Ask someone from a western culture to show you the location of their mind and the finger goes right to the head. Ask someone from China or Tibet and the hand goes to the center of the chest: the heart.
From the western medical perspective, we are all familiar with the circulatory functions of the heart. The heart pumps oxygen-rich blood to the organs and the tissues of the body.
You may have heard your acupuncturist talking about “heat in the Heart” or “Heart Blood deficiency”, two common Chinese diagnoses that can cause insomnia. These imbalances can be corrected using Chinese medicine, but what do they mean and how do they manifest?
Suffering from insomnia can mean different things. Some people have trouble falling asleep, but once they do, they sleep the rest of the night. Others may fall asleep right away, but wake up multiple times throughout the night. In worst cases, they can’t fall asleep or stay asleep. What causes this?
From the Chinese medical perspective, the Heart is the residence of the mind or the shen. In Chinese, the word shen can be translated as mind, spirit, soul, etc.
Here is a metaphor to help explain this concept of the Heart’s shen and how it affects our sleep. Imagine that our shen, or spirit, needs a place to reside at night just as our bodies need a bed in a quiet dark room. The Heart is that bed in a quiet dark room for the shen to sleep in. But our Heart needs to be in balance before it can be a place of refuge for our spirit.
Imagine the Heart as a warm moist box with a lid on it. During the day, the lid is open and our spirit is out of that box expending energy and interacting with the outside world. But come nighttime, the spirit needs to rest just as our bodies do. Our body goes to bed in a quiet dark room and our shen goes to the warm moist box of the Heart and the lid closes. In the morning when it is time to interact with the world again, the lid opens and the shen emerges.
If you can’t fall asleep and your mind is racing, it is likely that your shen is not coming back to reside in the Heart, but is staying on the exterior surface of the body as it does during the day thereby allowing the mind to race. If there is heat in the Heart, that agitates the shen, just as our emotions get agitated on those hot sweaty days of a summer heat wave. The heart’s function of housing the mind depends on enough nourishment from the blood. If the Heart is Blood deficient, it can’t keep that box moist enough for the shen to want to stay, resulting in dream-disturbed sleep. It’s like trying to fall asleep with bright lights on, no covers, and your front door wide open.
Regardless of your imbalance, here are five ways to improve your sleep:
1. Engage in anxiety- and stress-relief. Try meditation, deep breathing, Qi Gong, Tai Chi, restorative yoga, talk therapy or anything else that relieves your anxiety.
2. Eat blood nourishing foods: small frequent portions of red meat (the size of a deck of cards two to three times a week), bone marrow broths, black beans, red grapes, leafy greens,
3. Avoid bright lights and technology for an hour before bed. This includes computer, radio, television, music (unless it is relaxing) and telephone. Do not use these technologies in bed.
4. Avoid caffeine and alcohol for 4-6 hours before bed. Exercise daily in the morning or mid-day.
5. Get regular acupuncture treatments & Chinese herbal therapy from a qualified practitioner.
The Heart is not the only organ that affects sleep, according to Chinese Medicine. Sleep patterns can also be affected by imbalances in the Spleen, Liver, and Kidneys.