How to Use Yin and Yang to Treat Insomnia
Insomnia can be so frustrating. You’ve had a busy day and you’re really tired, but as soon as you get into bed your mind comes alive. You begin rehashing your day or worrying about upcoming events, and peaceful sleep seems to become more and more elusive. It may take you hours to finally drift off, or your insomnia may be severe enough that you really don’t sleep much all night long. Alternatively, you may be able to nod off quickly, but wake up during the wee hours, unable to get back to sleep.
If you struggle with insomnia, you have a lot of company. About 20% of the population have some form of sleep disruption. However, insomnia is inconsistent and affects everyone in different ways. It may come and go for some people, and its course may change over time.
In Chinese medicine, a way of understanding the contrast between activity and sleep is through the properties of Yin and Yang. The Chinese character for Yang represents a hill with the sun shining on it, suggesting light, warmth, and activity. In your body, Yang is a bit like metabolism or a warming pilot light, fueling activity, energy, and body heat. In contrast, the Chinese character for Yin is a hill shaded by clouds, signifying coolness, quiet, and nourishment. The properties of Yin in your body are a cooling, calming, and nurturing counterpart to Yang.
When it comes to the 24 hour cycle of your day, Yang dominates activity during the daylight hours. Yang powers your body to get up, eat, digest, work, exercise, and play. However, during the evening hours Yang recedes and Yin begins to dominate. When this happens, the active energy of your daytime hours turn into restful, quiet contemplation, preparing for you to sleep and rejuvenate your body.
In many cases of insomnia, active Yang is overpowering the quiet energy of Yin, making it hard for your body and mind to sink into sleep. There are a number of ways this may be happening:
- Your body needs the cooling of Yin for restorative sleep. If the temperature in your room is too warm, it may make it hard for you to drop off to sleep and stay there.
- Light is a Yang property, too. Is the room you sleep in dark enough? Have you turned off all your screens at least an hour before retiring? Bright, artificial lights, especially computer screens, can throw off your ability to fall asleep.
- If you’ve eaten the hour or so before you go to bed, your body is actively digesting while you’re trying to go to sleep. Going to bed on a full stomach is a cause of heartburn, but it can also make it difficult for you to fall asleep or to stay asleep, whether you have heartburn or not.
- It’s no surprise that caffeine can keep you awake, but here’s why: Foods and drinks that are highly caffeinated are Yang in nature. They’re both active and warming—which is counterproductive to sleep.
- What you do before heading off to bed makes a difference, too. If you’re working, exercising, or engaged socially right until bedtime, active Yang is still at play. A better strategy for sleep is to incorporate Yin routines to wind down, such as reading, listening to calming music, or meditating.
- If an active racing mind is keeping you up, try some Yin solutions to quiet it down. In most cases, stress is a cause of a racing mind, so anything you do to calm your stress will help you sleep better. At night when you’re trying to nod off, visualize yourself in a cool and quiet place, such as a garden, forest, or by a burbling stream. You can also try to quiet your mind by listening to a recording of relaxing music, nature sounds, or a sleep meditation.
Dr. Jeda Boughton is a Doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine and the founder of BodaHealth in Vancouver, BC. She is also a Registered Herbologist, Registered Acupuncturist and is a Fellow of the American Board of Oriental Reproductive Medicine (FABORM), as well as a member of the North American Menopause Society (NAMS).