Poor Sleep: Western and Chinese Medicine Views

At one time or another, everyone has had the experience of not getting enough sleep. The morning after a bad night, concentration can be difficult, memory becomes less reliable, and emotions tend to be more negative and overwhelming. For some people, poor sleep is a rare circumstantial issue that can be quickly remedied by returning to their normal sleep routines. But for more than 50 million Americans with recognized sleep disorders, this is a frequent problem. Chronic sleep disruption or short sleep duration can affect much deeper changes, such as increased weight gain and obesity, decreased fertility, increased incidence of cardiovascular disease and mental health issues, and generally decreased longevity.

Along with proper diet and exercise, sufficient sleep is foundational to a healthy and happy life. Most people think of it as an inactive time when our bodies relax and recharge from the day, but sleep is so much more than that. Rather than inactivity, sleep allows our brains to initiate entirely different processes from daytime wakefulness. During deep or “slow-wave” sleep, we integrate new information from the day and solidify it into memory. Poor sleep not only makes recall more difficult but also decreases the ability to learn, integrate, and adapt to new information and situations.

Those pulling “all-nighters” for school or work know all too well the feeling of sleep deprivation they have the next day. Metabolites slowly accumulate to toxic levels in the brain during awake hours and must be flushed out during sleep. One particularly troublesome protein, called beta-amyloid, occurs in healthy brains but is known to accumulate in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. During sleep, glial cells shrink beta-amyloid and other troublesome metabolites, which are then flushed away by cerebral spinal fluid. This newly recognized “glymphatic” system is much more active during sleep when the brain is also producing fewer toxic metabolites.

The foggy feeling after a sleep-deprived night is a sign of deeper dysregulation in the brain, autonomic nervous system, and greater endocrine system. The autonomic nervous and endocrine systems are two primary signaling and control systems in the body. The autonomic nervous system regulates internal organ activity and blood flow while the endocrine system produces hormones to help the body digest, grow, reproduce, and maintain homeostasis. These systems are intimately intertwined and deeply affected by sleep loss.

Even moderate amounts of sleep loss have been shown to increase blood levels of the stress hormone cortisol, increase sympathetic nervous system activity (“fight or flight”), decrease levels of thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH), and increased insulin resistance. Two independent 2004 studies showed moderate sleep loss decreased leptin levels and elevated ghrelin hormone levels which increased test subjects’ hunger, especially at night, which then led to increased BMIs (body mass index). Such dysregulation can prolong episodes of sleep loss or lead to new sleep issues, creating an unhealthy spiral.

Somewhat similar to this scientific view, Chinese medicine views sleep as a time of growth and rejuvenation. This is the Yin part of the day, where activity drops off and Blood moves to the interior to nourish the organs and Spirit. When this process is disrupted, our body loses ease of function, new maladies arise, and our Spirit becomes unsettled. In most cases, good quality sleep itself is the cure, but many people need help to achieve this. Chinese medicine focuses on patterns and minutiae of a patient’s current state of health to develop a plan for returning them to health and harmony.

Acupuncture elicits direct response in the autonomic nervous system and can help tone the parasympathetic portion (“rest and digest”). Even single acupuncture points have been shown to have powerful effects the brain as documented with fMRIs technology. A 2016 study showed stimulation at acupuncture point DU20 significantly increased areas of brain regional homogeneity, a synchronized brain-state that is correlated with rest. Another study from 2015 demonstrated stimulation at acupuncture point HT7 elicited brainwave shifts that correlate with relaxation and positive mood. HT7 is named “Shenmen” or “Spirit Gate” and is often used for sleep and emotional disturbance in Chinese medicine.

Research continues to validate Chinese medicine as an effective sleep medicine, and since 2003, the World Health Organization has recognized acupuncture as a viable method to address insomnia. Acupuncture and herbs have offered relief to patients for thousands of years! If you are suffering from poor sleep, don’t dismiss it. Insomnia is a common condition we can address, and we can help get you back on track.

[written by Charles]