Calming The Shen: A Chinese Medicine Approach To A Good Night's Sleep

Often with sleep disturbances, the patient will be experiencing patterns of stress, anxiety, or agitation. Chinese Medicine would call this "disturbed shen."
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This month HuffPost Living has featured an abundance of great articles on the importance of sleep, with excellent tips on how to enhance your slumber from experts in a variety of fields.

An approach that can also aid in the quest for a good night's sleep is that of Chinese Medicine. This ancient healing system has offered relief to the sleep challenged for thousands of years. While new to many, Chinese Medicine is mainstream in China, and it is used today for a wide range of conditions by an estimated one-fourth of the world's population.

The Roots of Traditional Chinese Medicine

Chinese Medicine is considered the oldest, most continuously practiced, professional, literate medicine in the world. Written records date back over 2000 years, although the medicine is believed to go back even further. Some experts believe Chinese Medicine is at least 5000 years old.

Chinese Medicine employs acupuncture, herbal medicine, nutritional therapy, tuina (pronounced "twee nah") massage, acupressure, and qigong.

The Huangdi Neijing (The Yellow Emperor's Inner Canon) is considered the Bible of Chinese Medicine, emphasizing medical theory and acupuncture. Some scholars estimate that it dates back to the first century B.C. In addition, The Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing (The Divine Farmer's Materia Medica Classic) details the medicinal uses of 365 herbs and is believed to have been compiled around 200 A.D. Many of the protocols mentioned in these ancient texts are still used today.

Chinese Medicine and the West

The development of East-West relations has promoted the use and interest of Chinese Medicine in the United States. During the past 30 years, the practice of Chinese Medicine has dramatically increased here. The National Institutes of Health (N.I.H.) has reported that visits to Chinese Medicine practitioners in the U.S. tripled from 1997 to 2007.

At the same time, the United States is seeing an increase in the practice of integrative medicine. University centers and hospitals are offering Chinese Medicine. Integration has been common in China, where Chinese Medicine is often practiced side-by-side with Western Medicine.

The Chinese Medicine Approach to Sleep

Insomnia comes in various forms, such as trouble falling sleep, difficulty staying asleep, and having dream-disturbed sleep. When a Chinese Medicine practitioner is gathering information to put together a treatment plan, the pattern of the sleep disturbance as well as health and lifestyle issues will be taken into consideration.

A Chinese Medicine practitioner might use the term "calm the shen" when describing a treatment principle. "Shen" is best translated as the spirit of the person in a nonreligious sense. When evaluating Shen, the Chinese Medicine practitioner is looking for the emotional state and presence (or lack) of radiance, calm, and balance. Often with sleep disturbances, the patient will be experiencing patterns of stress, anxiety, or agitation. Chinese Medicine would call this "disturbed shen."

Treatment for insomnia from a Chinese Medicine practitioner could include one or more of the following therapies: acupuncture, herbal medicine, nutritional counseling, Chinese massage (acupressure/tuina), and qigong.


Acupuncture is the insertion of needles into specific points of the body to reduce pain, to promote relaxation, and to treat various health concerns. Insomnia and sleep disorders are common reasons why people visit an acupuncturist.

The World Health Organization (W.H.O.) lists insomnia as a condition for which the therapeutic effect of acupuncture has been shown. Continuous research is underway to evaluate the effectiveness of acupuncture for sleep issues. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine published a review of randomized controlled trials of acupuncture treatment for insomnia. After looking at 46 randomized trials, the conclusion was that acupuncture appears to be effective in the treatment of insomnia, and larger, rigorously designed trials are warranted.

Chinese Herbal Medicine

There are many traditional Chinese herbal formulas to help regulate the sleep pattern. A formula is chosen for each person based on their symptoms, constitution, and medical history. It is best to have a licensed medical practitioner select the proper formula. Some herbs that are used in these formulas include Suan Zao Ren (Sour Date Seed), Bai Zi Ren (Arborvitae Seed), Fu Shen (Poria Paradicis), and Wu Wei Zi (Schizandra Fruit).

Hyla Cass, M.D., a board-certified psychiatrist and integrative medicine expert, has reported great results with her sleep-challenged patients using a Chinese herbal compound Wulinshen. You can read more about this herbal approach in her blog on natural solutions to sleep.

Chinese Nutritional Therapy

Chinese Nutritional Therapy includes basic advice on healthy eating as well specific food recommendations for each patient. Some points emphasized in Chinese Medicine for better sleep include not eating for at least two to three hours before bedtime, as well as the avoidance of greasy or sweet foods. Chinese Medicine also recommends staying away from cold drinks. While Americans are big on ice-cold beverages, this is a huge no-no in Chinese Medicine. Also, when a patient seeks help from a Chinese Medicine practitioner for insomnia, a very detailed review will be made regarding the quality of their digestion. Chinese Medicine places a strong emphasis on the connection between digestion and sleep.

Chinese Massage Therapy (Acupressure/Tuina)

Chinese massage therapy consists of applying pressure to specific points on the body (acupressure) and techniques such as kneading, rolling, and pressing (tuina). Acupressure and tuina have demonstrated effectiveness for improving the quality of sleep. Research from China reported the effectiveness of acupressure and tuina in the treatment of insomnia patients. An Italian study reported improved sleep quality after acupressure stimulation for those suffering from sleep disorders, particularly in cancer patients experiencing insomnia.


Qigong is a practice that uses movement, breathing, visualization, and meditation to reduce stress, improve flexibility, and enhance overall health. Like a physical therapist will prescribe specific exercises for the orthopedic patient, the Chinese Medicine/Qigong practitioner will often prescribe individualized qigong techniques for each patient. The regular practice of qigong is strongly associated with stress reduction and the encouragement of a deep, restful sleep.

Resources for Further Exploration

Understanding Chinese Medicine can be a bit daunting to the neophyte. Chinese Medicine has a different approach than Western Medicine, although some practitioners integrate both systems with a complementary approach. There is an explosion of interest in the West, and more is being written to bridge the gap between the Eastern and Western understanding.

If you are interested in Chinese Medicine, an excellent primer written for the layperson and novice is The Web That Has No Weaver by Dr. Ted J. Kaptchuk. Dr. Kaptchuk is a Doctor of Chinese Medicine and an Associate Professor at Harvard Medical School.

If you would like to further explore the Chinese Medicine approach to regulating sleep specifically, Curing Insomnia Naturally with Chinese Medicine by Dr. Bob Flaws is an excellent comprehensive guide.

For an even deeper look at Chinese herbal medicine, I'd recommend Chinese Medical Herbology and Pharmacology by John and Tina Chen, experts in pharmacology and traditional Chinese Medicine. This 1,267 page guide details the traditional Chinese uses of herbs for insomnia and other conditions, the chemical composition, clinical studies and research, and herb-drug interaction information.

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