Sleep 101: Traditional Chinese Medicine


by Dr. Sofie Desforges-Bell
Naturopathic Doctor

What is Traditional Chinese Medicine?

According to WebMD, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is “an ancient system of health and wellness that’s been used in China for thousands of years. Western medicine focuses mainly on treating disease, but TCM looks at your entire well-being.” TCM uses various modalities to support people with their health goals. These include acupuncture, cupping, herbs and spices, meditation, and much more.

Sleep and Traditional Chinese Medicine

TCM has developed a body clock wheel (see below) that associates organ systems and one of 5 elements (wood, metal, earth, water and fire) to a certain time of day. Keep in mind that these organs are more from an energetic standpoint and not necessarily directly associated to an organ in the body.

Are you waking up in the middle of the night? Most people that struggle with bouts of insomnia will report waking up during the 1-3 am time slot. That is associated with the liver organ system.

The Liver System* According to TCM

Its emotions are of anger and jealousy. Its flavour is sour/acidic. Those who suffer from reflux may notice it is worse at this time. Liver stores blood and regulates menstruation so those who are approaching menses or have hormonal imbalances may notice sleep is off at this time. Liver is responsible for the smooth flow of Qi. It is responsible for emotions, digestion and bile secretion along with the gallbladder. It houses the ethereal soul and is responsible for planning life and giving life a sense of direction. This is often when people wake up with their to-do list in mind.

*Remember that this does not mean that you have a pathology with your actual liver organ. In TCM, the liver organ represents these things from an energetic perspective. Common symptoms across the board in TCM liver diagnoses are sleep-related (insomnia, excessive dreaming, night sweats, pain at night, etc.). If you wake up at a different time in the night or have trouble falling asleep or don’t feel refreshed, it might be worth looking at the TCM organ association chart above.

Sleep and Acupuncture

Acupuncture is the main treatment in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and that’s what you would use especially if diagnosing someone with a TCM pathology of sleep such as Liver Qi Stagnation. Acupuncture is a natural modality that uses very thin needles that are inserted at various depths and locations in the body. TCM believes that each “organ” has its own channel running in the body where energy/Qi flows. If you have a blockage along that channel, acupuncture can help with the smooth flow of that energy to relieve those blockages. By promoting the smooth flow of the Liver Qi, you can help with anger, menstrual regulation, depression, insomnia and dream-disturbed sleep.

Ear seeds
These are little beads on a bandaid that are inserted in various locations of the ear. The ear in TCM has a full body representation on it and can be used as a body map. The most common is Shenmen which grounds the person and calms the mind. Once the ear seeds are planted in the ears, you can press on them when you need help to calm yourself. These stay in for about a week or so until they fall out naturally or need to be taken out.

Botanicals/Herbs for Sleep

Use them aromatically, as teas or tinctures. Tinctures are alcohol-based extracts of plants that have a more powerful effect on the body. Many commercial tea companies provide a combination of some of these botanicals to promote good sleep. Herbs all have primary and secondary actions so they are often chosen based on their composition and what is best suited for the patient.

Lavender: Helps with sleep, anxiety and depression. Lavender now comes in gelcaps and can be taken as a supplement.

Chamomile: mild sedative action for overstimulated states (anxiety/insomnia). Avoid it if you are allergic to ragweed.

Passion flower, valerian, skullcap, hops: for stress-induced restlessness, anxiety and insomnia. They all have a sedative quality.

A WORD OF CAUTION: Although most natural treatments tend to be safer than pharmaceuticals, they are still treatments nonetheless, with powerful effects, contraindications and cautions of their own. It is strongly recommended that you check with your healthcare practitioner before using any of the treatments or supplements suggested. C’est La Vie Wellness is in the business of individualized healthcare and we know that although these are all great treatments, they are not for everyone. It is important to be supervised while starting any treatment. The purpose of highlighting these treatments and supplements is for educational purposes only and for you to be informed about your choices.

I Am Here to Support You

There are so many ways to improve your quantity and quality of sleep. Traditional Chinese Medicine is just one of many modalities that I use in my practice to help my patients get better restful sleep. If you would like to learn more about why not book a 15-min Free phone consult with me so I can chat and explain how it can help.
Make sure to check out our other blogs in our Sleep 101 series: The Basics, Top Tips for Better Sleep, Nutrients for Better Sleep.