Insomnia is one of the most common medical complaints- more than one-third of adults have insomnia at one time or another, while 10-15% suffer from chronic insomnia. With insomnia, a person usually awakes feeling unrefreshed, over-fatigued and has a hard time concentrating during the day. This lack of sleep can sap energy levels and moods, as well as health, work performance, and quality of life. Insomnia can cause daytime fatigue or sleepiness, as well as irritability, depression or anxiety, a loss in concentration and focus on tasks, increased errors or accidents, tension headaches and gastro-intestinal problems. It is a problem that takes a huge toll on a person’s health and well-being.
From a Western medical perspective, insomnia can be caused by stress, anxiety, or depression, medications, caffeine, nicotine, or alcohol, eating too much late in the evening, work schedule, changes in your environment or routine, poor sleep habits, and a variety of underlying medical conditions. Insomnia can also be a result of aging or changes in health or lifestyle. Typical treatment may include making changes to sleeping habits, relaxation techniques, light therapy, behavioural therapy, and in difficult cases, medications.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), insomnia covers a number of different sleep-related problems such as an inability to fall asleep easily, waking up during the night, sleeping restlessly, waking up early in the morning, and dream-disturbed sleep. As with Western medicine, the amount and quality of sleep depend on the state of the mind. Because the organ most closely related to the mind is the heart, this organ is often affected in cases of insomnia. If the heart organ is healthy, the mind will be grounded and sleep will be sound; if the heart is deficient or if it is being affected by other internal pathogenic factors in the body, the mind becomes agitated and sleep is affected.
There are seven major factors that lead to insomnia in Chinese medicine: overexertion and worry, overwork (both mental and physical and working long hours without adequate rest), anger-related emotions (including frustration, resentment, and irritation), constitutional weakness that leads to timid character, irregular diet, childbirth, and internal heat in the body. The most important differentiation for insomnia is whether it is due to an excess or deficiency in the body. Once this differentiation is made, there are a number of different patterns that lead to insomnia. Although there are many different patterns that lead to insomnia, treatment will always have the end goal of calming the mind because it is at the root of insomnia, but how this is achieved varies greatly according to the pattern presented.
It is this very specific diagnosis that makes Chinese medicine so effective for insomnia. Treatment will focus on improving quality of sleep but also accompanying symptoms according to the type of insomnia. Thus acupuncture can treat insomnia that consists of restless sleep combined with nightmares, irritability, headaches and dizziness. But it can also treat insomnia that involves difficulty falling asleep, combined with tiredness, poor appetite, anxiety, poor memory and palpitations. Or it can treat insomnia that involves waking up during the night combined with excessive dreaming, talking or walking in one’s sleep, irritability, sore, dry eyes, dry skin and hair, and dizziness. Each of these is considered insomnia, yet each represents a very different type of insomnia and the way that we approach treatment is also different.
In this way, acupuncture uses the body’s own energy to help it to rebalance and return to its natural rhythm, to correct the underlying cause of insomnia and prevent future problems from re-occurring.
James Kaufman is a Registered Acupuncturist at Okanagan Acupuncture Centre, 1625 Ellis St, Kelowna, BC.