By Dr. Mao Shing Ni
We’ve all suffered from occasional sleeplessness. When the turning and tossing in bed become more frequent, and begin to affect energy and mental clarity during the day, sleeplessness is called insomnia. Insomnia includes difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, early-morning awakening, and unrefreshing sleep. These kinds of poor sleep patterns affect almost two out of three Americans – that’s a lot of people lying awake at night! People who suffer from insomnia tend to complain of memory problems, lack of concentration, depression, and the inability to be effective at work.
As it becomes a chronic condition, insomnia can increase the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), chronic pain, stress and anxiety, depression, and alcohol and drug abuse. Likewise, these same conditions can be the causes of lying awake at night. Other contributing factors include pregnancy, menopause, and sleep apnea - a condition in which one stops breathing and awakens gasping for air throughout the night. Insomnia can also be one of many symptoms of a neurological disease that requires medical attention.
In Chinese medicine, nighttime is yin time - or, simply, when the body takes care of itself instead of your desires. Proper sleep is required for your body to repair itself and regenerate. To reach deep, restful sleep, your spirit and heart must be calm and your liver and spleen networks must work together to process nutrients. Excessive worry, anxiety, and depression all affect the delicate balance of the liver, spleen, and heart, causing disturbances to the spirit and activating the mind. Once the mind is active, it becomes harder to fall asleep. No wonder infomercials do so well in the middle of the night!
Insomnia is one of the most common conditions I see. Typical of my patients with insomnia was a woman in her late forties who was perimenopausal and complaining of hot flashes, night sweats, and difficulty falling and staying asleep. She also felt depressed and anxious. After treating her with acupuncture and herbal therapies for four months, her hot flashes and night sweats disappeared. Her sleep improved dramatically, although occasionally she still had a hard time falling asleep, so I taught her a stress-release meditation to do before bedtime to help calm her anxiety. She is now sleeping like a baby.
Here’s some advice that may help you sleep like a baby, or a log- whichever your prefer.
Herbs can be found in health food or vitamin stores, online, and at the offices of Chinese medicine practitioners. Herbs should be used according to individual needs; consult with a licensed practitioner for a customized formulation.
People with regular exercise routines have fewer episodes of insomnia, and those who suffer from insomnia often are not very physically active. Exercise promotes sleep and improves sleep quality by altering brain chemistry. Exercising moderately for 20 to 30 minutes 3 times a week, combined with meditation or tai chi in the evening, will not only help you fall and stay asleep but will also increase the amount of time you spend in REM sleep. For some people exercise alone is sufficient for overcoming sleep problems. Exercise in the morning or afternoon but not close to bedtime.
Insomnia Stress Release Meditation:
Below is a stress-release meditation that I teach my patients. (Many people report falling asleep to this meditation as I narrate it on a CD. I try to take that as a compliment.)
• Say the word “calm” in your mind with every exhalation.
• You’ll be visualizing the relaxation of a body part and releasing tension with every exhalation. Trace the following 3 pathways outlined below.
1. First pathway – down the front of the body: start at the top of your head. Inhale, and then exhale and visualize your scalp muscles relaxing. Say “calm” in your mind. Repeat this, saying the word with each body part as you move down through your face, throat, chest, abdomen, thighs, knees, calves, ankles, and feet. When you’ve relaxed your feet, visualize all the tension in your body leaving through your toes in the form of dark smoke.
2. Second pathway – down the sides of the body: start at the temple region of your head. This pathway focuses on the sides and upper extremities. Inhale, then exhale and visualize your temple muscles relaxing. Say the word “calm” in your mind. Repeat this, saying the word with each body part as you move down through your jaw, the sides of your neck, shoulders, upper arms, elbows, forearms, wrists, and hands. Once you’ve relaxed your hands, visualize all the tension leaving your body through your fingertips in the form of dark smoke.
3. Third pathway – down the back of the body: the final pathway begins at the back of your head. This path relaxes the back of your body. Repeat the breathing visualization- word routine, as above, as you go from the back of your neck to your upper back, middle back, lower back, back of thighs, calves, and heels. Then focus on the acupoint Bubbling Spring , on the soles of your feet, for 1 minute.
• Practice this meditation for at least 15 minutes twice daily, and once before bedtime.
It is especially beneficial to do acupressure on these acupoints an hour before bedtime.
©2015 Dr. Mao Shing Ni
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