Sleep from a Chinese Medicine Perspective

As a sleep coach, I have been increasingly building insights from Chinese Medicine into my practice. Before we delve too much into sleep, it is important to note that in Chinese Medicine, there are 5 elements which correspond to many things, including personality. You can take a quiz here which should give you a fairly accurate diagnosis of which you may be (if you are annoyed by the need to give an email to get a result, just use a fake one). It will be useful to know your elemental type as there may be different factors at play in your sleep depending on your baseline and how you may be prone to imbalance (too much or too little of a given element). I’ve sketched some of these out here, starting with my biggest challenge.

Fire Element: Too much energy! I am a classic fire type- full of joy, enthusiasm, reasonably social. It’s terrible for a sleep coach to confess that she herself has sleep issues, but it does happen and lately, it’s been a bit more frequent. I haven’t been really worried about anything, just not sleeping much. I recently saw my acupuncturist and told her what was up. She advised me it’s no surprise a fire type would have insomnia in the summer. This is our time to shine! It’s our favorite time of year, the one in which we are most vibrant. She said everyone needs less sleep in the summer (indeed, the long daylight hours can contribute to the shift), but fire types in particular can be over-enthusiastic about everything. I have indeed been having a reasonably delightful summer given the pandemic. Lots of water sports and (safely distanced) social times. Given that I haven’t been having much impairment to daytime functioning, she told me to just lean into it and just realize I can do more with less sleep (for now). I’m sure I’ll be back to my nerd bedtime of 7 pm soon enough in the fall.

Hot flashes also can happen at night and signal an excess of fire/heat, which would of course contribute to insomnia. A cool room is always preferable, but perhaps crucial for fires to chill them out a bit for sleep. Fire types can be kept up simply looking forward to their next joyful adventure or being excited about an idea, but can also suffer disproportionately from anxiety, which can certainly feed into insomnia. Note- the flip side of this would be a deficiency in joy/fire which could mean laying in bed/sleeping too much in a more melancholic state. Fire types may be good candidates to try developing lucid dreaming skills, so they can live it up at night and keep the party going while they sleep.

Earth Element: Too much worry! Earth types are nurturers to the core they want to feed you and hug you. Their insomnia may be caused by concern for loved ones, conflict with others, or perhaps missing a bed partner to snuggle with (or having an empty nest). If they have a bed partner, they may be over-accommodating, suffering through snoring or other spatial challenges with sharing a bed. Working through relationship challenges in the day to assure harmony may be the best option for good sleep at night for earth types. If there are no ready humans to share a bed with, a dog or cat may help the earth type sleep better (though sometimes animals can disrupt your sleep too).

Metal Element: Too rigid! Metal types are very fixed in their approach to things. These patients may be particularly sensitive to daylight savings time changes or jet lag, since these throw their routine off. When out of balance, metal types can have a hard time ‘letting go,’ which could manifest in insomnia due to ruminating on past issues. While researching the connection between metal and sleep, I stumbled on this fascinating PubMed article which connects actual metal imbalances in the body with circadian rhythm disturbances! In short, both deficiencies in key nutritional metals and excesses of toxic metals such as mercury can throw off sleep signaling! Metal is also associated with the lung, so when out of balance, perhaps these types could be predisposed to sleep apnea and other breathing disorders. Metals could be having a harder time than most of us with this pandemic, since it has put so much out of our control. Since metal types naturally love structure, there’s perhaps no better prescription here than a standard sleep/rise time, along with a firmly anchored ‘quiet down’ ritual. Metals love order and aesthetics, so following feng shui principles for bedroom decor can help (see more on that below).

Water Element: Too thoughtful! Water types are the philosophers, the deep thinkers. It’s easy to see where their sleep could go off the rails as night is a wonderful time to contemplate big esoteric things. They may be reflecting on mortality, justice, the state of the world as they stare at the ceiling. They prefer solitude and are likely to have issues related to sleeping with a bed partner. Water types may be helped by meditation focused on clearing the mind to help reduce the ‘meaning of life’ type questions which may keep them up at night. They may also be helped with calming/grounding practices to anchor them more in their body and keep them out of their head.

Wood Element: Too much to accomplish! Wood types are driven and ambitious, with their eye always on the next accomplishment. Insomnia could come if they are worried about work performance or the expectations they put on themselves, including that they ‘should’ get a certain amount of sleep. Many of my clients are wood types. I have a disproportionate number of lawyers, many of whom probably fit this mold. The wood type can be prone to substance abuse, and indeed many of my wood patients come to me on multiple OTC and prescription sleep meds (and usually alcohol), hoping to reduce their dependence on chemical support for sleep.The good news is, they do well with homework, assignments, and goals (the bad news is, they often want to be fixed right now, and these things can take some time- they can get frustrated if they don’t see immediate gains). When my sleep coaching clients seem ‘wood type,’ they often thrive on tasks to complete related to their sleep.

I actually went down a bit of a rabbit hole reading about sleep in the wood element here. Without going too far afield, there are 5 spirit components, each associated with an element. One of these, the hun, corresponds to wood and it is thought to be about as close to the western conception of soul as anything else. At night, the hun is thought to play a role in our dreams. Western disorders like parasomnias (sleep walking, nightmares, REM behavioral disorder, etc), as well as an absence of dreams can signal a disorder in your wood balance. Conversely, well functioning hun and a balance in the wood element can be thought to help with dreams which lead to making meaning and purpose in your waking life.

Treating Insomnia with Acupuncture: Many specifics points could be used, depending on the elemental or organ imbalance at play. But regardless of which element you are, there is a point in acupuncture which looks strikingly close to the word Ambien (a common prescription sleep aid- I can’t help but wonder if the pharmaceutical company was aware when making the name). Indeed, my co-founder who is in acupuncture school currently noted they call this point “Ambien” as a nickname. The Anmian points (there are one behind each ear) are considered ‘extra,’ meaning they don’t tie into a specific organ system or element.

I found these Anmien points worked well on me. I had the best night’s sleep in about a week after getting them placed. But the effect didn’t last. And no one can get acupuncture daily. One could also try using acupressure by pressing on these points with the fingers to achieve a similar effect, or try placing seeds on the points. My acupuncturist gave me some wearable needles to keep in for a few days to see if the effect lasted – a week in, I would say it’s working fabulously!

A nice video summarizing some other acupressure points for good sleep is here. This is a low-risk way to try something new if you struggle with sleep. My acupuncturist also suggested some deep belly breathing into the dan tien, and putting a fountain in the bedroom with some essential oils to calm the mind (lavender and other calming scents are best). When I asked about herbal remedies for insomnia, she noted some are sold under the name An Mien. I have a bottle which shipped recently, but I haven’t needed since getting the wearable needles placed. I’ll definitely report out though when I try it.

We wrote in an earlier blog about how timing of your insomnia can play a role based on the Chinese Organ Clock. If you seem to wake up at the same time each night, or just have a hard time shutting down your mind, pay attention to how this may relate to the concepts of organs being overly stimulated.

And no blog on sleep from the Chinese perspective would be complete without a note on feng shui to optimize the bedroom. Brief comic departure- in undergrad I tried labeling corners of my room by feng shui and my cat gave birth to kittens in the fertility corner, right under the sign I had placed- this stuff is legit! PSA- this was in my foolish youth, and I didn’t even know she was pregnant – please spay and neuter your pets!

Even in western science, we know that the bedroom should be a place for relaxation. It’s crucial that you only use it for sex and sleep if possible. In the pandemic, many people are having to work or do schoolwork in the bedroom if they lack other spaces in the house. This has absolutely contributed to many clients’ struggles. If you can’t dedicate another room to work, I would suggest trying to just pick a corner and use a room divider in the bedroom to try to impose some kind of segregation of activities mentally.

Knowing your element type can help you tailor specific approaches not only to sleep, but mental and physical concerns. This is just a small taste of how 5 element theory can be used to approach overall health and wellbeing.

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Related Reading

The Chinese Organ Clock

Sleep Hygiene Roundup

De-Stress with Ear Seeds

Summer is Meant to be the Season of Joy- Can it Still be?

Meditation for Neurotics

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