News & Views

Yin vs. Yang – A Chinese Medicine View at Sleep and Treating Insomnia

By Zach Pearl, PhD Staff


Sleep is essential to maintain health, the ancient Chinese believe. An old Chinese quote says that “replenishing health with medicine is not as good as replenishing health with diet, but that replenishing health with sleep is the best treatment of all” 1 2 3 .

Chinese Medicine is one of the oldest medicines in the world and in today’s world its practice is also backed by modern research. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) treatment includes acupuncture, herbal medicine, nutritional therapy, massage (such as Tuina) and Qigong.

In TCM theory, night time is Yin, while daytime is Yang. That means that Yang activities, such as working, eating and exercising should be done during the day, while Yin activities such as relaxing, digesting and sleeping should be done at night.

Similar to the idea of circadian rhythms, TCM also respects the rhythm of our bodies throughout the day and night. The Chinese meridian clock is divided into 2-hour sections, each corresponding to an organ system that is at its strongest and rules over the function of the body during this time.

For example, the digestive system (Spleen and Stomach) are at their strongest in the morning. This is aligned with TCM philosophy that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, as it provides energy (Qi or ch’i as it called in traditional chines culture) for the days’ activities.

Similarly, the Lung, Large Intestine, and Liver/Gall Bladder, are all at their strongest at night.   In Western understanding, these organs are main sites of detoxification in the body, therefore getting enough sleep is essential for cleansing our bodies and bringing them back into balance.  In addition, the Liver is responsible for moving the body’s Qi throughout the day, so it needs a chance to do its other work, like storing the blood and replenishing yin.

TCM pays a lot of attention to sleep issues and differentiates between trouble falling sleep, difficulty staying asleep (“light sleep”), and having dream-disturbed sleep, as each is related to an imbalance in a different organ system. When a Chinese Medicine practitioner is gathering information to put together a treatment plan, the pattern of the sleep disturbance will be taken into consideration. Treatment will use acupuncture, herbal medicine, nutrition or a combination of any of them.

To conclude, just as with Western Medicine, key recommendations would include reducing stress, avoiding late suppers, stimulating activity (exercise) and stimulants (coffee, alcohol) before bed time and  ideally being in bed by 10 PM.

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