Insomnia according to Chinese Medicine

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Insomnia can be the consequence of several so-called “patterns of disharmony” in Chinese Medicine.

Chinese Medicine sees the body as a system, not a sum of isolated parts. A "pattern" is when the system's harmony is disrupted, leading to symptoms or signs that something is wrong (like insomnia here). It is similar to the concept of disease in Western Medicine but not quite: a Western disease can often be explained by several Chinese patterns and vice-versa.

A pattern often manifests itself in a combination of symptoms that, at first glance, do not seem necessarily related to each others. For instance here insomnia is often associated with dizziness, palpitations and scanty periods in the pattern “Blood Deficiency”. As you will see below, we have in record five patterns that can cause insomnia.

Once identified, patterns are treated using medicinal herbs, acupuncture, and other therapies. In the case of insomnia we’ve identified five herbal formulas that may help treat patterns behind the symptom.

We’ve also selected below the five medicinal herbs that we think are most likely to help treat insomnia.

The five "patterns of disharmony" that can cause insomnia

In Chinese Medicine insomnia is a symptom for 5 patterns that we have on record. Below is a small explanation for each of them with links for more details.

Prepared Rehmannia (Shu Di huang) is the king ingredient for Si Wu Tang, a formula used for Blood Deficiency

Blood Deficiency

Pulse type(s): Choppy (Se), Fine (Xi)

Tongue color: Pale

Someone has a Deficiency of Blood when their entire body, a part of body or a particular Organ is insufficiently nourished by Blood.

This can be caused by blood-loss, a lack of of Spleen Qi (responsible to produce Blood) or congealed Blood which prevents new Blood from forming.

In addition to insomnia, other symptoms associated with Blood Deficiency include dizziness, palpitations and scanty periods.

From a Western Medicine standpoint Blood Deficiency is associated with health issues such as Late Menstruation or Scanty Menstruation.

Blood Deficiency is often treated with Si Wu Tang, a herbal formula made of 4 herbs (including Prepared Rehmannia - Shu Di huang - as a key herb). Si Wu Tang belongs to the category of "formulas that tonify blood", which might be why it is often recommended for this pattern. Its main action as a formula is: "Restores and nourishes Blood".

Read more about Blood Deficiency here

The Kidneys is a so-called "Zang" Organ. Learn more about the Kidneys in Chinese Medicine

Kidney and Liver Yin Deficiency

Pulse type(s): Empty (Xu), Floating (Fu)

Tongue coating: Partial absence of coating

Tongue color: Red

In addition to insomnia, other symptoms associated with Kidney and Liver Yin Deficiency include dizziness, night sweats and scanty periods.

From a Western Medicine standpoint Kidney and Liver Yin Deficiency is associated with health issues such as Absence Of Menstruation, Menopausal Syndrome or Vaginal Itching.

Kidney and Liver Yin Deficiency is often treated with Zuo Gui Wan, a herbal formula made of 8 herbs (including Prepared Rehmannia - Shu Di huang - as a key herb). Zuo Gui Wan belongs to the category of "formulas that nourish yin and tonify", which might be why it is often recommended for this pattern. Its main action as a formula is: "Nourishes the Yin".

Read more about Kidney and Liver Yin Deficiency here

Inula Flowers (Xuan Fu Hua) is the king ingredient for Xuan Fu Dai Zhe Tang, a formula used for Rebellious Qi

Rebellious Qi

Pulse type(s): Wiry (Xian)

Tongue color: Normal (light red), Red sides

Rebellious Qi is when Qi flows in the wrong direction. For instance, if one suffers from a rebellious Stomach Qi (a common case), the normal downward flow of Stomach Qi is disrupted and it goes upward instead. This may result in nausea, vomiting, belching or hiccupping.

In addition to insomnia, other symptoms associated with Rebellious Qi include headaches, nausea and diarrhea.

Rebellious Qi is often treated with Xuan Fu Dai Zhe Tang, a herbal formula made of 7 herbs (including Inula Flowers - Xuan Fu Hua - as a key herb). Xuan Fu Dai Zhe Tang belongs to the category of "formulas for a rebellious qi", which might be why it is often recommended for this pattern. Its main action as a formula is: "Regulates the downward flow of Stomach Qi".

Read more about Rebellious Qi here

The Heart is a so-called "Zang" Organ. Learn more about the Heart in Chinese Medicine

Heart Yin Deficiency

Pulse type(s): Rapid (Shu), Empty (Xu), Fine (Xi), Floating (Fu)

Tongue coating: Complete absence of coating

Tongue color: Red

This pattern developed from Heart Blood Deficiency. It shares similar symptoms as the latter one, such as insomnia, dream-disturbed sleep, easily to be scared, poor memory and anxiety, but it also has additional empty Heat symptoms. It can be caused by Kidney Yin Deficiency or other factors such as bad diet, overwork or long term exposure to stress or hot environment.

In addition to insomnia, other symptoms associated with Heart Yin Deficiency include dizziness, palpitations and night sweats.

From a Western Medicine standpoint Heart Yin Deficiency is associated with health issues such as Absence Of Menstruation or Postpartum Depression.

Heart Yin Deficiency is often treated with Tian Wang Bu Xin Dan, a herbal formula made of 14 herbs (including Unprepared Rehmannia - Di Huang - as a key herb). Tian Wang Bu Xin Dan belongs to the category of "formulas that nourish the heart and calm the mind", which might be why it is often recommended for this pattern. Its main action as a formula is: "Nutritive tonic: Nourishes Yin, Blood and Vital Essence of the Heart and Kidney".

Read more about Heart Yin Deficiency here

The Liver is a so-called "Zang" Organ. Learn more about the Liver in Chinese Medicine

Liver Yang Rising

Pulse type(s): Wiry (Xian)

Tongue color: Red

Long term Liver Yin Deficiency causes Liver Yang rising upwards. The treatment should be focused on subduing rising Yang as well as nourishing Liver Yin and Blood. It is also called Arrogant Liver Yang.

In addition to insomnia, other symptoms associated with Liver Yang Rising include dizziness, blurred vision and tinnitus.

Liver Yang Rising is often treated with Liu Wei Di Huang Wan, a herbal formula made of 6 herbs (including Prepared Rehmannia - Shu Di huang - as a key herb). Liu Wei Di Huang Wan belongs to the category of "formulas that nourish yin and tonify", which might be why it is often recommended for this pattern. Its main action as a formula is: "Nutritive tonic for the Liver and Kidney Yin Essence (nourishes the parasympathetic nervous system)".

Read more about Liver Yang Rising here

Five herbal formulas that might help with insomnia

Ren Shen Yang Rong Tang

Source date: 1174 AD

Number of ingredients: 14 herbs

Key actions: Tonifies Qi and Blood. Nourishes the Heart. Calms the spirit.

Why might Ren Shen Yang Rong Tang help with insomnia?

Because it is a formula often recommended to treat the pattern 'Blood Deficiency' of which insomnia is a symptom.

According to Chinese Medicine, Blood Deficiency can contribute to many health issues, including Late Menstruation.

Read more about Ren Shen Yang Rong Tang here

Liu Wei Di Huang Wan

Source date: 1119 AD

Number of ingredients: 6 herbs

Key actions: Nutritive tonic for the Liver and Kidney Yin Essence (nourishes the parasympathetic nervous system).

Why might Liu Wei Di Huang Wan help with insomnia?

Because it is a formula often recommended to treat the pattern 'Kidney and Liver Yin Deficiency' of which insomnia is a symptom.

According to Chinese Medicine, Kidney and Liver Yin Deficiency can contribute to many health issues, including Absence Of Menstruation.

Read more about Liu Wei Di Huang Wan here

Xuan Fu Dai Zhe Tang

Source date: 220 AD

Number of ingredients: 7 herbs

Key actions: Regulates the downward flow of Stomach Qi. Expectorant, treats hiccups.

Why might Xuan Fu Dai Zhe Tang help with insomnia?

Because it is a formula often recommended to treat the pattern 'Rebellious Qi' of which insomnia is a symptom.

Other symptoms characteristic of Rebellious Qi include headaches, nausea and diarrhea.

Read more about Xuan Fu Dai Zhe Tang here

Tian Wang Bu Xin Dan

Source date: 16th century

Number of ingredients: 14 herbs

Key actions: Nutritive tonic: Nourishes Yin, Blood and Vital Essence of the Heart and Kidney. Clears away pathogenic Heat, clears Deficient Heat. Sedative.

Why might Tian Wang Bu Xin Dan help with insomnia?

Because it is a formula often recommended to treat the pattern 'Heart Yin Deficiency' of which insomnia is a symptom.

According to Chinese Medicine, Heart Yin Deficiency can contribute to many health issues, including Postpartum Depression.

Read more about Tian Wang Bu Xin Dan here

Ling Jiao Gou Teng Tang

Source date: Qing dynasty

Number of ingredients: 10 herbs

Key actions: Cools the Liver. Extinguishes Wind. Increases Fluids. Relaxes the sinews.

Why might Ling Jiao Gou Teng Tang help with insomnia?

Because it is a formula often recommended to treat the pattern 'Liver Yang Rising' of which insomnia is a symptom.

Other symptoms characteristic of Liver Yang Rising include dizziness, blurred vision and tinnitus.

Read more about Ling Jiao Gou Teng Tang here

Acupuncture points used for insomnia

The five Chinese Medicinal herbs most likely to help treat insomnia

Why might Poria-Cocos Mushroom (Fu Ling) help with insomnia?

Because it is both specifically indicated to treat insomnia and also because it is an ingredient in herbal formulas known to treat insomnia as a symptom (such as Ren Shen Yang Rong Tang for instance).

Poria-Cocos Mushrooms is a Neutral herb that tastes Sweet. It targets the Spleen, the Heart, the Kidney and the Lung.

Its main actions are: Encourages urination and drains Dampness. Tonic to the Spleen/Stomach. Assists the Heart and calms the Spirit.

Read more about Poria-Cocos Mushrooms here

Why might Ginseng (Ren Shen) help with insomnia?

Because it is both specifically indicated to treat insomnia and also because it is an ingredient in herbal formulas known to treat insomnia as a symptom (such as Xuan Fu Dai Zhe Tang for instance).

Ginseng is a Warm herb that tastes Bitter and Sweet. It targets the Spleen, the Heart and the Lung.

Its main actions are: Very strongly tonifies the Qi. Tonifies the Lungs and Spleen. Assists the body in the secretion of Fluids and stops thirst. Strengthens the Heart and calms the Shen (mind/spirit).

Read more about Ginseng here

Why might Unprepared Rehmannia (Di Huang) help with insomnia?

Because it is both specifically indicated to treat insomnia and also because it is an ingredient in herbal formulas known to treat insomnia as a symptom (such as Tian Wang Bu Xin Dan for instance).

Unprepared Rehmannia is a Cold herb that tastes Sweet. It targets the Heart, the Kidney and the Liver.

Its main actions are: Expels Heat by Cooling Blood. Tonifies Yin by promoting Fluid production. Soothes the Heart by calming Blazing Fire. Cools and nourishes.

Read more about Unprepared Rehmannia here

Why might Dwarf Lilyturf Root (Mai Dong) help with insomnia?

Because it is both specifically indicated to treat insomnia and also because it is an ingredient in herbal formulas known to treat insomnia as a symptom (such as Tian Wang Bu Xin Dan for instance).

Dwarf Lilyturf Roots is a Cool herb that tastes Bitter and Sweet. It targets the Stomach, the Heart and the Lung.

Its main actions are: Replenishes Yin Essence and promotes secretions. Lubricates and nourishes the Stomach. Soothes the Lung. Nourishes the Heart.

Read more about Dwarf Lilyturf Roots here

Why might Jujube Date (Da Zao) help with insomnia?

Because it is both specifically indicated to treat insomnia and also because it is an ingredient in herbal formulas known to treat insomnia as a symptom (such as Xuan Fu Dai Zhe Tang for instance).

Jujube Dates is a Warm herb that tastes Sweet. It targets the Spleen and the Stomach.

Its main actions are: Tonifies the Spleen and Stomach Qi. Tonifies the Blood. Calms the Shen (spirit). Moderates the actions of other herbs in formula.

Read more about Jujube Dates here