Insomnia, Sleep and Acupuncture Treatment
Insomnia is a major concern for many people. Insufficient or low-quality sleep takes a major toll on vitality and overall health. More than 30% of the general population suffers from insomnia. That percentage jumps to 40-60% amongst people 60 years and older. Women are twice as likely as men to suffer from insomnia. Insomnia has also been linked to depression and obesity.
While sleep disturbance can be linked to mood disorders such as anxiety and depression, it can also be seen as an endocrine process. Chinese medicine acknowledges the link between sleep quality and hormonal levels. There is also a strong relationship between sleep and blood chemistry.
Acupuncture is energetic medicine. Its major focus is on movement of the body’s humors (blood and fluids) as well as their overall quality and volume. Insomnia can sometimes be the result of a deficiency of blood or hormonal fluids. It can also result from a blockage along the energetic pathways that circulate these body humors. There is a specific circulatory flow of blood and fluids that needs to occur to allow for deep, uninterrupted, restful sleep. Acupuncture medical theory details where blood and fluids are created, as well as how they circulate and flow.
Within the Chinese medical system the energetic, functional aspect of the body is also considered to be a type of “humor,” which also has a specific circulatory flow. The Chinese call this functional humor “Qi.” Some have translated Qi as “lifeforce” or “functional energy.” However, Qi doesn’t really have a literal translation in Western languages for some reason. Qi, in essence, is the moving force which gives function to the body’s organs, tissues and fluids. Qi is the force that allows the heart to beat, thereby circulating the blood. Qi allows the lungs to fill with oxygen and expel carbon dioxide. Qi excites the peristaltic activity in the gut, allowing food and drink to be metabolized, creating nourishment for body tissues. Without Qi, the body is just a pile of inert materials. Actually, without Qi, the body isn’t even that. Without Qi, there is no life. Qi is responsible for creation of body tissues, as well as circulation, repair and regeneration within the body. Qi is the mediumship of life.
There are two other body humors described by Chinese medicine: “Shen” and “Jing.” Shen can be translated as “spirit.” It is the aspect of the body that gives animation to the system. It is the spark of life. Before there is Qi, there must be Shen. Shen gives us a reason to live. It gives the heart a reason to beat; the lungs a reason to respirate; the stomach a reason to digest and metabolize.
The other humor described by Chinese medicine is Jing, often translated as “essence” or the constitutional DNA. It is the seed of our form. Jing is the stem cells – it holds the original code for the body. From this code, the entire system is built and rebuilt. Contained within the Jing is the “Zhi” – the will.
For optimal health, the Shen and Jing must be in constant harmonious communication. We must have the will to live in order to stay alive and live well. We must also have a reason to be alive. This can be seen in its relative and absolute sense. According to Chinese medicine each of us is born with a reason for being – a purpose, a destiny. This is a two-fold phenomenon. We are born with a “Ming” – a destiny that is contained within the seed of our Jing. Within our DNA is a destiny – something we have been incarnated on earth to do, or experience, or live out. The Jing is given to us by our parents – we inherit our DNA from them. There is an aspect of our ancestry that is played out in our lives. We inherit from our parents not only their eye color and physical characteristics. We also inherit their desires and struggles. We take on the destiny and mission of our ancestors.
In addition to our Jing, each of us has a Shen – something unique in us that has an agenda – a desire to explore and create. The Shen is said to come from “heaven,” while the Jing comes from “earth” – from our parents. Taoist cosmology describes the process of conception. The Shen – the individualized spirit – looks for a Jing (a family line, a set of circumstances, a potential form) that will allow it to manifest and live out its desired life. When our parents have sex, the Shen is excited and called to the Jing, joining together to create life. The Shen is attracted to the Jing. The mother provides the raw material – the yin; and the father provides the energy for construction – the yang. From this union the will to live is created, and the destiny is set.
Insomnia, as well as other endocrine (blood and hormonal issues) can be rooted in disturbance of the Jing-Shen, where some aspect of our earthly and heavenly (familial and personal) direction is at odds. This can feel like we are being pulled in two different directions. There is a term for this in Chinese Medicine – it is called “Zang Zao.” We begin to forget who we are, what we are meant to do in this life. We lose a sense of direction; lack the capacity to connect to our deeper ability to self-direct and become self-aware. There may be an experience of feeling “cut-off” – cut off from “the source,” from “God,” or just from ourselves.
Taoist philosophy has many explanations for what happens when we sleep. The physiological process of sleep involves our “Qi” homing into the chest and abdomen – so we can rest and digest. The blood gets stored in the Liver, allowing a state of “paralysis” where our limbs become still. The blood and energy that usually circulates outward into our arms and legs internalizes into our torso.
There is a “spiritual” explanation for the sleeping process as well. The Taoists say the aspect of the spirit associated with the Liver – the “Hun” – is most active when we sleep. The “Shen” – our basic animation – becomes calm and goes inward – into the inner world. Our focus is turned away from the excitement of the outer world, “homing” into the heart where it can rest. The “Hun” – considered to be a type of “collective conscience” also goes inward. This is where the process becomes mysterious. Many spiritual traditions talk about the inner world within us. Most of us are only aware of the outer world. But those of us who meditate sometimes get a glimpse of the expansive world within. Whether we are aware of it or not, all of us visit the inner world at night when we dream. It is said that our “Hun” is most active at night during sleep.
The Hun is the aspect of our spirit that makes plans, sees into the future, works out the past, and communicates with the Hun of others. It is like our personal assistant: setting up meetings, resolving old business, creating direction and motion in our lives. All of this happens when we are unconscious, in a state of surrender and slumber. In a sense, all worldly manifestation occurs at night during sleep.
If we lack the ability to enter into a state of deep surrender during sleep, our Hun doesn’t get a chance to create our waking reality. It is like our personal assistant is off duty, leaving the office unattended.
To allow for deep sleep and full support of the Hun, our blood flow must “store” itself in the Liver at night. It must first pass into the chest via the aspect of the Heart called the “Heart Protector.” There is a “gateway” the qi and blood pass through when we enter into sleep. This gate is governed by the Heart Protector. It can be said that this aspect of the Heart is what maintains communication between the Jing and the Shen – between our DNA “earthly” self and our “spiritual” self – between our animation, desires; our capacity and physical limitations. It maintains awareness and connection to who we are as a personality, as well to our destiny and “path” in life. It is possible to become disconnected from these aspects of our selves. Trauma can cause us to stop looking within, living a life that is not intended for us. We may see another life that looks more appealing and choose to follow that path instead of the one intended for us. This inevitably causes problems.
Each of us has physical limitations – we have particular talents, a personality, strengths and weaknesses. Ideally, in health, we know our own limitations. We take direction from our innate sense of what is right and wrong for us. We know what our body can take, what it likes, and what is simply not right for us. However, when we are traumatized, we can lose this internal self-knowing. We becoming a “wandering Hun” – making plans and moving in directions that are not rooted to our innate self. It’s like we are living our lives as a character in a play. Our Hun never fully “homes” into the Liver at night to grant us access into our inner world. Instead, it wanders aimlessly.
How does this happen? When we are traumatized – either physically or emotionally – mildly or severely, one of the first areas in our bodies that tightens up is the chest. The Heart Protector becomes a “Heart Constrictor.” It’s like invaders have entered the capital city. The response is to close the borders of the presidential palace – not allowing anything to go in or come out. This is what happens to the Heart with trauma. The body becomes like a police state. Our Shen and Hun cannot get in to access our Jing – so they wander. Like a police state, the “spiritual” aspects of the body, which control every aspect of our being, lose a sense a personal identity.
One of the first tasks when treating trauma is to “unbind the chest” and free up the Heart Protector. This automatically will allow for deep breathing, better metabolism and more restful sleep.
Trauma needn’t be a dramatic severe event. Our bodies can be thrown off by something as simple as travel or weather changes. Our endocrine systems are constantly maintaining homeostasis in the body through minute chemical adjustments. It doesn’t take much to disturb this subtle process. Usually the body can correct the problem and find its way back to balance. When it can’t, this is when acupuncture can be helpful.
Sleep is the most important regulating and restorative processes in the body. Our bodies heal best during sleep. It is a time when we can work out the kinks of the day, and rebuild what has been damaged. It is a time when we are most connected to our unconscious minds, able to access mental material we are usually not in touch with.
The first step to inducing deep sleep is through the breathing. The chest and abdomen must be open and available to receive the Qi via the breath. The blood as it circulates inward calms the mind and emotions. This inward circulation of blood and Qi through the gate of the Heart Protector is what protects us from our dreams, allowing us to sleep free from nightmares. It is our hormonal fluids that “grasp” and hold onto the Qi as it goes into the chest and abdomen. This rooting of Qi into the abdomen, and blood into the Liver is dependent on the Kidney system within Chinese medicine. The Kidneys have a strong descending energy that brings our energy in and down in the body, allowing us to feel very grounded. When the Qi of the Kidneys is secure, we will stay asleep and will not have nighttime urination.
The blood must be calm (free from inflammation) and full to allow us to enter into sleep. The Kidney qi and yin (fluids) must be secure and solid to allow us to remain asleep throughout the night. The chest also must be free from exuberant heat, otherwise the Qi will be unable to descend into the kidneys to allow for the process of rest and digest.
There are many possible causes of insomnia. It is important to identify what exactly is causing the dysfunction. For some, clearing heat in the chest or heat in the blood is necessary. For others the Kidney energy must be strengthened and secured. Others may need support for their Jing Shen, clearing trauma by invigorating blood flow and opening the Heart Protector.
The importance of good sleep cannot be stressed enough. It is a complex process that involves more than just a simple sleeping pill. Acupuncture is one of the best ways to address insomnia and the underlying physiological and psychological issues contributing to it.