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Insomnia - a Chinese Approach

by Vicki McKenna(more info)

listed in chinese oriental medicine, originally published in issue 69 - October 2001

The Three Treasures

According to the theory of Chinese medicine, the trials of sleeplessness reflect imbalances in what are known as 'The Three Treasures' – Chi, Essence and Shen. Techniques involving acupressure, herbs, diet and exercises can be highly effective in resolving this problem of insomnia. Let us look at each of these 'Treasures' in turn.


Chinese medicine is based on the theory that we all have within us a vital energy known as 'Chi' (also called Qi). The major characteristic of this energy is that it is always moving. When Chi is referred to in Chinese medicine it is usually spoken of in relationship to how well the energy is flowing in the organs and in the acupuncture channels – also known as meridians. When this energy flows undisturbed through these channels and the organs associated with them we are in good health. When Chi is blocked or there is a deficiency of it then we can experience symptoms such as insomnia and other problems that can give rise to sleeplessness such as pain.


The second of the Three Treasures is Shen and this can be translated as 'spirit' – our capacity to be fully awake and aware in a spiritual sense. The Shen is said to reside in the heart, although it affects the emotional and spiritual capacity of all the organs. Someone whose Shen is well developed will be sensitive, open and clear, and when the Shen is damaged, blocked or deficient then the person may well become agitated and nervous with accompanying symptoms of insomnia.


The third of the 'Three Treasures' is known as 'Jing', which basically means 'Essence'. Jing is stored in the kidneys and comes both from Essence that is inherited from our parents and also from acquired Essence produced by the spleen from food, air and water. The two types are very much interdependent and help to promote each other. The type of Jing that is inherited is a finite amount and gradually diminishes over a lifetime. This is considered to be a very precious substance and we can protect it and value it by ensuring that we do not erode it through excesses and overactivity. When we do we may well find that we have the type of insomnia that involves waking up throughout the night. Fortunately, even though the inherited Jing may be depleted, we can help ourselves by building up our acquired Essence.

Often, not being able to fall asleep can be the result of experiencing pain or an anxious and overstimulated mind. Sometimes we can get to sleep only to find that we are forced to wake up due to a need to pass water or because of troublesome night sweats. All of these problems can be helped by addressing the imbalances of the Three Treasures using the techniques described below. These techniques are rooted in Chinese and Taoist medicine and involve using simple exercises, acupressure points, diet and herbs.


Those who experience chronic pain can experience severe sleeplessness. In terms of Chinese medicine, pain can often be the result of liver Chi stagnating. Foods that aggravate the liver include toxins, chemicals and alcohol, so if you are in pain try to clean up your diet as much as possible. Once the liver Chi is flowing more smoothly there will be a decrease in pain and subsequently a better night's sleep! An acupressure point that can be used to alleviate pain – especially in the lower half of the body – is a point on the liver meridian known as 'Supreme Rushing'. This is found in the angle between the big toe and the second toe. Gently massage the point with downward movements in the direction that leads away from the body. For pain in the head and neck area try massaging a point on the colon meridian – 'Joining the Valleys'. This is found in the angle between the thumb and first finger. As with the liver point, gently massage this point with downward movements in the direction that leads away from the body.

It is true to say that all types of pain can be helped by learning breathing exercises to relax the tension that arises as a result of chronic pain. Abdominal breathing can help the Chi to flow more smoothly and so allow us to cope better with painful syndromes. As you lay in bed, place your right hand on your chest and your left hand on your stomach, then breathe out slowly, relaxing completely. Once your lungs are emptied, breathe in, making sure that your left hand moves upwards – in other words that your abdomen rises before your chest does. Slowly and calmly breathe out. The crucial point in abdominal breathing is to ensure that as you breathe in the abdomen rises, and as you breathe out it falls. Practise this twice a day so that you can do it with confidence when in pain. A patient of mine once told me that she found abdominal breathing invaluable when it came to pain control: "It doesn't make the pain go away," she said, "but it helps me to detach enough from it so that I can get back to sleep."

Liver 3; 'Supreme Rushing'
Liver 3; 'Supreme Rushing'

Difficulty Falling Asleep

When the Shen, which is said to reside in the heart, is disturbed, there will be difficulties falling asleep and also dream- disturbed sleep. This does not mean there is anything wrong with the heart itself but that there may be a disturbance of the Spirit which results in sleeplessness. Often when the heart energy is disturbed the mind is agitated and unsettled. In this case we need to calm down and unwind. A relaxing routine of a warm bath and a session of abdominal breathing can help. When we do this we are getting good quality rest and so can stop worrying about not getting enough sleep!

Worrying about not sleeping is guaranteed to make insomnia worse, so let go of feeling stressed about being awake and instead read (nothing too thrilling!) or write your worries down in your journal, and in this way exorcise them. Gently massage a point on the heart meridian known as 'Spirit Gate'. This can be found on the wrist crease directly below the little finger. Camomile tea taken with 300 mgs of magnesium a couple of hours before bedtime can be helpful – and cut out all caffeine and spicy, stimulating foods.

Waking Up in the Night

In terms of Chinese medicine, waking up many times during the night can be due to weakness of the Jing which is stored in the kidneys. Particularly, we can suspect this if this kind of disrupted sleep pattern is accompanied by having to urinate or by experiencing night sweats. Often kidney imbalances are a result of chronic exhaustion which comes about through over- activity, as this will deplete the Jing. The essential treatment in this case is rest.

To help restore sleep when your kidney Essence may be deficient, try the following techniques:

* Massage the soles of your feet for at least 3 minutes each. Make sure your feet are always comfortably warm – if not, pop on bed socks!
* Massage kidney point 3 – 'Greater Mountain Stream'. This is to be found just behind the inner anklebone;
* Use herbal tonics to strengthen the kidneys. For long-term insomnia due to more severe kidney depletion the Chinese herbal remedy 'six-flavoured tea' (Liu wei di huang wan) is very helpful. Always consult a herbal practitioner for advice rather than self-prescribing;
* Drink plenty of water to flush out toxins and help support the kidneys. Ensure that you are not overworking – or over-partying – as this will deplete the Jing.

Finding kidney point 3; 'Greater Mountain Stream'
Finding kidney point 3; 'Greater Mountain Stream'


Hill S. Reclaiming the Wisdom of the Body. Constable. 1997.
Maciocia G. The Foundations of Chinese Medicine. Churchill Livingstone. 1989.
McKenna V. A Balanced Way of Living. V McKenna. 1999.
Ody P. Practical Chinese Medicine. Godsfield Press. 2000.


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About Vicki McKenna

Vicki McKenna BA Lic Ac trained at The College of Traditional Chinese Acupuncture in Leamington Spa with Professor Worsley from 1981 gaining her Lic Ac. in 1984 and has been practising acupuncture in Scotland since then. Her book A Balanced Way Of Living; Practical and Holistic Strategies for Coping with Post Polio Syndrome is available from 


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