Sinseh Says

Strengthen heart, calm mind to beat insomnia

Weak spleen, kidney problems can cause heart deficiencies, which lead to poor sleep

Among the ways to beat insomnia are herbal foot soaks, acupoint massages, regular morning exercises and a proper diet.
Among the ways to beat insomnia are herbal foot soaks, acupoint massages, regular morning exercises and a proper diet. ST FILE PHOTO ILLUSTRATION
Among the ways to beat insomnia are herbal foot soaks, acupoint massages, regular morning exercises and a proper diet.
Lim Lay Beng, Traditional Chinese medicine practitioner at YS Healthcare TCM Clinic.

Q I have been having insomnia for close to a month. I mostly stay away from caffeine and take only one cup of coffee in the morning.

Yet, I would toss and turn in bed for more than two hours before I fall sleep. Even then, I would wake up after three hours and am unable to go back to sleep.

So, I sometimes resort to taking sleeping pills. I suspect it is stress that is causing this problem, as my mind is occupied with thoughts.

I have tried drinking warm milk, light reading and aromatherapy to help me relax, but they don't seem to help. If I go running at night, I become more energetic and find it even harder to wind down. What should I do?

A Insomnia is defined as difficulty in initiating or maintaining sleep, or non-restorative sleep. It can cause impaired daytime functioning and occurs at any age, particularly among the elderly.

In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), insomnia can be mainly traced to deficiencies in the heart.

The heart controls the mind and governs one's blood. Qi (vital energy) and blood form the foundation for mental activity.

If a person is lacking in qi and blood, heart heat and fire are created. They trigger insomnia that is characterised by waking up frequently and being unable to fall asleep thereafter, lots of dreams and restlessness.

This can be caused by overthinking or a poor spleen function.

The root causes of a weak spleen include a poor diet and overexertion. Such factors prompt the spleen to convert nutrients into phlegm and dampness. When left to accumulate in the body for a long time, phlegm and dampness will create heat and fire.

These detrimental elements can travel along the meridian and reach the heart, triggering insomnia. This type of insomnia would involve the person waking up in a fright, accompanied by a bitter taste in the mouth, nausea and dizziness.

Problems with the kidneys can also affect the heart. The qi and yin (element associated with cooling organs) of the kidneys support all the other organs and have to remain strong to communicate with the heart. When this link is weakened, the person may experience insomnia with irritability, irregular menstruation and night sweats.

Besides the heart, irregular meals and overeating adversely affect the stomach. It will be unable to digest food well, which leads to insomnia, accompanied by symptoms related to the stomach, such as bulging, vomiting and a feeling of fullness in the upper abdomen.

You mentioned being stressed, which can hurt liver health. According to TCM principles, the liver is responsible for storing blood and ensuring the smooth flow of qi in the body. When things are normal, the body enjoys a harmonious circulation of qi and blood, an easy mind and positive emotions.

But negative emotions can weaken the organ and create stagnation or hyperactivity of the liver qi and fire. Such a situation can also trigger insomnia. It would be associated with lots of dreams, irritability, anger and constipation.


To promote sleep, you may try Chinese herbal medicine like golden thread and baical skullcap root, which can dispel stomach and heart fire. This reduces your frequency of waking up during sleep.

To enhance the quality of sleep, try medicinal changium root and Indian bread, as these strengthen the spleen and stomach.

Phlegm and dampness can be eliminated with pinellia tuber, bamboo shavings and bile arisaema.

Taking processed rehmannia root and white peony root can help to reduce negative emotions, which, in turn, boosts your liver and kidneys.

If a lack of blood is contributing to your insomnia, consume spine date seed and longan aril.

Herbs like nacre and Chinese arborvitae kernel can calm your mind, which may be helpful as you mentioned that your thoughts are keeping you up.

A herbal foot soak may also help. In a basin of warm water - about 38 to 40 deg C - add these herbs: spine date seed, Chinese arborvitae kernel, Chinese gentian, cape jasmine fruit and common selfheal fruit-spike. Soak your feet for 20 minutes to calm your mind.

An acupoint massage may also ease your problem. Massage on acupoints, such as baihui, taiyang, fengchi and waiguan, for one to two minutes before sleep. You can also comb your hair with a wooden comb for five minutes daily to enhance blood circulation.

You should not be too full or too hungry before bedtime. Take a light dinner and include lotus seeds, lily bulb steamed with honey, longan aril and banana as these help to calm the mind and improve sleep quality.

Avoid spicy, oily food, caffeinated drinks, alcohol and smoking.

Exercise regularly in the morning at least three times a week for 20 to 30 minutes each time. Avoid vigorous exercise, such as running, two hours before you sleep.

Generally, it is ideal to sleep and wake up at the same time. This helps to regulate your body clock. Sleeping before 10pm can help to increase yin and reduce heat and fire in your body. If you can, take a short nap between 11am and 1pm to strengthen your heart.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 08, 2015, with the headline Strengthen heart, calm mind to beat insomnia. Subscribe