Are you one of those people who lies awake in bed for hours hoping to nod off, while your partner seems to drop into slumberland within 2 seconds of hitting the pillow? You're not alone.
Perhaps you’re one of the 33 – 45% of adults that have disturbed sleep. Difficulty falling asleep, frequent waking and insufficient quality sleep affect more women than men but increases in prevalence for everyone as we age. Reduced sleep, especially less than 6 hours sleep per night, has been indicated in obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and immune function. Clinically, insomnia is defined as difficulty falling or staying asleep at least 3 times per week even with ample opportunity to do so. Insomnia can be caused by medical conditions such as sleep apnoea or medications and these factors should be addressed by an appropriate medical professional. Other factors can include everything from stress, alcohol and drug use, restless leg syndrome and nutrition. Over the coming few weeks, we’ll look into various factors that can affect sleep and what we can do to improve our shut eye.
Here I’ll put my TCM practitioner hat on to give you a brief overview from traditional Chinese medicine.
A Chinese Medicine Perspective
In Chinese medicine, insomnia and sleep disturbances can be the result of any number of pattern diagnoses. In a 2012 systematic review from presentations of nearly 9,500 patients, the most common patterns were identified. Below are some of the symptoms that present with these patterns. You may have some or all of the symptoms listed, and perhaps you have some that appear to cross over. As with any form of diagnosis, avoid using Dr Google! Consulting a qualified practitioner for a treatment strategy is your best approach.
Deficiency of Heart and Spleen: Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, excessive dreaming, palpitations, poor memory, digestive upset (especially loose stools), dizziness
Hyperactivity of fire due to yin deficiency: Difficulty falling and asleep and staying asleep, excessive dreaming, palpitations, dizziness, night sweats, hot flushes
Liver Qi stagnation transforming into fire: Difficulty falling asleep, excessive dreaming, impatience, reddish complexion, thirst, poor appetite, tinnitus, frequent sighing.
Each of these patterns is treated slightly differently, with acupuncture and herbs. We’ll leave acupuncture for now, however let’s look at some herbs I often use to address sleep issues.
Common herbs (Chinese & Western herbal medicine) for improving sleep quality.
Herbal therapies for sleep disorders are common across many natural therapies including traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic medicine, Tibetan medicine and Western herbal medicine. The list is long, but here are a few of the ones I utilise mostly in my clinic
Chamomile (Marticaria Recutita): Probably the best known calming herb is used as a tea. To me, the small yellow and white flowers smell of honey but their name comes from the Greek “khamaimēlon” which means earth apple. The use of chamomile has been traced back as far as ancient Egypt, where it was offered to the sun god Ra. All through the ages, chamomile has been used for both internal and external medicine. Chamomile is a calmative, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic.
Hops (humulus lupulus): We normally think of hops as the pungent herb used in brewing beer. However, in Chinese medicine, Hops (Piu Jiu Hua) has properties used to reduce palpitations, and regulates Liver Qi. This herb is often used in Western herbal preparations as a sedative and as a digestive. Hops has a very distinctive aroma, however when prepared in a tea with other herbs is not as pungent.
Catnip (nepeta cataria): A member of the mint family, the active component (terpenoid nepetalactone) really does drive cats crazy! If you have a pet kitty, try it for yourself. Just tie a few spoons of catnip into a cloth and see how your feline friend reacts. Medicinally, catnip is antifungal, a relaxant and a weak tea is wonderful for treating baby’s colic. In Chinese medicine, just like mint (bo he), catnip releases the exterior and is cooling, so good to have at the onset of a cold with fever or sore throat.
Sour jujube seed (ziziphus spinosae): This herb is the namesake of the popular Chinese medicine formula Suan Zao Ren Tang. In Chinese medicine, sour jujube seed (suan zao ren) nourishes heart yin and quiets the spirit which are often the focus for insomnia, anxiety, palpitations and night sweats. It’s a tough little seed to it’s best crushed before use so that the active alkaloids and saponines can be released. One quarter of a teaspoon can be added to another tea in the evening before bed.
Anemarrhena root (anemarrhena rhizome): In Chinese medicine, this herb is called Zhi Mu (Zee Moo) and its name translates as 'know mother'. It isn’t used on its own as the above herbs are. It is most commonly added to a formula with aim of clearing heat. This is especially useful if you find yourself waking during the night having to kick off the covers and feeling sweaty. It has also been shown to reduce blood glucose levels so may affect diabetes medications.
Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata): Maybe you've got some passionfruit growing on a vine in the backyard. Next time it flowers, pluck some of the flowers and dry them in the sun or in a dehydater for a light and soothing tea.
Used mostly for reducing stress, anxiety and sleep disturbances, passionflower also has anti-inflammatory and hypotensive properties. It can also be helpful for reducing menstrual cramps.
I often say to my clients that herbal medicine is just that – medicine – and should be treated as such. If you have any underlying or chronic condition, you should always check with your qualified practitioner.
Next week we will look at how nutrition affects our slumber. Is it the turkey dinner? Is it too many potatoes? Is it the extra glass of vino? Join me next time when we dive into how what we eat affects our sleep.