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Insomnia and Chinese Medicine


Insomnia and Chinese Medicine


As the snow begins to fall and the wind whips over the mountains–and our garbage can lids begin their annual migration to Utah–we are reminded of the ebb and flow of seasons.


In Chinese thought, all of nature is a dynamic oscillation of two primal forces: yin and yang, cold and hot, dark and light, wet and dry, passive and active, female and male. Out of this simple binary system all of Chinese medicine is spun.


You’ve seen the t’ai chi symbol before: a black fish curled up next to a white fish. The black fish has a white eye and the white fish has a black eye–symbolizing that within yang is the seed of yin, and vice versa. So, within winter is the seed of summer. Or, it’s always darkest before the dawn.


No one is more painfully aware of this than an insomniac–bone tired all day but wide awake all night–a monkey chattering in his head, replaying old scripts and drafting new ones, dreading the alarm clock that brings another exhausted slog through another tomorrow.


In Chinese Medicine, one cause of insomnia is an energetic imbalance known as “heart and kidney not communicating.” This means that the water (yin) of the kidneys can no longer cool the fire (yang) of the heart, so you end up with empty heart fire rising up to disturb the mind (palpitations, insomnia, anxiety, “monkey chatter”) in addition to kidney deficient symptoms sinking down (low back pain, weak knees, poor memory, dizziness &/or tinnitus and poor hearing). In order to sleep peacefully, the heart must offer safe housing to the shen (the spirit of the heart), which it can’t do if it’s on fire. Differential diagnosis of this condition reveals a tongue that is red and peeled by heat and a pulse that is thin and rapid (or floating and empty) especially in the kidney and heart positions.




The yin of the heart and kidney can be replenished by herbs and acupuncture, and the imbalance corrected. If the condition is a long-sblueding one, it will take more adjustments to turn the pattern around, so an herbal formula is essential to reinforce the needle work.


If you’re an insomniac with peripheral pain (e.g. in the neck or knee, elbow or shoulder) chances are your pain won’t go away until you address your root disharmony. Think of how a body that is freezing to death prioritizes energy: it sacrifices circulation to the arms and legs and it shivers the flesh to generate heat–all to keep the organs alive. If your body has an organ imbalance, it’s going to divert every bit of its energy inward to try and fix the root problem, to the exclusion of peripheral aches and pains–and you will be stuck with those nagging aches and pains until you hear what they’re trying to tell you: to get back on the right path, the tao, and regain your natural balance and again flow effortlessly with the forces in the cosmos.


Dr. Gary Danchak