sleeping pills can greatly alleviate the symptom of sleeplessness, they seldom address its underlying causes. If the underlying causes of insomnia are not resolved, the medication can become addictive, making sleep without these drugs nearly impossible.
Melatonin is a popular supplement people try in order to avoid prescription medicine. It can be helpful too, if taken for a short period of time. The
drawback, however, is that melatonin supplements encourage the body to stop making its own supply. When you stop taking the supplement, it is likely that you’ll have an even harder time falling asleep because you’ll be lacking even more melatonin than before you began taking the supplement.
When I recommend a supplement for sleep it is magnesium. Magnesium is a macro-mineral that your body is unable to manufacture. It is particularly beneficial as a sleep aid because it decreases levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) and is a natural muscle relaxant which not only makes us feel sleepy, but can also help fight restless leg syndrome, muscle tension and cramps. Magnesium deficiency can be caused by a poor diet, improper absorption, or too much alcohol consumption. Some magnesium rich foods include: leafy greens, nuts, avocados, and dark chocolate. Since your body doesn’t naturally produce minerals, you’re not in danger of disturbing a production balance like with melatonin supplements. However, too much of something is never a good thing. If you are going to supplement with magnesium, do so slowly. Your body will tell you if you’re ingesting too much by showing signs of stomach aches or diarrhea.
Not only does TCM suggest acupuncture treatments to regulate sleep patterns, it offers a unique perspective on insomnia and its underlying causes. Here is what Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) says about sleep health and dreams:
TCM describes sleep and dream disturbances as a wandering spirit. At night, the spirit should be sheltered by balanced energies. If you have a wandering spirit you might experience anxiety, depression, or heart palpitations, in addition to sleep disturbances.
Insomnia is a diverse phenomenon. Most people think it means just not being able to sleep. The way in which you can’t sleep however, is crucial in understanding your imbalance. For example, difficulty falling asleep suggests that you have excess Liver energy. In contrast, waking up easily or often with difficulty falling back to sleep suggests a deficiency pattern of the Heart and Spleen energies.
Waking up at a specific time every night can point to an imbalance as well. Your body’s energy circulates over a 24 hour period. Each energy meridian corresponds to a time period. Therefore, we can determine what energy system is in need of balance based on when you wake up in the night. For example, the Liver energy is at its highest between 2-3am. Waking up at this time in addition to having other “Liver symptoms” like irritability, PMS, red face, etc, are all good indications that your Liver is overacting.
Your dreams also provide significant clues to imbalances in the mind and body. Ancient texts discuss types of dreams related to specific energies. Here are some examples of commonly reported dream themes:
- If you find yourself laughing (or waking up laughing) your Heart energies are in excess.
- Singing or feeling heavy (e.g. trying to run, but feeling like you can’t move) is an indication of excess Spleen energy.
- Dreams of being hungry or building houses are Spleen deficiency dreams.
- Weeping, worrying, being afraid, or flying all indicate Lung excess.
- Lung deficiency dreams have graphic killings or war.
- If you are angry in dreams, your Liver is in excess.
- Dreams with water (shipwrecks, immersion, swimming, etc.) are indicative of Kidney energies.
- Gallbladder dreams are often associated with suicide, trials or fights.
- Small Intestine dreams have large crowds (excess) or large cities (deficiency).
- Flying dreams are sign of Lower Jiao deficiency, while dreams of falling indicate excess in the Lower Jiao. (The San Jiao is a three organ system related to digestion in TCM.)
- Not remembering dreaming at all, can indicate a energetic deficiency. (If you need help remembering dreams read more here.)
- If your dreams are generally pleasant, your energy is likely balanced.
If you’ve been having strange dreams, your spirit is trying to tell you something about your mind and body. Your acupuncturist can help you understand the messages from your dreams in terms of your overall energetic balance.