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What is Insomnia?
Insomnia, or sleeplessness, is the inability to fall asleep or stay asleep as long as desired. An estimated 32 million people suffer from insomnia in the U.S. There are two types of insomnia: primary insomnia and secondary insomnia. Primary insomnia means a person is having sleep disturbances unrelated to any medical condition or problem. Secondary insomnia means a person is having sleep problems due to a health condition, a side effect from a medication they are taking, or from pain.
Insomnia can also be categorized as acute (happening during a short term) or chronic (happening over a long period of time). With acute insomnia, causes include major life stress, like loss of a job, death of a loved one, or divorce, an emotional or physical condition, environmental disturbances, changes in sleep patterns (jetlag), and some medications. Chronic insomnia can be caused by depression or anxiety, chronic stress, or pain or discomfort at night.
With either type of insomnia, a person is left feeling tired upon waking which can result in daytime sleepiness, irritability, and problems with concentration or memory.
How Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture Treats Insomnia
Chinese medicine, with its focus on healing whole syndromes rather than individual symptoms, is widely used as an insomnia remedy and has shown great success treating those who experience sleeplessness. A study published recently in the American Journal of Chinese Medicine, reports that patients who received acupressure and transcutaneous electrical acupoint stimulation (TEAS) experienced a significant improvement in their insomnia symptom, including problems of fatigue, sleep quality and depression. The results from this study suggest that acupressure or TEAS might have an important role in managing patients with fatigue, poor sleep quality and depression.
Acupuncture has a calming effect on the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) and a stimulating effect on the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest). It focuses primarily on rebalancing the energy of the heart and the functioning of the liver and kidneys. It clears obstructions in the muscle and nerve channels, facilitates the flow of oxygen-enriched energy, and relaxes the system overall.
For those who suffer from Restless Leg Syndrome, the inability to control leg movements during sleep which causes sleep disturbances, acupuncture points on the head as well as points around the limbs can have a calming effect on the peripheral nerves of the legs and help alleviate the constant interruption of sleep.
Overall common noted benefits of acupuncture include deeper breathing, improved digestive abilities, better sleeping patterns, decreased pain and a general sense of well-being, which are all excellent treatments for insomnia. General acupuncture protocol for the treatment of chronic insomnia includes 10 initial treatments at two to three treatments per week, followed by a two to four week observational period and possibly one treatment per week.
Chinese herbs and herbal medications are also useful in combating insomnia. They can be particularly helpful in regulating the release of cortisol from the adrenal cortex, which can be out of balance for those who suffer from insomnia. Too much cortisol at night can keep a person awake, and too little cortisol in the morning can make a person sleepy. A Chinese medicine practitioner can recommend an insomnia remedy to best suit individual insomnia symptoms. Herbs for insomnia such as longan fruit, golden thread, sour jujube seed, fossil bone or mimosa bark may be prescribed.
Nutritional and Lifestyle Guidance: Nutrition can contribute to the cause and cure of insomnia. Excess protein and the over reliance on stimulants and quick-energy foods contribute to fatigue by weighing on the liver, kidneys and intestines. Quick fix foods increase the depletion of the body-mind energy reserves. Tailoring a diet that includes foods such as whole grains, beans, vegetables and fruits to the individual can replenish energy and diffuse built-up stress.
Acupuncture and herbs as an insomnia remedy can greatly improve sleeping patterns, but in order to successfully and completely resolve sleep disturbance one must address all the contributing factors. Chinese medicine helps do this by treating the whole person and focusing on bringing the entire body into balance.
Other suggested actions include:
- Learn to relax physically. Techniques such as yoga, meditation, biofeedback and progressive relaxation, as well as acupuncture and massage, can help your body become more restful.
- Have a regular bedtime. If you are not asleep after an hour, get up, go to another room and do something relaxing until you feel sleepy. Don’t try to force yourself to sleep.
- Reduce food and drinks that increase sleep problems. Heavy meals before bedtime, late afternoon or evening consumption of alcohol, chocolate, tea, coffee and caffeinated soda should be avoided. Consider adding herbs for insomnia to your diet as well.
- Keep in shape. Regular exercise helps with stress and reduces fatigue, both of which can exacerbate insomnia. Systems such as Tai Chi or Qigong are gentler exercises that balance staying fit with staying relaxed.
- Treat physical problems. If physical pain or discomfort is a factor in the inability to fall asleep, don’t put up with it. Acupuncture has proven successful in treating pain associated with arthritis and many other physical conditions.
How Western Medicine Treats Insomnia
Most doctors will first recommend behavior therapies to combat insomnia. These practices include: creating good sleeping habits; trying relaxation techniques with your mind, breath and muscles; limiting stimulating activities before bed; trying cognitive behavior therapy techniques which aim to reduce negative thoughts and worries that keep you awake; remaining passively awake; and using light therapy to retrain your internal time clock.
If behavior practices fail, then over-the-counter and prescription medications may be recommended to help reduce or eliminate insomnia. Long-term use of any medication, however, can be habit forming and cause other negative side effects.