Sleep Disorders? Acupuncture Can Help!
by Mindy Boxer Ph.D., L.Ac., D. Hom.
Sleep disorders occur when difficulties and complications interfere with the quality and length of sleep. One reason why it is so important to consistently have a proper night’s sleep is because without it, other medical issues may worsen. Even a single restless night can leave one feeling mentally, emotionally and physically exhausted. While a complete catalogue of sleep disorders is long and varied, some of the most common ones that respond well to treatment with acupuncture and Oriental medicine are insomnia, sleep apnea, jet lag disorder, snoring, night terrors, narcolepsy and restless leg syndrome (RLS).
According to acupuncture and Oriental medicine, the cycles of sleeping and waking demonstrate the dynamic interplay of yin and yang forces. Yin qualities include contraction, cold, inactivity and nighttime. Yang qualities are represented by expansion, heat, activity and daytime. During sleep and states of relaxation, yin exercises the dominant force. After yin energy has refreshed the body and mind, it is then time for yang energy to increase. When yang springs into action, it is now possible to wake up restored and ready for the day.
One way in which a practitioner of acupuncture and Oriental medicine may help a patient regain control of their sleep is by balancing the body’s internal forces of yin and yang through the use of acupuncture. For example, if a disharmony is discovered in the Yang Qiao channel, manifesting as an overabundance of yang energy, and since this energy is always active, it would be appropriate to decrease yang and increase yin. This can help alleviate symptoms of certain sleep disorders, such as insomnia. A channel is an invisible pathway on which energy is necessary for healing flows. The Yang Qiao channel has traditionally been used to address sleep pathologies.
However, in some cases, there is also an emotional component that must be addressed. A study entitled “Acupuncture Increases Nocturnal Secretion and Reduces Insomnia and Anxiety: A Preliminary Report”, printed in the 2004 edition of the Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, yielded some very encouraging conclusions. The test subjects, all of whom complained of insomnia and anxiety, received regular acupuncture treatments for a total of five weeks.
Melatonin is a hormone produced in the pineal gland that controls the waking and sleeping cycles. It was documented that the patients’ nightly levels of melatonin production increased, which, in turn, caused a rise in the amount of time spent dozing. This also resulted in a better quality of sleep than before the treatments began. At the same time the length and quality of sleep improved, there was a significant reduction in their levels of anxiety. This led the researchers to conclude that acupuncture is a valuable and effective treatment for certain kinds of insomnia.
Anyone who has ever had a restless night in bed, spent hours looking at the clock or counting sheep, can legitimately complain of insomnia. Sometimes it happens for obvious reasons, and other times we’re at a loss to explain why. According to the theory of acupuncture and Oriental medicine, an imbalance of the heart organ often plays a role when it comes to disturbances and interruptions of our sleep. It might sound strange to link the heart with insomnia, but the following will help explain.
It is believed that the shen, also called spirit or mind, lives in the heart and returns there to rest every night while we sleep. The concept of shen refers to the cognitive functions, mental health and the overall vitality of a person. The spirit finds sanctuary and rejuvenation in a healthy heart when the emotions and the physical body are equanimous. This ensures an undisturbed, good night’s rest. However, when the shen is ‘disturbed’, it cannot find its way home and is said to wander. When this is the case, symptoms of insomnia may arise.
There are many reasons why the shen may be forced to wander. The heart is a delicate organ that is vulnerable to pathological heat. An example of a condition involving the heart ‘being harassed’ by heat, is called heart yin deficiency. Yin is a cooling, quiet, feminine energy. It is likened to the hidden world of the yet-to-sprout seed, or the unborn baby still in the womb. As heart yin lessens and dries up, it leaves room for yang to take advantage and expand. Yang being a moving, active, masculine force, will create a condition of excess heat in the heart. This makes the heart inhospitable to the spirit.
There will usually be a manifestation of other symptoms confirming a case of insomnia due to heart yin deficiency. These signs and symptoms may include anxiety, mental agitation, poor memory, night sweats and a dry mouth. It is interesting to note that this patient may be able to fall asleep without a problem, but will wake up frequently in the middle of the night. In this case, a practitioner of acupuncture and Oriental medicine may need to build up and nourish yin in an effort to cool down the heart.
Hypersomnia literally means excessive sleep. It can manifest as daytime drowsiness, even after a long night’s rest. The desire to doze during daylight hours can be so overpowering that a person may literally fall asleep anywhere, under any circumstance. It may even happen while someone is driving, making it a dangerous condition. The flagship symptoms of hypersomnia, also called hypersomnolence, are strong urges to nap during the day, longer than normal nightly sleep times and an inability to feel refreshed after sleeping.
The consequences of hypersomnia can result in a myriad of symptoms including irritability, problems with memory, impaired thinking, slow speech, depression, loss of appetite, decreased vitality and energy levels, and, in extreme cases, hallucinations
The theory of acupuncture and Oriental medicine provides many reasons why sleep and wake cycles may be disturbed. In the case of hypersomnia, the source of the problem may rest with the liver organ and the blood flow.
A few lifestyle suggestions that can help keep your liver healthy include refraining from angry outbursts. Uncontrolled anger damages the liver and easily leads to an increase in heat. Maintaining equanimity through careful thought before saying or doing anything is vital.
Gentle exercise is another way to maintain good liver health. A good walk after a meal will encourage a robust blood flow to aid digestion. Stretching is another way to encourage blood flow. Try standing on your tip toes and reaching your hands as high in the air as they will go.
Sometimes it’s not what you do, but what you don’t do that counts. In this case, avoiding alcohol, or drinking only in moderation, is a good idea. The liver metabolizes alcohol, so the less of it one consumes, the more energy and vitality are preserved.
Hypersomnia can result from neurological diseases, head trauma, substance abuse, side effects from prescription drugs and sleep deprivation. Narcolepsy is a neurological disorder that is very similar to hypersomnia, but is considered more severe in its symptoms.
One important way we can help ensure a restful night is by making wise decisions during the day when it comes to our diet. Eating foods and drinking teas with nutrients beneficial to our sleep cycle can be quite simple. Even minor changes in diet can lead to major changes in the quality and duration of sleep.
With this in mind, before heading to the bedroom for some shut-eye, let’s first head to the kitchen. A good way to start is to look for foods that contain protein. No matter what the source of protein is, chances are good that it contains tryptophan. Tryptophan is an amino acid the body utilizes to create vitamin B6. In turn, vitamin B6 triggers the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that is a precursor to melatonin.
Melatonin is a very important hormone when it comes to regulating sleeping and waking cycles. It has the ability to balance our circadian rhythms, which are our natural response to being awake when it’s light and being sleepy when it’s dark outside. To simplify things, rather than remembering the lengthy chain reaction that occurs when you eat foods with tryptophan, just think protein for a good night’s rest. Foods with high amounts of tryptophan include turkey, lamb, beef, chicken, port, nuts, seeds, cheese, tuna, crab, bananas, hazelnuts, spinach, sweet potatoes and garlic.
If you prefer to drink your way to a better night’s sleep, teas are also an easy, nutritious option. During the day it’s fine to sip tea that is room temperature or cold, but in the evening, when it’s closer to bedtime, a cup served warm is best. The heat provides comfort that helps the stomach and the whole body relax. Herbs known for their ability to help bring on relaxation and a peaceful sleep include chamomile, lavender, peppermint and lemon balm.
Not only is including a small, warm cup of tea in your bedtime ritual helpful for sleep, but drinking 1-3 cups during the day can also provide nighttime benefits. Just make sure to have half a cup if you prefer some tea right before going to bed. You’ll still get the benefits but avoid waking up in the middle night to use the bathroom. Having a caffeinated beverage is fine, if a moderate amount is consumed in the morning. This is because the effects of caffeine may stay in the system for up to eight hours, so best to drink it only as part of a morning ritual.
Restrict artificial light at night.
This means devices like computers, smart phones, and TVs, but also ambient indoor lighting. Light from all of these sources—particularly blue light—has been shown to disrupt the production of melatonin, which is the primary hormone involved in sleep regulation. One easy way to mitigate this effect is to install flux on your devices, which will automatically change the display of your computer or smart phone at night to reduce the amount of blue light it emits. However, a better option is to buy amber-tinted glasses to wear after dark, which will reduce your exposure to blue light from ambient room lighting as well. Studies have shown that these glasses are extremely effective at preventing melatonin suppression and improving sleep quality and mood. Uvex and Solar Shield are two popular, inexpensive brands.
Keep your bedroom cool and dark.
You may have already discovered that sleeping in a cool, dark environment makes it much easier to get a good night’s sleep. One of the physiologic hallmarks of sleep onset is a decrease in core body temperature, which the body achieves by increasing blood flow to the skin and allowing heat to disperse into the environment. If the sleeping environment is too warm, it can hinder this decrease in core body temperature and adversely affect sleep quality. It’s also important to keep your bedroom as dark as possible. Exposure to artificial light before bed can impair sleep, and exposure to even small amounts of light during the night can disrupt the circadian rhythm. Installing black-out shades and covering any other lights in your bedroom is one option, but an eye mask is a good alternative.
Exercise and get plenty of Light during the day.
Supporting your Circadian Rhythm by avoiding artificial light at night is important, but don’t forget to enforce it during the day, too! The most important environmental factor regulating the circadian rhythm is light entering the eye, so it’s important to let your body know that it’s daytime by exposing yourself to plenty of bright light. Try to spend some time outside every day, in the morning or around lunchtime if possible. Compared to outdoor light, which usually ranges from 10,000 to 30,000 lux on a clear day, ordinary indoor light is a pitiful 10 to 300 lux, not nearly bright enough to have the strong circadian-entrenching effect we want. Exercise during the day has also been shown to improve sleep quality at night. Several studies have found exercise to be effective at reducing symptoms of Insomnia, and some evidence indicates that exercise may be as effective as sleeping pills.
Finally, there are several supplements that can be helpful for relieving insomnia and improving sleep. These are the supplements I’ve found helpful in my practice and are safe for most people to try, listed in descending order of what to try first. (Always check with your personal physician before starting any supplement protocol.)
Magnesium. Magnesium has calming effects on the nervous system, and several studies have found magnesium to be effective in treating insomnia and improving sleep. Many people have success with 1 to 2 teaspoons of “Natural Calm” before bed, while others do better with chelated forms like Magnesium Glycinate or Magnesium Taurate (400 to 600 mg). It’s important to note that magnesium may have a laxative effect, and the chelated forms are usually better tolerated by those with sensitive guts.
L-theanine. L-theanine is an Amino Ccid found in Green Tea that has been shown to have calming effects on the brain. The recommended dose for improving sleep is 200 to 400 mg, taken an hour before bed if you have trouble falling asleep, or just before bed if you have trouble staying asleep.
Dr. Mindy Boxer brings over 25 years of experience and passion to her practice of Nutrition, Acupuncture and Natural Medicine. Her specialties include: Fertility & Healthy Pregnancy, Women’s Healthcare, PMS, Menopause, Breast Cancer Support, Insomnia, Men’s Health & Vitality, Erectile Dysfunction, Prostate Support, Functional Nutrition, Detox Programs, “Pre-Conception Cleanse,” Anti-Aging, Gastrointestinal disorders, Stress and Anxiety.
Dr. Boxer utilizes a Gentle Japanese style Acupuncture, Herbal Medicine, and Nutritional & Homeopathic remedies to restore your system to optimal health. She teaches you to tap into your body’s healing capacities, allowing you to take charge of your physical and mental well-being.
For Further Information:
Contact: drmindyboxer.com or call (310) 450-9711