By Jingduan Yang, M.D.
Classical Chinese medicine is a complete medical system that has been passed down for thousands of years and offers practical information about sleep health.
Sleep is a result of the natural rhythm of energy circulation. At 11 p.m., the yin qi (passive, receptive energy) is at its strongest. This is the ideal time for the body to return to rest, restoration, and replenishment.
People should therefore not stay awake past 11 p.m. This is also the time for the body to build up yang qi (active, creative energy), which provides the energy we need for physical and mental activities during the daytime.
The body’s qi and blood pass through and nurture each organ system at different times during the day and night. For example, between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m., blood and qi are strongest in the liver organ and its meridians, the energetic network that helps the liver fulfill its function. Therefore, sleeping during this time is critical for the liver to be able to function normally.
In Chinese medicine, the liver bears an incredible amount of responsibility—physically, mentally, and emotionally. Liver energy regulates one’s mood, digestion, menstruation, dreaming, the sleep-wake switch, vision, and the smooth flow of energy throughout the body. It is in charge of strategic planning and execution, and nurtures all of the connective tissues, from ligaments to nails.
The liver is extremely sensitive to negative emotions such as anger and resentment. If the liver is not being cared for well, people will be very irritable and agitated. Now you can see how serious the consequences to your health will be if you do not sleep at the times you should.
The other important organ system that is nurtured by qi and blood is the lungs (strongest from 3 a.m. to 5 a.m.). The lung system is responsible for providing oxygen to the body, defense against infection, and nourishment to the skin, and for assisting in the regulation of food and water metabolism.
Being emotionally distressed, eating the wrong kinds of food, or exposing oneself to environmental toxicity or infections disturbs the organ systems and meridians and can create sleep disorders.
For example, when the kidney energy (our major source of cooling energy) becomes too deficient to balance the heart energy (our major source of heat energy), people cannot fall into sleep due to overactive heat energy. Thus they get insomnia.
When the liver yang energy is not balanced by the liver yin energy, people may get nightmares, sleepwalk, and experience restless leg syndrome. When the spleen and lung qi are deficient, the body accumulates fat as well as phlegm that can block the airway, causing obstructive sleep apnea.
Therefore, from the Chinese medicine perspective, sleep disorders are superficial manifestations of underlying imbalances of body energies. These imbalances cause health issues that are often improved by modifying our lifestyle, including getting healthy sleep, eating properly, meditating, exercising, and reducing stress.
For those who have more troublesome symptoms, receiving courses of treatment with acupuncture and herbal medicine is very important and most helpful. The last thing you want to do is to mask the symptoms by simply taking medications.
Dr. Jingduan Yang contributed this article which was first published on EET. Dr. Yang is a leading physician, board-certified psychiatrist, and international expert on classic forms of Chinese medicine. He is a fourth-generation teacher and practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine, specializing in acupuncture.