Insomnia, hypertension and restless mind can all come down to an imbalance in Yin and Yang. Yin is like water, cool and calming. Yang is like fire, hot and activating. When we have insufficient Yin to balance that excessive Yang, many uncomfortable and dangerous symptoms ensue. Stress agitates us and dries up our Yin. Bad diet inflames us and increases our Yang. Women become deficient in Yin very often thanks to our menstrual cycles. By the end of our busy days, we are really depleted of Yin, so bedtime rolls around and either the mind is so busy we can’t even close our eyes, or we fall into sleep, only to awaken in a short time feeling restless. Be sure to stay hydrated all day, our first way of restoring Yin.
The goal then becomes preserving the Yin and controlling the Yang. I love to take a beach break in my mind with the following visualization. Imagine that your feet are at the edge of the ocean or standing in cool, moist grass. Inhale through the bottoms of the feet, bringing that cool Yin energy up to your belly. Then exhale down your legs through the bottoms of the feet, releasing all of the hot, agitated energy of the day. I even imagine long taproots, like carrots, growing down deeply into the earth to retrieve Yin for my benefit. The specific point on both feet that I use is at the beginning of the Kidney meridian, known as Bubbling Well. It is in the middle of the front third of the foot, just behind the ball. This breathing meditation helps me enormously when I cannot seem to calm my mind and anxiety arises. Traffic jams and post office lines are a couple of places that I regularly ground and calm myself with this technique. Another useful tool is counting your breaths while slowly breathing from the belly, not shallow chest breathing. Counting breaths replaces the mind chatter that often disturbs my falling asleep or getting back to sleep.
One of the easiest ways to nourish Yin and control Yang at bedtime is to take a mineral supplement, like Calcium and/or Magnesium. Minerals build up Yin and anchor Yang, because they are heavy. There are several shells used in Chinese herbal formulas for this purpose, including abalone shell, mother of pearl shell, oyster shell, clam shell and pearls, as well as fossilized bones. The most interesting formula that I was ever prescribed for my intractable insomnia included ground pearls and scorpions, along with lots of Yin nourishing herbs. It successfully broke the long stretch of sleepless nights I had suffered. Another strategy used in Chinese medicine for severe insomnia cases is to strongly activate the blood with herbs like Dan Shen/Red Sage Root. Similarly, regular exercise helps many people with their sleep issues.
One of the most sedative herbs for sleep and pain is Valerian root. It stinks, but is very effective. My favorite Valerian combination is by herbalist Michael Tierra, Planetary Herbals Valerian Easy Sleep. This balanced formula is helpful for many insomniacs. Another great sleep aid is the Chinese formula based on the Ziziphus seed/Suan Zao Ren, which nourishes the Yin and blood of the Heart and Liver. The formula is called Suan Zao Ren Tang and is widely available as a tablet. The single herb, Suan Zao Ren, can be toasted and ground into a powder to make tea at bedtime, or put into yogurt or pudding. It is a wonderful herb to nourish our frazzled nervous systems. Other herbs that can help sleep include Hops, Passion Flower Vine, Scullcap, Lemon Balm and Chamomile. The Hops in beer and near beer contributes to the sleepiness produced, but tea or capsules of Hops can be much more sedative.
And don’t forget to clean up your sleep hygiene, reducing the light as bedtime approaches. Turn off the screens, wind down with calm activities, take a warm Lavender bath or foot bath.
Essential oil of Lavender or Rose Geranium can be placed on a tissue by your pillow, or applied to the inside of the wrists, to induce peaceful sleep. This is the time I also take 1 mg. Melatonin, to assure easy falling asleep. Beware, it can cause more dreams, which is disturbing for some people. An hour or so before bed is the time for your Chamomile tea or other sleep aid. Tough cases may need another dose right at bedtime. Sometimes I even have patients take a third dose of their herbs when they wake during the night.
From another point of view, sleep disorders can be a result of adrenal exhaustion or adrenal burn out. What that means is that stress has put the body into a fight or flight state, with the hormonal responses necessary to fight a bear, all of the time. The adrenals are one of the hormone makers that become exhausted with this endless fictional battle. They are tiny organs that sit on top of the Kidneys. The Chinese Kidney system includes the adrenals. So through Chinese medicine eyes, the adrenals will be strengthened by eating Kidney nourishing foods: anything dark in color – black, blue, purple, green. Seaweed soup is one of my favorites. Also, salty flavored foods like fish, miso and tamari, will nourish the Kidney. If adrenal exhaustion contributes to the insomnia, good herbs to use are Ashwaganda and Schizandra. There is a great formula by Planetary Herbals called Schizandra Adrenal Complex. In the Ayurvedic tradition of India, Ashwaganda is traditionally used as a pleasant tasting, nutritive tonic, mixed into milk. It is available in powders, pills and extracts. Ashwaganda is also used to treat anxiety. A food herb known to support the adrenals is Parsley leaf, which can be included in the diet regularly, in salads and soups.
Another sleep aid may come from supplements that affect the brain chemistry, including serotonin, which helps us sleep. Bedtime supplements for this purpose include GABA , Tryptophan and 5-HTP. And, don’t take these if you are currently taking an SSRI (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor) anti-depressant drug or other mood changing pharmaceutical drugs, due to the possible side effect of too much serotonin (causing confusion, fever, shivering, sweating, diarrhea and muscle spasms). A carbohydrate snack in the evening would be another way to foster the production of more serotonin. Brain chemistry is very individual, so we each respond differently. If one remedy doesn’t work, have hope and try another. You may just not have found your remedy yet. Julia Ross’ book, The Mood Cure, may help you figure out which supplements are best for your needs. Another useful reference is Dr Michael Lesser’s The Brain Chemistry Diet.
I recently heard a brilliant wellness oriented doctor from the Cleveland Clinic, Dr Michael Roizen, talk about five ways you can lower your blood pressure, in addition to a vegetable rich diet and regular exercise. He presented extensive research to back up each suggestion. These lifestyle tips seem very pertinent to our stress reduction and insomnia topic:
1) Turn down the volume to 2/3 – wear ear plugs
2) Forgive someone
3) Get a massage
4) Look at the cup half full – be hopeful
5) Get more sleep
Cathy McNease is a nationally certified herbalist with a Diplomate in Chinese Herbology from the NCCAOM, a B.S. in Biology and Psychology from Western Michigan University and two Master Herbalist certificates from Emerson College of Herbology in Canada and East-West Course of Herbology in Santa Cruz.